Chapter 18: Nightshade Pupils

CW: implied-but-clear transmisogyny/homophobia, bullying, violence, implied sexual assault, ableism, racism/colorism/anti-indigeneity (sort of ticks all the boxes)

The last polio epidemic to sweep Elessa was from 1896-1898. To the horror of manor families, proletariat and disenfranchised alike, however, the Judge showed a shocking lack of interest in slowing its spread. Rather than using the emergency powers he’d claimed a decade before to enforce mandatory quarantines, supply families with aid or even support the doctors trying to save the afflicted children, Forrath simply pretended it wasn’t happening. Worse, it seemed that he was happy to encourage the disease’s effects in the poorer parts of the capital cities, punishing factories and poorhouses that chose to shut down while with the other hand simply allowing the manor schoolhouses to make their own decisions — most of which tried to follow his example, and suffered for it. Only the election and intervention of Tribune Weiss drew the epidemic to a close, and the children of Elessa paid a terrible cost.

Excerpt from “The Dragon of Vijchmaar: Chapter Five: Absolute Power” by Rowena Angdocht Gweon Zeng-sun, 1919

Rook had fought demons before. Not often — wraiths or phenomena were more common — but demons showed up here and there. The drabuka that Phania and Wolfie had unwittingly unleashed had been the first — albeit a fairly harmless example. One time, he’d been on a mission in Meergaarten and nearly gotten poisoned by an adweg. That one he’d trapped rather than killed, which he would have bragged about more if he hadn’t been flailing about in a near-panic knee-deep in swampy water. Then there’d been the lizard… thing he actually had killed in the forests outside of Kiesland, nearly the size of a car. That one had given him the normal kind of nightmares for a while. But the idea of intelligent demons was new to him, and despite what Csindra had said, he wasn’t entirely giving up the idea that it might be one of those instead of an odjaken, which sounded even worse.

So, he needed equipment. Smokework, Songwork, all his tricks were all well and good, but when it came to anything with feral magic, you needed more than that. That was what the traps were for.

And if he’d been able to find the damn trap he wanted, he’d have been less frustrated.

“Looking for something, Zeesohn?”

Great. Just what he needed. He was shoulders-deep in military ordinance somewhere he wasn’t technically supposed to be, and nobody he liked called him Zeesohn. He extricated himself from the box, preparing an excuse —

—and found himself face to face with Bryan Fairfax.

Fucking great.

It was impossible, Rook knew, to be the kind of person he was without making enemies. Not even because of his attitude, which he could begrudgingly admit could do with some work. Most people couldn’t even enter the military academy or take the exams with the Colleges to become a registered Thaumatist or Thaumatist-Soldier until they were eighteen. He was… an exception.

“Bryan,” Rook sighed in response, which might have been a bad move, because Bryan’s false grin turned into a scowl. As far as Rook was concerned, when someone had been hounding you for six months, you’d earned first name privileges, especially when Rook could hardly be bothered with the last name thing with people he actually liked. “Don’t you have some puppies to kick or something?” Or friends to steal? He added. Not that he was taking it personally or anything that Bryan was engaged to Phania. It wasn’t like Phania even liked the guy.

“And here I thought you’d be happy to see me.”

“Why on earth—” Rook cut himself off, fuming. He wasn’t as clueless as people thought he was. He knew perfectly well he couldn’t talk back to Bryan the way he wanted to. It was just like Scheffen had been saying; her actions reflected on Jacob, because Jacob wasn’t from a manor family. Rook wasn’t just a commoner; he was beyond a nobody. No family, no protection, no backup. Whereas the Fairfaxes… “Look, uh, I don’t really have time for this. Can we pick this up later?” He might not be talking to Phania anymore, but that didn’t mean he wanted to pick a fight with her fiancé.

“Oh, what, you call the shots now?”

Bite your tongue, Rook, don’t rise to the bait— “You might have missed the memo, but not only do I outrank you now, I outranked you last time, too, Lieutenant. So, yeah, I do a little bit.”

That had probably been a bad move, from the way Bryan’s cheeks were turning red with humiliation, but it had felt awfully good. Rook returned to the box, and to his joy, glimpsed the trap he needed stuck near the bottom on the side—

“I want to know how you got Major rank.”

“By being promoted from Captain, Bryan, it’s not that hard to figure out,” Rook replied, mostly distracted by pulling out the trap. It didn’t look like much; it was a disc of silver, about the diameter of a large book, with a series of crystals embedded around the outer edge.

The kick took him by surprise, and he managed to hang onto the edge of the crate to avoid falling over entirely, hissing in pain. Fucking steel-toed boots, and Bryan had aimed for the back of his knee, too. It would have hurt even if he’d had normal knees, and he managed to suppress most of his reaction. Don’t let on how much that hurt. Don’t do it. Don’t give him ammunition.

“I want to know what you did to get Major at eighteen, shitlips.”

One day, Rook thought, mood officially soured, I am going to beat the crap out of you and enjoy it. Consequences be damned. “Classy. I earned it.”

“Yeah. Bet your knees are sore.”

It took a moment for Rook to catch on, especially since his knees did hurt — they were the joints that gave him the most trouble. A lot of things went over his head – usually he let them. More often than not, he’d know there was some sort of joke in something and let it go, because he couldn’t be bothered. But this one stung. It stung because, bis Nirgendveugel, this was what Bryan had been bitching about the whole time, wasn’t it? Rook had skipped the academy and started off at 2nd Lieutenant at fourteen, and to someone like Bryan, that looked like privilege, because he couldn’t recognize the silver spoon in his own fucking mouth. And Bryan had played fair, kind of, right up —

hah. Right up until Phania wasn’t around.

He’d been trying, so hard, to play nice. Fuck it. “If you wanted a turn, you just had to ask,” he leered — and when Bryan swung a fist at him, this time, he caught it. Fuck you, he seethed, and the pain from his knees shifted, changed, turned into power. It came so easily, now. He’d done Bloodwork so much that it wasn’t so much a question of making it into magic as no longer stopping it.

Bryan’s smug smirk began to fade as Rook’s hand squeezed around his.

“I didn’t get here by sucking dick, Fairfax. Although if that’s what gets you off, go right ahead.” He kept squeezing, and he’d been in pain for days, he was fucking tired of this, at least he could do something with this, and distel und visser, it was satisfying seeing the way the older boy cowered, wincing as his knuckles began to crack. “I got here by being scarier than you.

Bryan sank down to one knee, looking ready to cry. His pupils were pinpricks in his eyes —

-what’s he reacting to, this isn’t enough—

“Oh, now who’s on his knees-?’

“Rook.”

The voice cut through the haze of pain and fury, and Rook let go of Bryan’s fist. Almost immediately, Bryan looked ready to do something — and there was a flash of silver as something cut through the air. A gust of air that might have been a squeal left his mouth.

“I suggest you leave,” Csindra said almost conversationally. “He gets in a bad mood when he hasn’t had his coffee.”

Bryan didn’t need any more encouragement — especially when the axe buried into the crate wood began to shift, then hurtled back through the air. By the time it returned to Csindra’s hand, he was gone.

“You know,” Rook commented, trying to sound normal, “I forgot it did that.”

“I try to keep things novel. You really scared the daylights out of him.”

“Yeah, well… he had it coming. He’s not supposed to be in here either.”

“Don’t doubt it. You get a lot of people like that?”

Rook looked up at her — then tore his eyes away, face burning in humiliation when he realized she’d heard more than he thought. “Happens. Got sick of it today.”

“Mm. Be careful.”

“Careful?”

“Check your teeth.”

His teeth? What on earth did that mean? He shrugged her off, trying to look casual — but as he bent back down into the crate, he experimentally ran his tongue over his teeth, and his shoulders tensed up in sudden terror as his tongue met a ridge of points. Terror, because he hadn’t noticed himself doing it, and because Csindra hadn’t been surprised. Had she noticed his fingers the other night? Or — worse — had there been other things he hadn’t been noticing?

 Relax, he told himself, lifting the trap out of the crate and forcing himself to breathe. You probably did it with the Bloodwork. It’s teeth. They’re dead cells. It’s not anything important.

Still, he handed the trap to Csindra, nervously checking the rest of him as discreetly as he could.

“Rest of you’s fine. He probably thinks he hallucinated the teeth.”

“I’m probably hallucinating them,” Rook mumbled. After a moment, he checked his teeth again. Flat and normal. The only points were the normal ones on his incisors. Perfectly ordinary. “What’s the, uh — where’d you get that axe, anyway?” The topic change was conspicuous, but it was easier than trying to cope with the fact that Csindra was taking this part in stride. Was she just hiding the surprise? He wouldn’t put it past her.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

“I hope you’re joking.”

She laughed a little at that, strapping it back into its sheath. “I guess you can’t really arrest me again. Can you?” she added nervously.

“You stole it, huh?”

“Years ago,” she added defensively. “They weren’t using it. I don’t think they even knew it was magic.”

“Most people wouldn’t consider that justification for theft. However, I’m not most people. And I’m curious, and the car’s gonna take a while to get here.” At Csindra’s questioning expression, he tried not to roll his eyes. “We’re not going to a stakeout on public transit, Csindra.”

“Look, I don’t know these things. I was prepared to walk.”

“And we’d be exhausted by the time we got there. You don’t do these a lot, do you?”

“I’m a merc. Stakeouts aren’t usually in the job description.” They’d reached the main gate, and she leaned against the iron fence, humming a little. “It was, uh, two years ago, I guess? Me and Bryd teamed up for a job in Drijkanberg, on one of the manors.”

Rook faintly remembered the name from her file. “Bryd… Brydan? Kaval Brydan?”

“Oh, nav’ti vol. I forgot he’d be in there.” She looked distinctly embarrassed.

“This was the one where you got caught?

“Only a little caught,” she protested. “I was new to the breaking-and-entering thing.”

“And on the list of ‘things not to say to a soldier’…”

“You hired me because of all the laws I break,” she retorted, which was true, so he let it lie. He was still grinning, though. There hadn’t been a lot of details in the file, and he didn’t remember all of them — the name had stuck because he’d made a note of possible other leads, but that was all. “Anyway, the plan was to break into their vault and see what we could make off with. Turns out Bryd’s recon wasn’t quite up to snuff, so yeah, we got caught. Lucky thing was it was the Lady there, not her son, so we got off with a month each in prison.”

“That easy? Why?”

She really did look a touch — well, not pink. More like copper. “Uh. Well, I wasn’t actually seventeen yet, and Bryd’s the same age as me—”

Rook couldn’t help the sudden wave of cackling laughter, or the fact that he nearly fell over. It wasn’t his fault. It was just that Csindra mostly pulled off the big tough muscle thing, and then every now and again — just every so often — he got a reminder that they were the same age. “She let you off because you were kids?

“It was really sweet of her!”

“So you promptly went back and robbed her again.”

“Not again. We didn’t actually rob her the first time. Get your facts straight.” She did smirk a little. “…Little bit. We didn’t take that much.”

“Again, justifications—”

“We barely made a dent in that vault, Rook. It got me this axe, paid for food and lodgings for six months, and I sent enough money back to my mother to pay for her food for another six.”

Oh. Well, when you put it that way. “Can I see it?”

Csindra pulled a face at that, then shrugged. “Won’t work for you, if that’s what you want to try. I have to be the one to throw it, so don’t make work for me.”

“Good to know.” Although that just raised further questions about how the damn thing worked. He’d assumed it was a wielder’s enchantment – whoever threw it would have it return to their hand. A personalized enchantment, he’d assume Csindra herself would have cast. The way she spoke about it, though — well, she’d as well as said she hadn’t.

When she handed him the axe, he ran his hands carefully over it, avoiding the wickedly sharp edge on both sides and putting his bag between him and the head facing him. It was steel — not stainless steel, no, but with something else in the alloy. “Cobalt?” he asked.

“Molybdena.”

He paused, and stared up at Csindra. “Bullshit.”

“Swear to Nirivite.”

“You can’t use molybdena.”

“Well, someone did.”

“How do you know?”

“Bloodwork’s good for a lot more than just breaking walls, Rook. I guess I have more to teach you than I thought. It’s steel with molybdena, cobalt and nickel.”

He stared down at the axe again, suddenly extremely glad he’d never been cut with it — and extremely glad that Csindra’s prior arrest had been before stealing it, not after, because she would not have gotten off so lightly. His perspective had already changed immensely. This wasn’t just an axe, this was probably one of a kind, and a mystery. Factories were only now starting to use molybdena reliably; he knew because Scheffen was trying to use it in her projects. It had a melting point higher than almost any other metal currently in use.

Which was exactly why an axe that had to be at least fifty years old couldn’t possibly have it in the blade. Maybe the blade had gotten reforged at some point. That was the best explanation he had.

He ran his hand down the central pole, then paused at where the metal wrapped the shaft between the two blades. There was a seal stamped there, slightly corroded — no, as he leant closer, he realized it wasn’t corroded. It was simply that the paint that had originally been there had flaked away. Or scrubbed, he thought with a sudden jolt as he recognized it. A flame within a circle.

House Forrath.

Csindra hadn’t said which manor family she robbed.

He swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. He didn’t know his history well enough to know if this had belonged to any of the Forraths. He imagined if it was any of the ones still alive, Csindra would have heard about it by now — but that wasn’t any more comforting. Still, he couldn’t imagine that Csindra had just happened to steal a weapon that belonged to Endon Forrath.

Rook glanced uneasily up at Csindra, wanting to ask why the enchantment responded to her alone, and not really wanting to at all. She was resolutely not looking at him. Not a question she was likely to answer, then, even if he asked it. So he stood up, ready to hand it back —

— and nearly fell over. “Pissen ridder!”

“There’s a reason I waited until you were sitting down, Rook.” Csindra retrieved the axe from him before he fell over and hurt himself with it, resheathing the blade and sliding the pole back onto her back with an ease that did not give away how fucking heavy the thing was.

Rook looked at Csindra’s arms with a twinge. “…So, I’m starting to think your Cutter magic is the least of my concerns.”

“Hm?”

“How much can you bench press?”

“More than you weigh, easy. But you look ready to drift off in a strong breeze, so that doesn’t say much.” She did look smug, though.

“Come on. You got a number?”

“Do I look like I go to the gym? Raivita’s supposed to be a double-handed weapon, but that’s all I got.”

“Raivita. That’s a pretty name,” he wheezed. Then the rest hit. “Double-handed?

“Well, yeah, but I needed more flexibility, and what’s the point of a boomerang enchantment if you need two—”

“You’re insane!

“I’m a Cutter! It comes with the territory!”

“Clearly, since you apparently robbed Vijchmaar.

Csindra pulled a face at that. “Oh, you noticed. Yeah, I had a grudge.”

“Against Forrath?”

“Who doesn’t?

Okay, point. Rook sometimes felt like he was the only person who didn’t have something personal against Endon Forrath, and that was only because he’d shown up too late. He saw the after-effects all over the place, though; in the way people would twitch at him sometimes when he showed up at their door, with different expectations from the military than he’d been led to believe, and in the tensions between people older than him, with careers predating Garrow and parts of their lives he couldn’t even imagine. By the time the car pulled up, he’d almost — almost — convinced himself to drop the issue, that it was a coincidence that Csindra had an axe that had belonged to the Forraths; the Forraths, who were famous for auburn hair and tempers to match, who specialized in fire magic so much that Endon Forrath had been called the Dragon of Vijchmaar, and who he couldn’t imagine going light on any thieves. Even teenagers. Especially teenagers.

Then again, he thought, he’d been warned enough times by Scheffen while searching. Some might call him lucky, being able to start from scratch; not everybody liked where they came from.

——

You remember, only in pieces, what it feels like when she touches you. You don’t stop her. You play a part.

You remember thinking, I should have told her that I’m not here,

You remember that it feels good but only in fragments.

You remember that she does not know. She does not know. You have gotten so good at pretending. You will pretend, and pretend, and pretend until she is gone, and you will try and make yourself feel something later, and you love her too much to tell her that something is wrong—

You are drowning.

You are drowning.

You are drowning.

——

“Rook. Rook.

It was dark under the water; it was dark, and cold, and he couldn’t find Dimitri, and —

Rook!

He startled awake. That had been happening too often lately — not him getting woken up, but the horrible sense of being wrenched out of something. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep at all. In fact, he couldn’t quite remember it happening.

Dimly, he realized two things — one, that the light had changed and that it was early afternoon, and two, that the car had stopped. “Oh. We’re here?” They’d stopped to pick up a few things, extra plants for his Smokework and some snacks in case they were there all night — you couldn’t depend on manor families to actually offer — and then…

The water. That was all he knew.

Csindra glanced up-front, but the driver was leaning out of the window, talking to a servant in a black coachman’s coat. Still, she lowered her voice. “Rook, are you up for this?”

“What? Fuck you. Course I am.”

“You can’t blame me for asking. We’re not having a picnic—”

“Who’s the actual soldier here? I know what I’m doing.”

Csindra rolled her eyes and shifted back. Rook couldn’t blame her. He was being an ass, and he knew it; Csindra had just as much experience as him, and frankly, being a mercenary seemed more fraught. Definitely less job security, and less backup. But he could still feel Bryan’s eyes on him. Something about the way Bryan had looked at him had felt different. Before, Bryan’s harassment had been annoying, a bit stressful, but not charged with the same creeping feeling of being a bug under glass. He wasn’t sure what had changed, but he didn’t like it.

The driver pulled his head back in, then leaned back towards them. “You’re cleared to go in. Coachman says to go right inside — the missus is in the parlour.”

Rook nodded, still getting his bearings. “The missus? Markus isn’t home?”

“Apparently not. It’s Miss Odette home right now.”

Damn it. He’d been hoping for an adult. Not that Odette wasn’t an adult — but she wasn’t exactly her great-uncle either. And it meant he wasn’t going to float the trafficking topic. “Alright, alright,” he mumbled. He hefted his bag onto his back, nestling his familiar around his neck and rubbing its scales. “Ok, buddy, if you have any hidden magical powers, this’d be a good time.”

The snake gave him a baleful glare.

Other than that, Bitey.”

“You should think about naming him.” Csindra stuck her hands in her pockets. “Might behave better.”

The snake nipped playfully in her direction at that, and Rook just shrugged. Naming him would run into the issue of trying to hide that it was the same animal he had with him all the time; either a demon, although his familiar claimed otherwise, or some other sort of creature, but certainly not acceptable under the strictures of thaumaturgy. It would all be much easier to answer if he knew what the creature had even started as. 

“—Oh, this is what Scheffen meant.” Csindra mumbled, mostly to herself.

Each of the manor families had a single estate within the borders of Den Elessa – even the Millers, although how that had been secured, Rook didn’t want to know. They varied pretty dramatically; he’d only visited three of them before, and this was his first time to Den Riviere. Den Bergen was where he’d met the Commander; it was a stately, older building, a little dusty, mostly made of flagstones and worn masonry, and constructed on the high point of the River Heilige banks. Den Vandemeer was wider than it was tall, filled with more paintings than people, and a surprising amount of pets who had gotten along well with Bitey. To be fair, he’d been a fox at the time rather than a snake; that probably helped. Den Baer was actually about four houses next to each other, on a stretch of land filled with riding trails and trees.

Den Riviere was something else again. Rook wasn’t sure if they’d been deliberately trying to outshine the Palace – he wasn’t sure when Den Riviere had been built — but it certainly evoked the same feeling with the faux-columns at the front, and four storeys of brick face dotted with stained-glass windows stared down at them.

“That’s…a lot. Don’t these people ever get tired of showing off?”

“I’ve yet to find out,” he replied. “C’mon.”

“Wait, wait. What do I say?” Csindra asked, fumbling a little. “It’s, uh, Miss, right?”

“Miss Odette or Mrs. Weiss. Depends if her mother’s there.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

Rook snorted, trying to decide how much he was allowed to say. He hadn’t actually met Miss Odette himself, but he’d heard Jacob complain here and there, mostly when he’d had a drink or two. “She’s married. Technically.”

“Technically…?”

“She likes to pretend she isn’t. So does her father, apparently. It’s all very…” he gestured vaguely. “I don’t know. Rich people.”

“How is it I’m more lost than I was five seconds ago?”

“I say, again: rich people.”

He walked up the half-circle of the front steps, glancing curiously at the columns supporting the porch and the small, incongruous ramp leading up into the house itself. Then he eased the wooden door open, not entirely trusting the open invitation. “Parlour—?”

The moment the door opened, though, a warm voice greeted them. “Just around the corner, dear.”

Rook opened the door the rest of the way, immediately feeling out of place in his all-black outfit and instrument case over his shoulder. The hallway was dark hardwood, gloomy even with the wall-mounted anbaric lights, and the lapis-and-sable carpet that ran all the way to the twisting staircase wasn’t quite worn enough for him to ignore the sea life depicted within the ornate diamond pattern. He took a few steps forward and followed the voice, Csindra close behind. The parlour really was just around the corner — the first room to the left — and filled with even more conspicuous display of status. Blue-green paisley wallpaper, indigo velvet drapes, chairs and sofa with mahogany wood and brocaded upholstery, and of course a painting above the fireplace with their folkloric ancestor. Jean-Luc Riviere, the placard below read, standing above the Zwartstrom.

Odette herself was sitting by the fireplace, blonde hair tied back into a modest bun with a black milliner’s flower. “Oh! The famous Rook Zeesohn. I’ve wanted to meet you for so long,” she gushed. “Come, come here!” She leaned forward, shuffling her dress around on her legs a little with a rustle of taffeta.

“Oh, lovely, you have a fanclub.”

“Hush, you.” Rook approached, trying to find his professionalism somewhere. “Miss—”

“You have a snake? My goodness, he’s ever so cute, isn’t he? Or is it a she?”

Rook watched as his familiar dodged away from Odette’s hand, then searched for his place. He was still scrambled from the dream he couldn’t quite remember. “Uh, Miss Odette, I’m here with Sergeant Djaneki, about the, uh, recent murders—”

“Yes, I supposed so,” Odette sighed. “My cousins aren’t particularly mourned, but it’s a little worrying. And you’re concerned about little old me.”

He tried not to look too annoyed that she already knew. He had been warned about Odette, once or twice. Sure, Jacob mostly complained about little things, but even before Scheffen had told him straight-out, he’d known Jacob was involved with the Rivieres in some way; and Jacob had let on that Odette wasn’t nearly as helpless as she looked. “It’s the only Riviere residence in town, O- Miss Odette. The actual people inside aren’t really relevant.”

Odette leaned back in her chair, a touch of a smirk around her mouth. She didn’t seem offended. “And who’s your friend? Sergeant… Djaneki, you said?”

“Please don’t call me Sergeant,” Csindra replied. “Csindra is fine.”

“Csindra—? Ooh, that’s a Kanetan name, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I’m a contractor.”

“I love your hair. May I—”

Csindra glared at Odette so ferociously Rook thought the Riviere woman might catch fire, and he had to hide his pleasure as Odette sulkily but obediently retracted the hand that had been ready to touch Csindra’s hair. Who asked to touch someone’s hair? “Miss Riviere,” Csindra continued, a thread of ice in her voice barely detectable but firmly present, “was there anything connecting the people killed?”

“Ansel, Perry and Neil? Nothing beyond the obvious.” Then Odette raised an eyebrow at Csindra. “You mean the Beckers?”

“The Beckers, the Hedricks – and Kaullo Angtaiki.”

“And why would I know anything about that?”

Csindra sat down on one of the chairs in the Riviere parlour. “Normally,” she said quietly, “I’d expect someone to be a little more torn up about deaths in the family.”

“It’s a big family, Djaneki. Ansel Rolandsohn was – hm, what is it, second cousins? Peregrine was a cousin once removed, and I truly don’t remember the details of my relation to Neil, other than that he owned Rijder Tor and I don’t know or like his son enough to know what’s to become of it.” Odette inspected her nails with a practiced, careless grace. Rook wondered where Csindra had learned her skills of observation, because rather than the fear she’d had of messing things up, she almost seemed better at this than he was.

Which didn’t sit particularly well. But he’d always been better at the more direct parts of the job.

He opened his bag, extricating the binoculars and radio and standing by the broad bay window at the front of the parlour. If this was a normal stakeout, just watching the gates would have been fine — but if Csindra’s theory held up, they were looking for someone actively using feral magic, which was going to be a bitch and a half to protect against. And this was way too big a house.

“And the Beckers and Hedricks?” Csindra pressed again.

“You are persistent. Or stupid, one of the two.”

Csindra gave a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Every single one of them was killed in the same way.”

“I’m the youngest of the Rivieres, trapped in a wheelchair, and practiced with neither thaumaturgy nor military business,” Odette retorted, tapping the wheels of her chair. “If you’re looking for someone to interrogate, my father’s due back from Draaienstrom in a week or so.”

“Interesting. So it’s just you here at the moment.”

“And staff, of course. I can’t exactly climb the stairs on my own.”

“So when did your father leave?”

And Odette paused — just long enough. Rook glanced back over his shoulder, catching on and frowning. He doubted how much Odette was trapped in her chair, but she was certainly limited by it in a house and a city built for people on feet instead of wheels. Quite aside from that, Jeroen Riviere doted on his daughter. She was married — in name, anyway, but still lived in Den Riviere almost exclusively because of her disability. Aloysius Weiss bore patiently with the unusual arrangement, even the strange double-think of her being both Mrs. Weiss and Miss Riviere, while holding quarters both in his own estates and at Den Riviere.

But if he had left after the murders had started, then he had left her here with no protection. No thaumatists had been assigned to Den Riviere until now. No bodyguards had interrogated them on the way in.

Most annoying, Rook sulked, was that Csindra didn’t know any of this. Csindra was reacting to the simple fact that one Riviere had left and another — the vulnerable one — had remained, or been made to remain.

“I don’t remember exactly,” Odette said finally, but she’d paused a long time already.

“More than three weeks ago? Or less?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Could we ask one of the staff? I’m sure they’d remember—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Odette cut Csindra off. “I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not like that. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“You were just telling me the opposite.”

Odette was fuming by this point. “Major, I don’t appreciate the way your subordinate is speaking to me.”

Subordinate—?

Oh, right. Csindra was technically a Sergeant. Shit. He was almost never actually in command of anyone. “Uh—” Just pretend you’re Scheffen for a bit, he told himself. Easier said than done without feeling like he’d have to scrape the grease off himself later. “I’ll… reprimand her later. Csi- Sergeant, give the lady some room.”

Csindra gave him a slightly aggrieved look, but leaned back a little, straightening up in the chair. Rook left the window, quickly scanning the sky to check how long they had before dark. Usually sunset was pretty reliable, but it looked like it was going to storm. Then he took a seat near Csindra, frantically trying to figure out how Scheffen… did anything. “Mrs. Weiss—”

Please,” Odette scoffed quietly. Rook tucked that quietly away if he ever needed to guess her opinion of her husband.

“—Understand that we’re on your side here. We’re trying to protect you and your family — but we can’t do that without some more information. This is a matter of national security at this point, and—” He stopped. Odette’s face had changed. She hadn’t put together that Rook wasn’t Investigations. Interesting, what she knew and what she didn’t. After a moment, he kept going. “And I know if anything happened to you, I’d probably never hear the end of it.”

“From your higher-ups, I presume,” she snorted quietly, trying to cover up how white her face had gone.

“Them, and Lieutenant Lambert,” he added. Coup de grace, and a stab in the dark. Jacob hadn’t ever said anything, but…

Odette’s cheeks turned a little pink. “He’s not on this case, is he?”

“No, no. Conflict of interest.”

“Right,” she whispered. “Certainly I can see how there’d be issues with potentially investigating his sponsor family.” Rook doubted that was all she was taking from it, and he felt a little slimy, but he hadn’t actually lied. Just guessed. She shifted, and sighed. “…National security?” she said, a little weakly.

“No one told you?”

“I only knew about the deaths,” she murmured – then with a touch of anger, “I suppose even little birds get ideas about my delicacy. National security can only mean a few things. Which is it?”

“Feral magic. Potentially a demon.”

Odette closed her eyes with a deep inhale. It hadn’t been the answer she’d expected — another curiosity to note down. “Oh, my stupid, stupid, stupid family.”

“Was one of them trying something—?”

“No, we’re not largely blessed with thaumatists. There’s a few here and there, but certainly not the men you’re asking after.”

“Just say it straight, Odette,” Csindra sighed. “We’re not about to tell on you, and by the sounds of it they may have had it coming.”

Rook winced a bit at that. Maybe Csindra did need a primer or two on being circumspect — but it seemed to land. Odette pursed her lips in a moue, then dropped her shoulders from the tense position she’d been holding. “The fools were involved with the mob. That’s what the Beckers and Hendricks are about — plenty of them are petty criminals, but they don’t have good names to ruin.”

“What? Why the mob? Aren’t you rich enough?

And in response to Csindra’s question, Odette began to laugh. “It’s not about the money, you silly tit. It’s about what you do with it. Me, I could think of a number of more interesting projects to do with my life than buying control of slum towns with drugs and weapons, but perhaps I just lack a man’s perspective on entertainment.”

“And Kaullo Angtaiki?”

“Oh, who knows? Probably just another of the bottom-feeders caught up in the whole nasty busine-”

Csindra surged to her feet, and Rook just as smoothly managed to grab her before she could do anything. Odette stared up at her with not fear, but the casual curiosity of a scientist or an outside observer.

“Interesting,” she commented dryly. “I was wondering how you’d react.”

Csindra’s jaw worked behind her skin as she tried to summon up an answer to that. “Bitch,” she snapped finally.

“Family member? Or just tribal loyalty?”

“He’s Tosaka, you dumb—”

Sergeant.

Rook counted his lucky stars that he’d actually managed to shut Csindra up with that, although so, so much of him hadn’t wanted to. He didn’t like Odette much either; he kept almost agreeing with her, and then dizzily feeling like he’d taken a wrong turn somewhere. He didn’t quite understand Csindra’s reactions, though. It was like being caught between fire and ice, and trying to figure out which one he’d rather be burned by.

“Csindra,” he murmured, “take a walk.”

“I don’t—”

He leaned in, whispering low enough that Odette couldn’t hear, “Unfortunately, we have to keep her alive. Take a walk.”

Csindra looked ready to snarl at him. Then she walked off instead, and Rook felt himself almost deflating. Pissen ridder. Now he was stuck with her.

Odette, however, had a strange look on her face as Csindra left. Rook couldn’t quite interpret it. He wasn’t the best with expressions, especially when they could mean so many things. He couldn’t tell if she was sad, or contemplating something else entirely. “Well-handled, Major. Especially for someone new to command.”

“Don’t call me Major. And don’t try buttering me up.”

“I see you’ve lost your patience. This should be fun.”

“Are you this much of a smug snake with everyone?”

“Not everyone,” she admitted. “Just where I can get away with it.”

That made sense, even if it was particularly vile. Being coddled by everyone meant you flaunted power where you had it. It wasn’t an approach that made her a lot of friends, Rook would wager.

And how different are you? whispered one of the voices.

One of.

Rook shoved that observation, as well as the voice, away. “So why did your father leave you here? Was he involved with their dealings?”

“Not directly. He’s just… concerned.”

“But not about you.”

“I haven’t touched any of that mess. I shouldn’t be a target.” She was sounding less and less convinced, though. “Feral magic wasn’t part of the equation.”

No, and you weren’t involved in the calculations, as much as you like to pretend. It was a shame, actually, that everybody else kept talking about her like some helpless child. Rook would almost have liked her if she hadn’t been deliberately antagonizing Csindra. Doing it by accident would at least have been forgivable. The fact that he didn’t understand the specifics didn’t take away from it being pointed.

“It usually isn’t—”

He stopped. Something was wrong.

“What? What is it?” Odette asked, a note of rising concern in her voice.

It was darkening — but not because it was midnight, or because the clouds had rolled in. Something was blocking the sun.

The ivy at the edge of the bay window had begun to move.

COMMENTS

MAN, Bryan Fairfax sucks. He’s just. Such a goddamn tool. Unfortunately you will be seeing more of him; he’s very much the exemplar of Everyday Bigotry from completely “ordinary” people that is a pretty strong backbone to this book. There’s a reason why he and Odette are in the same chapter (although Odette is much better Overall). However, I am genuinely excited to introduce everyone to Odette Riviere, who is one of my faves. I doubt the elements with Rook have been subtle, but I get so tired of fantasy that doesn’t even acknowledge that disabled people exist. (Kudos to GOT, it at least does have disabled people like…. existing. Small kudos, but kudos nonetheless.) Odette is a polio survivor; something we don’t have as much reference for these days now that polio is pretty much eradicated, but polio tended to go for children, and if you survived at all, you usually had at least some muscle weakness.

Molybdena is a real thing by the way! I love Csindra’s axe a lot – especially the fact that she’s basically jerry-rigged the damn thing. While we see double-headed axes a lot in videogames and such, they actually weren’t that common for actual battle use. The two heads made them unwieldy and difficult to use, and like Csindra says here, they would have been two-handed weapons. (It tells you a lot about Csindra that she acquired a weapon and immediately set about making it work for her No Matter What. I love her.)

Edited slightly on July 4th!

SONG: Monster by Meg & Dia

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.

One thought on “Chapter 18: Nightshade Pupils

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