CW: paranoia, racism/anti-miscegenation
Two representatives from every family shall sit in the Parliamentary Assembly, one the elder and one the younger, between the ages of twenty-one and seventy, and in this way shall the voice of each of our illustrious families be heard.Elessan Law Code
I think it’s ridiculous to pretend that the Garrows have any status in Parliament. If you can’t so much as provide two adult representatives for Parliament, I see no reason to take you seriously. Come back when you’ve got more than two sons barely out of diapers.Albert zul zier Gehrichten Johnsohn Janssen, current elder Janssen representative
An interesting critique, if it didn’t become so difficult to ascertain your status as an ‘adult’ representative every time you opened your mouth.Achiel zier Schwarzerde Kieransohn Vandemeer, current junior Vandemeer representative, in response to the above.
Once this case was over, Jacob swore, he was going to go to one of his clubs and drink himself stupid with a cute boy on his lap. He had earned it. He wasn’t looking forward to the rest of the day. The entire squad was scattered across the city with rank-and-file squads and military police under their command, setting up observation spots on the taller buildings in Den Elessa and sectioning off some of the public buildings for “construction”. If they’d had even the slightest idea where to look, it would have helped. And he was stuck being the central contact point, when he would have much rather been at one of the stakeout points — but he was heading up the case, so at the Centrum he stayed.
He splashed some water on his face, groaning. At least he’d slept a little better last night.
Red Team, Blue Team, Green Team, White Team. He’d even gotten to collaborate with the other NatSec squads, although they weren’t his favourites. The only person he’d kept here with him was Wolfie, because he needed a Smoke on hand for sending and communication in case radios went down.
Jacob let himself out of the bathroom, still feeling a little like he’d rather lie down on a railroad track. At least Rook and Djaneki were well out of it. Rook was a good person to have in your corner for the direct stuff, but he’d never taken well to the watching and waiting style, especially not when they were trying to keep it out of the public eye. To tell the truth, Jacob didn’t enjoy it either; he’d probably have traded for the serial killer in a second if he wasn’t less than useless with anything involving thaumaturgy. At least he’d eaten now. Breakfast, at that.
Today was going to be long.
He sighed, heading for the stairs… then paused. He’d thought — nah. Probably nothing.
Nothing is nothing. Not right now.
He was on the first floor of the Centrum. Plenty of people went in and out of the main lobby; just like with the Palace, they had their own cleaners and servants, too. Support staff, they were called — the same non-rank rank as the librarians and nurses. Except the person dutifully cleaning the glass on the administrative offices’ doors was a little too familiar.
Jacob played at nonchalance, going up the stairs and glancing out of the corner of his eye as he ascended. He could be wrong; it wouldn’t be the first time. He had an alright memory for faces once he’d seen them a few times, but sometimes the first couple meetings really threw him. Plus, she was dressed differently, and he’d interviewed a lot of people yesterday. But once he got to the landing of the first floor and got an angle on her face, it was unmistakable. It was Mary-Ann Daniels, the maid from the Palace and Coben’s would-be lover.
He frowned, leaning on the banister and watching her. The Palace and the Centrum didn’t share staff. You didn’t have to be military to be support staff, no, and there was nothing stopping you from working at both, except that neither were part-time positions. The girl must have been dead on her feet — and both positions paid plenty, he knew that for a fact, so why?
He got at least part of an answer when Wolfie came through the front doors, clearly straight from the mess hall, holding two coffees, and offered one to her with a grin.
Jacob pressed a hand to his forehead, suddenly tempted to throw Wolfie through a window. This wasn’t the first time. Wolfie was engaged to Ive, sure, but it was arranged; they got along fine, but Wolfie’s eyes… wandered. Jacob wouldn’t have minded if he’d been a little more discreet about it. Or a little more discerning. But that was what you got with straight men, apparently. Queers knew how to keep their shit out of the workplace.
And then there was, well. Mary-Ann was seventeen. Which — Jacob sighed. He’d thought Wolfie was better than that, but to be fair, it didn’t look like anything more than technically-harmless flirtation.
But then there was the way she’d talked about Coben. And the fact that she was here.
Ignoring coincidences was fine, for other people.
Jacob waited until Wolfie had headed up the stairs towards the office, gave him a casual-looking wave, then headed down the stairs, keeping his peripheral vision on Mary-Ann. She hadn’t noticed him, and he knew how to keep his shoulders relaxed and his gaze unfocused so he looked just like the rest of the people around him, the speed he was moving at almost unnoticeable because of how casual he seemed. He had long legs, too, so he looked like he was moving slowly; you picked up on tricks like this over time. Dasta had actually taught him this one—
—and damn it, he was tired of thinking of Dasta.
Mary-Ann sipped at her coffee, then, almost imperceptibly, her eyes flickered up towards him. She discreetly began to wander down the hallway, leaving her cleaning supplies behind her.
He sped up a little more, and closed his fingers around her upper arm before she could break into a run. He could see it in the way she’d tensed up, one foot starting to rise up off the ground. “Miss Daniels,” he murmured to her in a low voice.
“Lieutenant,” she seethed from between gritted teeth.
He half-dragged her along until he found one of the storage units near the quartermaster’s booth, and shoved her inside, closing the door behind him. To Mary-Ann’s credit, he noted, she hadn’t spilled a drop of her coffee, open lid and all. She had excellent balance. Excellent balance, excellent reflexes, and excellent observational skills — which didn’t quite track with the innocent, sweet maid routine, but did track with the clever mind she hadn’t been able to hide.
She huffed at him, putting the coffee cup down on one of the metal shelves inside the storage closet. It was cramped, but big enough that she had room to move about, at least. Jacob was just glad he was between her and the door — he had the feeling that she would have made a break for it otherwise. “What do you want?”
He crossed his arms. “I thought you worked for the Palace.”
“This ain’t the Palace. Unless you’re lost.”
“Is there a law against having two jobs?” she shot back, voice sugary-sweet. She even looked different; the Palace servant uniform had been soft, feminine, with skirt and apron, whereas the support staff uniform was denim overalls over a workman’s shirt, designed for invisibility just as much as utility. It had been the ribbon that had caught his eye, he realized; the same bright-blue lapis ribbon wound into her black curls. Garrow blue.
“No, but I am wonderin’ when it is you sleep.”
She rolled her eyes, hackles lowering slightly. “So you’re just showing your concern. How noble. For your information, I enjoy having the extra money around. It means I have more to send back to my mother.”
“Again with the assumptions.”
“Am I wrong?”
She hesitated, then glared at him. “It’s none of your business.” Which meant he wasn’t, she was just annoyed about it. He did his best not to laugh.
“And I’m sure Lieutenant Vandemeer has nothing to do with it.”
Mary-Ann frowned at him at that one. “He’s nice to me.”
“You told me about Coben—”
“And I thought I was perfectly clear that I’m friends with him and nothing more. If nothing else, perhaps having a suitor will shake off his idiocy a little.”
Idiocy? God, he almost liked this girl. Scratch that, he did. He just wondered if she was bold enough to say that to Coben’s face, although with this kind of attitude, he had the feeling she was, had already done so, and that it was exactly why Coben was after her. He leaned against the wall. “First of all, if you think competition will scare off a man who knows the feeling’s mutual, you need a little more education on how men work.”
“I know perfectly well how men work. Better than you might think, unless you think I’m blind to why you dragged me in here.” And she smirked.
Jacob rubbed the bridge of his nose, in part to hide his entertained grin. It could be worse, he reminded himself. Just think how badly any of the other man would deal with this. Manor boys like Wolfie were probably eating out of her hand. He’d been half-raised by Sigaro tinkers, Vijaroki gun-runners and Shufennese prostitutes. “Second, Vandemeer’s engaged and the Judge’s godson, so your standards either need lowerin’ or you are a brave, brave little lady.”
“Call me little lady again and I’ll bite you.”
“Cute, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. You’re not my type, and I don’t fuck teenagers.”
“What is your type?”
That shut her up. Even if it wasn’t really true; he liked men and women, but every now and again it worked in his favour to bend the truth the other way round. Usually it was pretending to be straight that got him out of trouble. Besides, it was worth it for the embarrassed flush on Mary-Ann’s face. A support-staff teenager wasn’t likely to get him in any more trouble than any of his actual lovers could, so he wasn’t worried.
“So,” he said after a moment. “Wanna tell me what you’re actually up to? ‘Cause I suspect W- Vandemeer’s under the impression you’re a wee bit older than you are.”
“Twenty,” she mumbled.
Aha. So he could gain some of his respect for Wolfie back. “Lying about your age like that’s dangerous.”
“We’re not—” She sighed. “He helped me get the job here because I was struggling to make rent. I messed up my math.”
“Really? You didn’t meet here?”
“No, at the Palace. He was visiting one of his cousins.”
That was right, there were Vandemeer kids at the Palace too. Although they were certainly more free to leave than the others; Garrow and the Vandemeer boys were practically blood-brothers. Jacob was starting to feel bad for jumping to conclusions. God. He really was on edge.
“Are you done interrogating me?” she asked with a soft sigh. “Because I will get in trouble with my boss if I leave my cleaning supplies out in the open like that.”
Jacob reached forward, checking the temperature of her coffee cup, then groaned. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m jumping at shadows. Lemme buy you lunch sometime, make up for it?”
“I thought you were gay.”
“What, so I can’t be friendly?”
Mary-Ann did laugh at that. “Oh, fine. Another time. If I decide not to hold your paranoia against you.” She picked up her coffee, and Jacob opened up the door for her —
—and so smoothly it really did look like an accident, knocked one of her knees out from under her. Not by much. He was tall, he was lanky, he was clumsy. Nobody could hold it against him.
“Damn it, sorry—”
She laughed it off. “I’m fine.” Other people would have gone flying, maybe steadying themself on the doorjamb, or the opposite wall; it would have at least taken them a few steps. She’d adjusted almost immediately. And the coffee that should have ended up all over her front still hadn’t spilled a drop. “Have a good day, Lieutenant.” There was a slight note of stress to her voice.
Jacob watched her leave, tapping his fingers on the doorjamb and chewing on the inside of his cheek. He wasn’t just being paranoid. Not entirely. This whole thing still might be entirely innocent… But nobody, nobody got that good without being trained. He’d checked the coffee because he didn’t want her hurt, just in case, but he hadn’t expected that level of poise. It—
—well, it reminded him of the Black Guard. That was what unnerved him so much. But she was too young. She could pass herself off for twenty, but she couldn’t be older than that. She would’ve been a toddler when the Black Guard was formed, seven or eight at most during the massacre.
Who the hell was she?
He was startled out of his thoughts by the crackle of the radio at his hip. “Red Team in position, over.”
He grabbed the radio, heading up the stairs and into the NatSec office before he responded. “Control, I hear you. Everything normal?”
“So far,” Martinadocht sighed. Her team was over in the warehouse district, watching the river docks from one of the few watchtowers still standing. “Got some people doing the door-to-door, coda two. Over.”
Coda two meant they were asking casually if anybody had seen anything odd or magical; it was just an excuse to see if any of the warehouses or the few residences didn’t respond, acted shifty or had anything out of place. The problem with the radios was that even the secured channels were only secure to a degree; they had to operate under the assumption that even people with access to the NatSec channels could be dangers, so they kept communications limited and coded. Martinadocht in particular wasn’t fond of it, but she’d been born and raised in Den Elessa; she was used to telephones, which were slightly less frustrating.
Jacob kept his chuckle to himself. “Keep me posted. You might be there a while, love.”
“Don’t call me love.” Pause. “Over.”
“Over and out.” Then he rolled his eyes and returned his attention to Wolfie, who was sorting through his plants on one of the desks. At least he was on top of things. “You fully stocked?”
“Mostly. Don’t ask me for more’n a few Grand Arcanums, though. This stuff doesn’t — well, you know what I mean.”
“Were you going to say grow on trees?”
“…Well, plenty of it doesn’t,” Wolfie defended. “I was waiting for you, but I can cast something for some recon while everybody’s still getting set up.”
That was probably a good idea, especially with the bloodstone. Jacob sat at the desk next to Wolfie, already half-set up; the one on his other side was cleared off for Sylvia. He didn’t know Smokework spells off the top of his head, although like anybody who worked with thaums, you picked up on some of them after a while. “You can’t cast remembrancy for other people, huh?”
“Nah. I mean, I’m sure Rook has some sort of nonsense he pulls out of his ass, but I can’t.”
“Rook’s busy,” came the response from Sylvia’s office as she opened the door. “And unfortunately, no, even he can’t do that. You can walk them through it, but we don’t have anybody on hand.”
…Damn it. He should have dragged Mary-Ann up here. Well, at least he knew how to find her. Vague suspicions weren’t enough to hold someone, though, and the military was trying to fix relations with the Kanet’, not make them worse.
“What I can do,” Wolfie said instead, “is cast Eight of Gems. Narrow things down a bit.”
“Eight of Gems. Which one’s that again?”
“Yes or no questions about a person or place. Problem is it gets really picky about the yes/no thing, so you gotta pick the questions carefully.”
Sylvia nodded carefully at that. “Lambert, what were the standouts from the Palace?”
“Coben’s got a girlfriend.”
Sylvia’s eyebrows nearly flew off her face at that. “Does… anyone know?”
“Don’t think so, since she seems pretty discreet about it.”
Wolfie shook his head. “Nah, it’s pretty low-key. I think a few other maids know and that’s it—”
Jacob stared at him. Wolfie lifted his head and blinked back at Jacob. “What?”
“What do you mean, what?”
Then Wolfie snorted, grinning. “Oh, you thought I didn’t know. Gimme a little credit.” He kept sorting through his plants. “She’s Kanet’, so it’s not really destined for success.”
“Coben Garrow,” Sylvia said, a little incredulously. “Well, that’s a motive.”
“Think about how many manor families are trying to marry off their daughters to him,” Sylvia sighed. “If they’re not trying to take him out of the picture entirely before he sits in on his first session of Parliament.”
“They can’t possibly believe the Judge would actually let—” Then Jacob paused and groaned. “They might. Whether or not it’s true.”
“If all else fails,” Sylvia said darkly, “bet on the racism of established nobility. Er, with some exceptions,” she added somewhat hastily, but Wolfie just snickered.
“No, no, it’s a safe bet if you’ve met my great-aunt.” Wolfie bound together a bundle of plants, some dried, some fresher; Jacob thought he saw the distinct red of fly agaric in there, and he was tying it with the frond of one of the giant ferns, but beyond that he didn’t recognize any of them by sight.
“Masks on?” he asked to be sure.
“That depends on how much you want to be Alice in Wonderland,” Wolfie shot back with a smirk, grabbing his from the back of his chair. Sylvia just rolled her eyes, picking one up from the other desk for herself and tossing another to Jacob. Every type of magic had its inherent risks, but Smokework was like Bloodwork in that some of them were inherent to the performing of it; not every plant was good for you. Some were only toxic if you ate them, and therefore only the physicians and apothecaries had to worry — others were poison to touch, which was why Wolfie had flexible leather gloves pulled over his hands, and others still carried their poison even in the smoke they made when they burned, which meant Smokes always had masks, and anybody working with them usually did, too. Wolfie’s was custom-made, the front shaped into a canine snout and leather detailed with fangs just above where it gave way to hardened rubber; the ones he and Sylvia had were just standard-issue gas-masks.
Before he pulled the mask on, Jacob pulled out a pen and paper. They could talk through the masks, but it was a lot of work and frankly, they couldn’t afford mistakes. Then he pulled the mask over his face, and handed Wolfie the list of questions, Sylvia peering at them over Wolfie’s shoulder. He waited nervously to see what Sylvia’s response was, but she nodded, giving him a thumbs up.
Wolfie opened his box of matches – he always insisted on using matches instead of a lighter, god knew why, but every thaum had their quirks — and lit the wick.
Immediately, the light in the room changed. Jacob had learned the hard way that not everybody could see this; for some people they got a sense of it, while others just saw what was in front of them. It was part of his own personal curse, he supposed. He couldn’t participate in the magic thaums performed, and instead he got a unique, bird’s eye view of it. The smoke from the small flame curled and coiled upwards, turning into different hues in the otherwise-still air — red and white, yellow, deep-green.
Wolfie took a deep breath, the sound magnified by his mask. He looked like something out of a long-distant past with his hood pulled up around the sides of the mask, mismatched eyes only slightly visible behind the goggles — one a bright blue and the other hazel. Then he closed his eyes, and Jacob could hear him mouthing the question, forming it in his head as his fingers moved through the smoke. The first one on the list, and the one they needed an answer to first. Is Coben Heathsohn Garrow still alive?
On the desk in front of Wolfie was a stone; white on one side, black on the other. Another thing that Jacob could see, but others couldn’t, was that the smoke responded to the question; it dove down towards the stone, coiling around it almost curiously. Others, apparently, only saw the stone move.
The smoke flipped the stone, and flipped it again, and one more time. It always took a few times. Then it drew back, and Wolfie opened his eyes — and his shoulders fell in obvious relief.
Coben was alive.
That was one less thing to be worried about. Thank fucking god. Coben had only turned twenty-one a month or so ago; in another month, when Parliament reconvened, he would be able to attend as the first new official Garrow representative in — ridder, over forty years. That was what had occurred to him while talking to the Judge. It hadn’t clicked before because like most people, he thought of Heath himself as a Garrow representative, but as the Judge, he wasn’t actually officially a Garrow representative in Parliament. So if Coben happened to suffer an accident before showing up in the assembly-house, it’d be another eleven years before Rue was old enough.
Don’t get too excited yet. He’s alive now. That doesn’t mean he’ll be alive later.
The next question was important, too. “Is Coben Garrow within the City of Den Elessa’s borders?” He’d had to think that one through. If he’d just written Den Elessa, like he was tempted to, the spell would likely search the whole county, which included a whole lot of space beyond the city itself. Specificity was good.
Jacob traded a glance with Sylvia, and even through the goggles of the gasmask, he could sense her equal relief.
Next question. “Is Coben Garrow currently being held by force and/or restrained?”
Hell. There went any lingering hope of Coben being holed up in a brothel or just running away from responsibility.
“Is Coben Garrow currently injured?”
“Is Coben Garrow within any of the following estates: Den Riviere, Den Bergen, Den Pont, Den Miller, Den Haber, Den Janssen?” The manor families they knew had lingering grudges against Garrow.
“Is Coben Garrow within the estate of Den Forrath?”
Jacob braced himself for that one. That one would be bad beyond all imagining—
The smoke was starting to fade, too. Wolfie put another match to it —
Jacob frowned. Something was bothering him.
Coben Garrow had vanished from the Palace late at night. Which, sure. That made sense for a kidnapping. No forced entry, no sign of disturbance, and they’d been operating under the idea that it was someone who was excellent at what they did, because Coben wasn’t social, he didn’t have a lot of friends, nobody had disappeared at the same time as him, so the idea of ‘someone he trusted’ didn’t —
He grabbed the piece of paper from Wolfie, furious at himself for brushing off the possibility, for overcorrecting (more than fucking once, too) and scrawled in large letters the question that did need asking. He gave it back to Wolfie — who made a sound halfway between a whimper and a curse. But he returned to the smoke curling up from his desk to ask it.
“Did Coben Garrow leave the Palace on the night of May 2nd with Mary-Ann Gilbertadocht Daniels?”
The smoke coiled and twisted and turned —
Jacob sprinted out of the office, tearing off his mask as he nearly flew down the stairs, hauling himself over the banister once he was close enough and hitting the hardwood with both feet. People scurried away from him with surprised noises, but he didn’t care — he scanned the faces, the crowd for any visual on someone fleeing or hiding. No sign of her. He marched down the first floor of the Centrum, sticking his head into each office —
He pulled out the radio once he reached the other end of the Centrum, biting his tongue until it bled so he’d stop feeling so fucking helpless. “All teams attention, be on the lookout for a new suspect. Details sent through Smoke thaum, seventeen-year-old clan girl.” He pressed the radio to his forehead, still feeling the urge to slam it against his head. Idiot. Idiot, idiot, idiot. He’d been so busy convincing himself he was twitching at nothing, still trying to do penance. “We have thaum info that the package is unharmed for now. Over.”
Mary-Ann was Advolk.
And he was in so much fucking trouble.
Mary-Ann returns! And now you all see why I was so excited :3 The Advolk will be showing up lots, so don’t worry – if you’re having a flinch reaction to them conceptually, I completely understand, and I only ask patience. (One of my biggest influences is FMA 2003, if that helps with what my approach to “villains” is.)
While I was working on this chapter, it kept striking me that I’m not used to characters like Jacob being both gay/bi and the Badass One – usually if a character like that’s bi it’s severely downplayed, and at least in military-themed stuff, gay characters are… not common. I know this is changing, but it was just really odd to realize partway through.