CWs: opioid and stimulant drug use (+discussion of), guns, implied human trafficking, subtle/microaggressive racism, racial profiling, self-harm scars
And bitter waes the breath and braying on Brunhilde’s soul
Whyn all she had waes lost or loathed or reveled as common cole
her crowne she’d kep for good or ill, no kept courtisane she’d be
so the fisher-childe’s blood she spilt into the midden greene
and from the bones she call’d the Torre, wicked and divine
she sold what vertue left she haed to be of Grendele’s kind
Demon-bound and demon-borne, paid for in children’s breath
Brunhilde and the Bony Torre, by John Anselsohn Partridge
And the Thistle Quene died in the Torre – with only hatrede left.
The radio chimed in one at a time, with coded responses from each of the teams that added up to much the same thing; none of them had seen Mary-Ann Daniels, and Jacob had long since stopped worrying about his career and moved onto a much more immediate fear that Coben Garrow was going to show up as a corpse and it’d be his fault. Before now, he’d still kind of wondered how much danger Coben was in. A manor family might have killed him, but he couldn’t see them going to all the trouble of an abduction if he was just going to die anyway.
But Advolk —
“Jacob, calm down,” Sylvia demanded, which at least got him to stop pacing. And he’d already punched the wall once. “At least you identified her.”
“Aye, late. I had her cornered, I knew something was up, and I let her go—”
“We’ll find her.”
Advolk. Fucking Advolk. He’d given her so much benefit of the doubt, because —
— sieben vervloekte, because he was trying not to repeat the same mistakes again. He didn’t need any more blood on his hands. But he’d overdone it. Ignored all of the things that were suspicious, that were an issue, because of his own stupid guilt, and besides, besides, what was he doing, trying to opt out of assumptions that worked?
Because they don’t, some small voice reminded him. And then — Fuck, why did she have to be Advolk? Because he’d liked her. She had the same kind of sharpness about her that Rook did, an apparent need to show off just a little paired with the confidence that she was just as good as she thought it was. He just forgot, sometimes, that his enemies could be just as likable as his friends. He’d been in the 214th for a decade. He knew Advolk. He knew the signs of their attacks, their influence. And he’d still fallen for it. Why?
“Police has a full perimeter set up around the city, and our teams are still in place to observe.”
That was true. He just… could have avoided this. He leaned his hands on one of the desks, hanging his head and trying to stop kicking himself.
Sylvia bent over the desk and lifted his chin with an air of command. “We have not lost him. We know she’s Advolk now. And we have her name.”
“I doubt ‘s her real name,” Jacob replied sourly. Then he glared over at Wolfie. “Ye kent—” He closed his eyes for a moment. “You knew about Coben seeing someone and you didn’t so much as run a background check?”
Wolfie pulled off his mask with a groan of frustration. “What do you take me for? I’ve been dodging assassination attempts since I was seven. Of course I ran a background check. Of course it’s a fake name. She’s Kanetan, they do that all the time when leaving Etamara.”
“So she is from Etamara.”
“Far as I could tell. Some town called Tenton.”
Sylvia wrinkled her nose. “Just likely as to be made up as the rest of her, really. You should have kept a closer eye on her.”
“Coben isn’t actually useless,” Wolfie protested. “It’s just safer to let people think so.”
“I’ve met the lid,” Jacob grumbled. “He ain’t exactly blessed wi’ ‘n overabundance of wit.”
“If she got past me, you, and the Richteran Guard,” Wolfie shot back, more than a hint of anger in his voice now, “she’s not exactly small potatoes, is she?”
“Enough!” Sylvia raised her voice. “We—”
The radio flickered to life again. Jacob expected to hear from one of the teams — instead, a low contralto came through the static, a voice he recognized but couldn’t quite place. “NatSec! NatSec, do you read? Major Scheffen?”
Sylvia picked up the radio with a frown. “This is Major Scheffen. Identify yourself. Ov—”
Sylvia’s eyes darted up to Jacob in sudden silent fear. The Rivieres, she mouthed.
Oh, bloody fucking hell.
“I know perfectly well where you are, Djaneki, stay quiet.” Sylvia interrupted her before she could say anything. “Hold your position. Are you hurt?”
“Not really, but Rook…”
Sylvia’s face paled. Not because Rook was hurt; that alone wouldn’t have worried her beyond the normal. But Csindra hadn’t said that. She’d paused, scared. “Hold your position, Sergeant.” She flicked off the radio. “Jacob—”
She didn’t need to say anything else. He was already halfway out of the door, cursing everything about today. Mary-Ann would have to wait, because — because, shit, Jacob knew more than he was supposed to.
“Hold on, I’m coming with you!” Wolfie ran after him, panting slightly. “The Major says she’ll man the teams.”
Which also meant she could keep things quiet where she could. Jacob just nodded, too breathless to think too much about Wolfie being there. Djaneki didn’t rattle easy. He’d only met her a handful of times, but she was tough. What the hell had scared her so badly?
“Where are we going?”
“Den Riviere. They were staking out that killer.”
“Oh, damn. Okay. So—”
“Shut your gob and get in the damn car before I run you over.” Mean, maybe, but he was still sore about Mary-Ann. And…
You from Etamara, little one?
He wasn’t going to think about that yet. One thing at a time.
To his credit, Wolfie actually complied, even pulling out his service pistol and loading it while Jacob slid behind the wheel, engine already vibrating. Wolfie had three guns, at least that Jacob knew about — the Browning 1910 that served as the military standard, an old modified R&G Model 1898, and the one in his hands – a Mauser C96, with a Smokework symbol already engraved into its wooden grip. “What do you know?”
“Not much. Not my case.”
“You make it your business to know everything.”
“You’re thinking of the Major,” Jacob mumbled distractedly. Den Riviere was farther than he would have liked — not that far, but it was still a bit of a world unto its own. He tried to focus just on driving, but he found himself swearing under his breath. Was Odette at Den Riviere? She probably was. She kept talking about actually moving in with her husband, but she’d been doing that for months. He couldn’t be worried about Rook and Odette. Do I say anything?
“She’s there. Sorry.”
“Who?” Jacob tried to brush off —
“You keep forgetting we all know each other,” Wolfie murmured with a small grin. He was doing more than inspecting his guns, Jacob realized; he was checking over his Smokework wicks. Some were pre-tied bundles of plant matter — others were clusters of incense sticks, all with small, handwritten labels and a heady, lingering medley of smells that didn’t quite make his eyes sting but was enough to be noticeable. “I haven’t talked to her in a while, but last I heard she keeps putting off Aloysius by askin’ him to make changes to Den Weiss. Which he’ll never do.”
Jacob couldn’t follow most of what Wolfie was saying, but that was fine. He could only drive so fast. Some of him wanted desperately to ask Wolfie if he knew that Rook was something else, something special — but the truth was, Jacob didn’t even know more than that. Just that Rook was something. And explaining to Wolfie how he knew meant explaining his relationship with magic, which was more thinking than he could handle right at this moment.
“Lambert, check in.” Sylvia. She was getting worried.
Wolfie picked up the radio for him as they pulled down the long driveway towards Den Riviere. “Approaching now. No s…”
The two of them fell equally silent at the same time. Jacob got as close as he dared, until the tires started to slide on the ground, then came to a stop.
The wrought-iron gates had been entirely blown off their hinges. That was bad enough. Jacob had never seen them so carelessly left before; he’d been to Den Riviere plenty of times, whether to see Mr. Riviere himself or to spend time with Odette.
The tires —
He felt the cold the moment he opened the car door If they hadn’t taken one of the covered ones, they would have noticed right away. The wheels hadn’t been sliding in water or mud; the gravel was covered with a thin, nearly-clear layer of ice. The tires had slid only half an inch before cracking through what of it there was, and when Jacob and Wolfie’s boots hit the surface, more cracks radiated out from underneath them.
“It wasn’t this cold when we left the Centrum, was it?” Wolfie asked uncertainly.
“Maybe,” Jacob said noncommittally. Then — “I don’t think so. It’s not cold enough now.”
Wolfie nodded, jaw set, then silently handed Jacob the gas mask he’d been wearing at the office and pulled his own mask over his head. When Wolfie got quiet, that said plenty. That was when you needed to worry.
Jacob checked his gun, then tucked it back into his holster. He held the mask — but didn’t put it on, as he walked through the gates with the ice cracking under his boots. There was something strange in the air, almost a static hum; he wasn’t sure, actually, if Wolfie could hear it. Usually his sensory oddities were visual. Usually.
The high gates were held up by two stone columns, the rest of the stone walls circling the estate out from them. As Jacob crossed between them, he felt the temperature drop a little more, but not enough to do more than make him shiver in his uniform jacket. Den Elessa got cold — but not this cold. Not in the summer. The front field was covered in frost that glittered in the low afternoon sun. The hedges, the grass, the orchard leaves…. Even the marble fountain was frozen, the water still determinedly piping from the top but breaking through the verglas on the basin’s surface with a quiet, steady crackle.
The good news, he supposed, was that it was melting. The icicles hanging from the stone Proteus’s nose on the fountain were scary to look at, but icicles were a symptom of meltwater, not killing frost. Whatever had come through here was gone. This was just the wake of its passing.
Jacob glanced back at Wolfie, who was silent behind his wolf’s-eyes. Wolfie hadn’t hesitated to put the mask on, because, like most people, like most thaumatists who weren’t looking for it, or casting anything — he couldn’t see or hear magic. You had to try, which meant you had to know what to look for, and even then magic liked to hide. That was how it was supposed to work.
“Lambert, just put the damn thing on,” Wolfie sighed through the mask —
“Hold on.” He didn’t know how he was going to explain it to Wolfie, or if he’d even have to bother coming up with an excuse. Something was gone; the big thing, at least. Something was still here, though. He pulled the radio out from Wolfie’s side holster. “Djaneki, this is Lambert. Where are you?”
“Third floor with Miss Odette. Is it safe?”
Safe? Did Djaneki not know? Or — he thought grimly — she was being circumspect on purpose. The truth was, the whole ‘feral magic killer’ thing had been bothering him from the beginning. He only knew the outlines of it anyway; it needed a thaumatist, and he was as far from one as it got. But he hadn’t voiced to Sylvia his concern that throwing Rook up against feral magic that seemed to have real, malicious intelligence was a bad idea, and now he was wishing he had. Don’t jump to conclusions. You’re not a thaumatist, and you and ferals are a bad combination at the best of times.
He chewed on his lip. “We’ll be up in a moment once we’ve cleared the outside. Stay put.”
“I’ll update you when I can.”
She hadn’t looked outside. And Rook wasn’t with her. Jacob tried to still the sudden thrumming in his chest, but was interrupted by Wolfie’s hand on his arm, squeezing in nearly as much panic as he was feeling.
“Where the hell is he?” Wolfie asked, voice muffled through the mask.
Jacob pushed Wolfie’s hand down, gesturing to him to relax. “Cool it, Achielsohn. Don’t freak out on me now.” Like he wasn’t freaking out just as much. Neither of them could help it — Rook might complain about how he was an adult now, but he was still the baby, the one who could take care of himself just fine, but shouldn’t have to.
The two of them advanced towards the house. Wolfie had already pulled out one of his wicks, although Jacob couldn’t identify it — for himself, Jacob had his hand on his gun. He had a Browning, too, but he preferred Vera for his everyday work. She was theoretically a Mauser like Wolfie’s — a gwēi-chúo, although Wolfie probably had never even heard the word — but his was a Schnellfeuer Red 9, which meant that if he wanted to turn someone to dust in a few seconds flat, he could. If he had to.
It wasn’t helping, he thought, that he’d been dwelling on the past. Everything was so quiet. Deathly still. Knowing that Djaneki and Odette were alive somewhere in the house helped; it didn’t quite shake the feeling that he was walking towards a house of corpses—
He paused. The colonnade of the front porch was in front of them. The half-circle of steps was running with rivulets of meltwater, the entire porch covered with thick, crumbling ice —
—and in the center of it all, a small body, almost floating in the steadily-melting frost.
“Rook!” The name tore itself from his lips before he could think it through, and his feet nearly slid out from under him as he crossed the ice — but most of it was slush, now. He was more worried about how long Rook might have been out here. How long had it taken for them to get here from the Centrum? Ten, twenty minutes? He wasn’t good at gaging time. One of his major flaws — no matter what he did, he couldn’t fix his internal clock.
He dropped down next to Rook, fingers fumbling to put away his gun and hands sliding into the cold water to try lift Rook out. His fingers brushed against something unexpected — he started back, then realized that there was a small serpentine head resting at Rook’s neck, the rest of the snake’s body underneath Rook’s head. In the freezing water.
“Leshin shar, you’re cold-blooded,” he muttered, and eased the snake carefully onto Rook’s chest before lifting them both out of the water. The fact that Rook’s familiar was alive was incredible — and hopefully a good sign. There was no real reason to assume the two were linked, but he’d always kind of assumed so.
He looked around, trying to figure out where to put Rook down that wasn’t ice or water, but Wolfie beat him to it; he pulled off his longcoat and lay it on one of the few places of the porch that was showing actual stone-and-tile. It was soaked almost immediately, but it was still better than putting him down straight on ice or cold stone.
“Thanks,” Jacob mumbled.
Wolfie pulled off the mask, dirty-blond hair falling free and eyes wide as he looked over Rook. “What happened? I’ve never seen him like this.”
“Hypothermia, I think,” Jacob said distractedly. More than that — he was bleeding, although the cold had kept it under control. Injury on his leg, another on his hand — Whatever he’d been fighting, it’d been nasty.
“The window’s broken.”
“What?” Then Jacob caught up. “The main window?”
“Yeah. There’s a fireplace in there.”
“Thanks.” Jacob pushed his arms under both Rook and the coat, still looking around and trying to calculate how far the frost had gone. Then he realized Wolfie was looking at him. “Spit it out, Achielsohn.”
“…Frost wraiths don’t do this.”
“Mountain wraiths? No. Not normally.”
Wolfie rolled his eyes. “You know what I mean. Besides, not all mountain wraiths are cold. Even the ones that are, though, they don’t… explode.”
That was exactly what it was, Jacob realized. Especially now that he’d stepped off the porch. It looked like an explosion. The ice was thinnest out by the gate, but it also had only just started to melt when they arrived. The fountain was getting there — the icicles. And the place with the most ice, that had already melted the most —
His eyes landed on the center of the colonnade where Rook had been lying.
“We don’t exactly understand feral magic yet,” he said instead, hoping Wolfie hadn’t followed his eyes too much and turning to the window. He didn’t want to brave the inside of the house right off the bat — and besides, this way, he could get a sense of what had happened. Who’d broken the window? All the glass was on the inside, not the outside.
“Maybe you don’t,” Wolfie replied, with a little more snark than Jacob would have liked, “but Phania’s one of the only non-state researchers there is. Mountain magic doesn’t work on this kind of scale outside of the mountains. It can’t sustain the energy. That’s why we have so many forest and freshwater wraiths here.”
Jacob ignored — or pretended to ignore — Wolfie, stepping through the window. Then he froze. There wasn’t any sign of struggle, no. Except Odette’s chair was in front of him. His heart leapt into his throat for a moment, before he realized what had probably happened. Djaneki didn’t know about the lift. He sighed, suppressing a small smile. “You’ll have to gab my ear off about feral magic later. Go check on Djaneki and Odette.”
“She’s going to be embarrassed as it is.”
“She—?” Then Wolfie caught a glimpse of the chair. “Ah.” He narrowed his eyes at Jacob. “Are you sure you’re not—”
“I’m not having this discussion with you, Achielsohn.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
Then Wolfie vanished up the stairs, and Jacob exhaled, setting Rook down on the small sofa and seeing what he could do about the fire. There was always a firestarter somewhere around here; before long, he had a small flame smoldering in the hearth, and could focus on Rook and his familiar. The snake, at least, seemed fine, if sluggish — it crawled off of Rook and onto the floor near the fire.
“Glad to see you’re happy,” Jacob mumbled. The familiar was another of Rook’s badly-kept secrets; in theory, he’d never actually been told that all of Rook’s odd pets were the same animal, but even if he hadn’t spent enough time around him to pick up on it, the tawny-gold aura the familiar usually had around it gave it away. Desert magic, he thought. The warm colours were usually desert or flatland, and the aura was the same no matter what form it took. There was more variation in the spells than the usual eight categorizations would suggest, but he usually couldn’t get close enough to learn much else.
The snake gave Jacob’s thigh a little pat with its tail, and Jacob smiled despite himself. That was the main reason he’d never said anything. Demons didn’t like him; feral magic lashed out at him twice as hard as it did anybody else. He was like a flashing neon light where others were muted, a beacon if he did so much as try to use thaumaturgy. But Rook’s familiar liked him just fine — which meant it wasn’t a demon, whatever it did turn out to be.
Rook’s breaths were coming a little easier already. Jacob sighed, kneeling down next to him and brushing his hair out of his face to get a better look. It was hard to say whether or not colour was coming back to his face, exactly — but he looked, well, better. Still, he needed a bit more warmth to get back to normal.
Jacob managed to slide the leather jacket off of Rook’s shoulders without too much trouble, and got a slurred, half-awake mumble for his trouble. He tried not to feel too pleased about that, but it meant Rook was a bit more conscious than he seemed. “Don’t worry,” he said with a small chuckle, rubbing his thumb over Rook’s cheek. “I’m not stealing it.”
“Mm.” Rook drifted back into stillness, and Jacob felt that twinge of concern again. Rook seemed small, sure. But he wasn’t sure he’d ever actually seen Rook down for the count. Especially because, he was noticing with a frown, he was injured, but—
Don’t trick yourself. It’s still some nasty stuff. That, plus the cold—
He tested the dampness of Rook’s shirt, and pulled a face. Cotton poplin dried faster than most, but it was still clammy to the touch. Jacob shrugged off his uniform jacket, then gently eased the shirt over Rook’s head. “Sorry, kid,” he murmured. “You’re not even shivering yet. Once you are, then we’re getting somewh—”
The word faded in his mouth. He dropped the shirt on the ground and managed to finish pulling his uniform jacket around Rook’s shoulders, but his eyes returned to Rook’s arms and stomach nonetheless; and the thin scars riddling his skin. If they were white, Jacob probably wouldn’t have minded so much. White scars were healed. These ones weren’t.
Jacob sighed, and avoided touching the healing reddish-pink scars on Rook’s abdomen, instead cupping Rook’s chin in his hand and checking his neck and face. At least none of the cuts were open. He hadn’t been using that kind of Bloodwork today. Which… He wished that made him feel better. He tried to pretend not to know about it, to look away from Rook’s cutting just as much as he did the familiar and the strange, haunting magic that danced around him — but that didn’t mean seeing the actual scars hit any better.
The fire was catching properly now. Jacob shook himself a little, snapped the jacket buttons closed around Rook’s chest, and checked his leggings before pulling one of the sofa blankets over his legs. “There we go.” Wolfie had taken the radio, but Rook was supposed to have one, so he could update Sylvia from here. He propped himself up on the floor with his back to the sofa, grabbing Rook’s jacket and fishing into the pockets —
Whatever he was touching wasn’t the radio, but it was a little too familiar for comfort. Jacob pulled it out. A hip flask. For water?
He cast an uneasy look back at Rook.
Jacob unscrewed the top of the flask — and the smell hit him so fast it was like being punched in the face. Wine, he thought, and something else sickly sweet.
He closed the flask, heart plunging into the pit of his stomach. There wasn’t any reason to think Rook had been drinking. Hell, he didn’t even know Rook drank at all. He’d never seen Rook so much as have a glass of wine.
And carrying around a hip flask of it?
Djaneki hadn’t said what was wrong with Rook over the radio. He’d just assumed. He’d just —
He resisted the temptation to throw the flask, and instead set it aside. He wasn’t going to be able to think straight, not until Rook woke up and the chill lingering in the room had finally cleared.
The radio had been quiet for a while, and Csindra had almost fallen asleep with her head on Odette’s shoulder when the Thaumatist-Lieutenant turned the corner of the desk. He looked down at the two of them through his lupine mask, then pulled it upwards, letting it rest on top of his head with the hood falling behind him. “…Well, this should be good.”
“Save it, Theolykos,” Odette snapped. She was fully awake, still shivering, although Csindra suspected it was out of more fear than cold.
Csindra lifted her head, pressing the heel of her palm into her eye with a wince. “Oh, lovely. You two know each other.” Then she watched with rising annoyance as Odette… steadied herself against the desk and slowly started to get to her feet. “You’re kidding me. You can walk?”
“Yes,” Odette snarled.
Wolfie just sighed — and stepped forward before Odette managed more than to get shakily upright, catching her against his chest. “No, she can’t. Don’t be stubborn.”
“I’ll be stubborn as much as I like, Theolykos, now take your hands off me—”
“That might work on a prole, Odette, but I’d like to think I have some familial privileges. How’d she get you up here?”
Odette just seethed quietly, and Csindra actually felt a little embarrassed. “I, uh — I picked her up. I was panicking.”
“For good reason, I suppose.”
“Of course it—” Then Csindra realized that hadn’t been a question. “Odjon’nez, what’s outside?”
Wolfie practically winced. “A lot of ice.”
“How much is a lot?”
He didn’t answer that directly, just letting Odette lean on him. “You were right to come up here.”
Odette paled. Csindra wasn’t expecting a thank you, but she did seem to relax a little. Besides, Csindra couldn’t blame her. It didn’t really matter how rich or powerful you were, or how much noble blood you had, when you were in a wheelchair in a house full of stairs. It didn’t mean Csindra liked her any better, but lashing out because of fear was a lot easier to handle than nasty, petty underhandedness. “I suppose under those circumstances, I can manage some grace. But put your hands on me again and I’ll have them chopped off.”
Csindra raised her eyebrows, but the Lieutenant just sighed. “Will you at least let me carry you down?”
Odette glanced up at him, then averted her eyes. “…Only if you let me walk the last bit.”
Wolfie hid his small smile, and Csindra only barely concealed her expression. Odette had heard Lambert on the radio, it seemed. It was oddly sweet; she had to wonder if it was mutual, but she was pretty sure Lambert’s interests lay elsewhere. Wolfie picked Odette up in his arms, with a lot more care that Csindra had managed, and Csindra strapped her axe onto her back, noticing the way her hands were trembling. Adrenaline leaving her body. It was okay. They had backup now, and nobody sounded panicked, nobody was firing guns, so everything was… fine.
A lot of ice. Yeah, no. Everything was not fine. She didn’t know if Rook was alive or dead—
He’s not dead. The thought came with such disturbing clarity that she stopped, hand on the desk. She scanned the room — the blown-open books, the scattered papers that had flown about in whatever wind had passed through, but there was nothing to give her that certainty. Desperate hope, maybe, but she wasn’t the type. Why was she so certain?
Then another thing occurred to her. A house this big had staff. Even the manors out in the Zweispars had staff, and this was in the middle of the capital. She walked carefully through the study, past the porcelain cup that had fallen and broken on the ground, and out onto the landing. Most of the other doors were open. The one to the left and across — That one was closed.
She tried the handle, and the door opened easily. The room was filled with people, all of them quiet as the grave, all of them turning their faces to her with a mix of relief and alarm.
“So that’s where you all vanished to,” came Odette’s voice from behind her. She closed her eyes for a moment, exhaling, before she turned back to look at Odette in the Lieutenant’s arms. Wolfie, to his credit, was rolling his eyes a bit — but not doing much else, while Odette was glaring at the room of people. “Really. I expected—”
“Miss Odette,” Csindra interrupted, managing to keep some respect in her voice. It took effort. A lot of effort, and reminding herself that Odette wasn’t being bridal-carried for shits and giggles, and that she had just had the living daylights scared out of her. “I’ll talk to you downstairs.”
“But—” Then Odette fell silent, glaring now at Csindra. Csindra just returned the glare with an even stare. “Fine.”
The Lieutenant adjusted his grip on Odette with a small snicker, and headed down the stairs. Csindra heard him say something to her about ‘Rook’s new partner’. She wasn’t sure if it was entirely complimentary or not — but it kept them both out of her way. And it didn’t matter what else she thought or wanted to think about Odette or the Lieutenant; the rich got a certain expression when it came to their staff. Like talking about misbehaving pets. There’s a reason I would rather starve then work for you, she grumbled internally. And she hadn’t exactly agreed lightly to…whatever it was she was doing.
She turned back to the room packed full with what she now realized was Den Riviere’s entire domestic staff. Close to it, anyway. They ranged from barely teenagers to in their fifties or sixties, all of them in working clothes of some sort of another, most of them obviously clan or foreigner of some sort. High cheekbones, thick hair, skin that ranged from just faintly dusky to deep shimmering Fuletcha black… She let them look at her for a moment, let them take in the deerskin jacket and dark skin and flag her as One Of Them, before she leant against the doorjamb.
“So,” she said with a drawl she couldn’t quite help, “I take it it’s not just my clan with that story.”
Everybody started looking at each other. Nobody wanted to be the one to talk, it seemed. Not that she blamed them. Just because she looked like them didn’t mean anything, not when it came to stuff like this. Csindra wasn’t sure if it’d ever actually been agreed on that they didn’t tell Elessans about these stories; probably some people tried and got brushed off, anyway. It was just an unspoken agreement.
“I’m not actually military,” she added, to see if it’d help. “I mean — not, not really. I’m a contractor. Technically. Which just means they pay me while I do something else entirely.”
“Doing what?” someone burst out. Csindra couldn’t see who it was, which was probably for the best given how tempted she was to throw something at them or tell them it was none of their fucking business.
“I heard that,” she said instead. God. What was it gonna take? She rubbed her forehead in between her eyebrows, then closed the door behind her. She wasn’t doing anything bad, but she wasn’t in the mood to deal with Elessan questions. And — just in case — the radio was still on her hip. “Nak’ma Csindra Djaneki Shelash-Kekash aŋat-Morną aŋat-Tenton sho-shą, nevéne keb-Navòne Kesh’lashe. Nadab, vol’ròz ŋet shé. Shur’la.”
Definitely some recognition there, which meant she was right, and plenty of the people in here were Zurkanet’. She’d figured. Including, as she’d suspected, the shortstack kid sitting on the ground near the back, whose shoulders sank in relief even as she chewed on her lip in clear annoyance. And a little bit of guilt. How old are you, ten?
“Come on,” she added. “Work with me a bit here.” It didn’t help that nobody else was talking.
The folks in the room slowly started to turn their eyes to one corner — Kanetaz, Fuletcha, Tosaka, even a few Shufennese and Nguan mixed in, all slowly giving away the real leader in the group. Csindra followed their eyes to where the kid was sitting, then to the two tall, dark-skinned coachmen behind her. Even if the man of the two hadn’t still had his flared black box coat on, the tight jodhpurs and riding boots would probably have given away their station. The woman was the one catching Csindra’s attention, though; she was the most obviously restless in the room, only the more now that everyone else was putting her on the spot. She had one hand protectively on the wall just above the girl’s head, white shirt-sleeves rolled up to her elbows and short-cropped curls showing off glinting blue studs in her ears. Not just any servant, then. Especially not with the way she was taking glances out the window.
Then the woman raised her eyes and met Csindra’s gaze with a steady, even glare and Csindra tried — hard — not to blush. Finding women more butch than her didn’t happen often, especially not ones with shaved heads and silver earrings. “Do you want something, Djaneki?” she said.
Csindra swallowed, trying to focus. “Ah — what happened?”
“I’m hoping you can tell me that, actually,” she replied, voice smooth as silk.
She couldn’t quite help the wry, frustrated look she cast the woman’s way — and the Tosaka woman laughed in response, throwing her head back. “So you’re not just a soldier, you’re a new soldier.”
“I’m not a soldier at all, thank you very much. I’m—”
“A contractor, yes, I hear you the first time.”
Csindra switched into Tosaka, in the hope she’d have fewer people making fun of her. “A mercenary, when I’m not getting blackmailed.”
The woman’s eyebrows flew up a little at that — probably both at the language switch and the statement. “Blackmail? I always wondered what the army did to the túzàzhúánsēpya. I’d thought they executed them.”
Csindra tried not to rankle at the assumption that she was Advolk. Great. She got it from Elessans and other clanfolk. Túzàzhúánsēp meant freedom fighter. But she didn’t really have the patience to get into an argument with someone about the Advolk right now, especially not when she had ‘the Advolk are devils’ to deal with on the other end. “Trust me, if I was túzàzhúánsēp I’d have gotten something much worse. And I’m not selling out anybody else. Just fuckin’ myself over, really. So can you help me out or not?”
The woman gave her a steady, appraising gaze… then nodded in what Csindra took to be agreement and switched briefly back to Elessan. “Back to work. And keep your mouths shut.”
“But—” the man next to her tried to argue, but she cut him off with a gesture of her hand.
He subsided into slightly-embarrassed silence, and Csindra managed to keep a straight face as he headed out of the room with everyone else. She’d learned Tosaka as a kid, basically side-by-side with Kanet’valan and Elessan — later, Dani’i Feilim and Ze’an Feilim for Kestrel, which meant she knew more languages than even most other clanfolk. It was the one thing she had going for her when it came to book smarts, and it meant she knew when someone was being told to shut the hell up. More or less, anyway. Tosaka didn’t really have rudeness built into it beyond tone of voice, but it was amazing how well that worked when you knew how to use it.
Csindra stepped aside and leant against the wall, observing each of the servants as they moved past her — and logging how each of them looked at her. Mostly neutral, with a few more intrigued glances — and one or two dirty looks, but she expected that. Military was bad enough. A clanswoman working for the military in any capacity? Whoof. She’d thought about trying to explain that to Jacob, back when they’d been discussing it, but it felt silly to care that much — and she was half-blooded anyway, so doomed to be getting some variety of dirty looks one way or another.
Once the room was empty, she could see what it was more clearly; another study, smaller, this one probably for the steward or someone of similar rank. Certainly it wasn’t her study; if it was, the woman would have sat behind the desk or somewhere more comfortable than the windowsill. The girl had stayed behind, although why, Csindra couldn’t be sure.
“Zecka, it’s alright,” the woman tried to soothe her.
“I na leavin you with her,” the girl grumbled. “You say—”
“I know what I say. This is different.”
Zecka cast a dirty, distrusting look at Csindra, who was now struggling not to take it a little personally. At this rate, it seemed just as likely to be about being halfblooded as it was anything else. Zecka was clearly Zurkanet’ of some variety, although pinning down specific tribe on appearance alone was difficult, if not impossible; still, Csindra was pretty sure they didn’t share any actual tribal connection, not with Zecka’s hair like a thick cloud of dust twined into a ball at the base of her neck or the little tinge of Alkmeri accent lurking at the edges of her consonants. Shelash-Kekash had mostly gone along with the Etamara relocation, or managed to stay in Den Elessa before that; as far as Csindra knew, all of her kin out by Alkmer were distant cousins at best.
The woman, at least, seemed to be detecting some of the animosity. She folded one long leg over the other. “I am Angtaiki Kauti. Call me Zulang.”
Shit. She hadn’t mistaken the name Kaune earlier, then. She was going to kill Odette Riviere with her bare fucking hands. “Angtaiki. So Kaullo—”
“Kaullo my older brother, dòsāltúvòihò.” There wasn’t as much respect in her voice as I would have expected, rest in peace or not. “I suppose whatever vuh outside is the same thing that killed him.”
There were, Csindra thought with a suppressed shiver, a lot of ways to interpret that particular question. “Looks it.” It was a relief to feel herself falling back into the speech patterns of Nadjat slang instead of the ‘proper’ Elessan she had to use around Rook, she had to admit. “Not a lot of those around. You knew about her before I did.”
Zulang raised an eyebrow at she. Zecka, Csindra noted with a suppressed reaction of alarm, didn’t. “I notice the weather changing. At first I think, just a freak storm or something, but then…” She hesitated, then sighed. “Before Kaullo died, he tell me he feels like he’s being followed. He say he keep seeing mushrooms where they shouldn’t be. Brackets on alleyway walls. So when I start seeing them, I bring everybody up here.”
“And they listen to you.”
“Much to Jonathan’s displeasure, yes,” Zulang conceded with a small laugh.
“Jonathan Becker. He likes me fine even if he get sourpuss about it. And he know what he don’t know.”
Csindra nodded, taking that in. So the steward was a Becker, too — and one who bowed to clan knowledge when he needed to. She wondered if Odette knew about any of this, but she doubted it. It was probably just as important to Mr. Becker as it was to Zulang that everybody believe that Mr. Becker was unquestionably in charge. “…Odette — Miss Odette,” she corrected with a steam of silent hatred, “say she don’t know Kaullo. Know why?”
The reaction was immediate. Zulang’s smile faded, and her hand drifted — clearly almost by instinct — to Zecka’s head, stroking her hair with the same protective instinct as before. “No,” she said, in Tosaka again. From the annoyed look on Zecka’s face, Zecka didn’t know Tosaka; that worked just fine. “Kaullo worked here, with me and Kaune. We’ve been Riviere bondsmen since we were young.”
Csindra tried to swallow away the taste of disgust in her mouth. Bondsmen. Slavery with extra steps. Of course that had been mysteriously missing from the file. “Lovely. I suppose she was lying about the mob, too.”
“No. No, that’s — that much is true.” Zulang’s thumb brushed some dirt off of Zecka’s temple; Zecka was watching her face, clearly trying to intuit some of the meaning without asking. “National Security should keep their distance,” she said after a moment.
“I’m asking you from one clanswoman from another. Nothing good can come from the military sticking their noses into what the Rivieres are doing.”
Csindra was ready to ask what exactly Zulang wanted her to do about it — then caught the steely look in Zulang’s eyes. “You’ve got your own plans, I see. Can you handle an odjaken on your own?”
“Ah, well, no. But there must be a way for you to lead it away from here.”
Csindra closed her eyes, trying to suppress the migraine she was starting to feel. “You’re taking the whole odjaken thing rather lightly, don’t you think?”
“I know how to avoid their fury. And besides, I wouldn’t call this lightly.” She was keeping her face very still — but it occurred to Csindra just how much of it was to keep Zecka from panicking. Zecka had clearly caught the word odjaken — but that was all. “I don’t want her hurt.”
Csindra paused for a moment… then glanced at Zecka with dawning fury. Zecka, who she’d initially taken for nine or ten before revising that, assuming that she must be a little older. Scheffen had been circumspect, sure, but with that information, she was starting to suspect that Zecka wasn’t supposed to be here at all.
“Don’t do anything,” Zulang said after a moment. “Just… don’t correct Odette.”
Don’t correct Odette. Let Kaullo seem like a random casualty or a hire from the depths of the swamp somewhere. All to cover up the Riviere family’s crimes.
“Alright,” Csindra said, and felt the scars on her arms start stinging again. Apparently these days, just the memory of pain was enough.
I rewrote the Zulang/Csindra scene *so much*, christ. I’ll be posting some of the other versions if I still have them – this is one of the first chapters in a while that had a number of rewrites. The big thing, obviously, was how exactly to go about Zecka’s situation. The other one was navigating the – four? different languages at play in the scene!
Keep an eye out for the bonus Patreon post going more into the Tosaka used in this bit, but for everyone else: Tosaka is not related to the other clan languages (even distantly) even though there’s obviously loanwords and influence! The Sigaros language is closely related, but that’s all. As a result, it looks very different and functions as an agglutinative language; that is, all the grammar particles are stuck together, so you end up with almost whole sentences in words. “dòsāltúvòihò” is a great example of this – the tones show where the separate syllables/participles are for the most part (…yes, it’s tonal too.) and it breaks down into “dò-sāl-tú-vòi-h-ò”. Directly translated, this looks like “”he (previous statement)-sāl (rest)-tú (intransitive)-vòi (subjunctive – may/might)-h (present) -ò (third person)” or “May he rest). This is a set phrase in Tosaka, said after the name of a deceased relative or friend.
In terms of the dialect, I’m actually nervous about that. I’ve tried to strike a balance between understandability and non-caricature, and doing respect to the fact that pidgin languages and dialect are unfairly mocked and should be depicted as real, full languages. For that reason, the clan pidgin used here is explicitly inspired by several dialects worldwide, just like with a lot of my languages and dialects – it’s Elessan (transcribed, obviously, into English) but influenced by the grammar of the clan languages. For example, Kanet’valan (and Tosaka!) indicate tense after the verb itself, so clan pidgin often flattens tense and indicates it with separate words (“I know what I say” above – in context, it’s obvious that ‘say’ is past tense!) and Kanet’valan’s negative indicators (shev’ and kheb’/khib’/khibi) while having multiple forms, also function just fine thrown into a phrase at the appropriate place, so ‘na’ replaces it where necessary rather than struggling for the right version of ‘not/no/none/neither/etc.’