EPISODE 21: THE DROWNED BOOK

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Sevardin Harker. Solday, Aquarius 1st, 2345 AA. 10:03 AM. Arroyo (Glade Crest – Sev’s House).

Arroyo went all out for New Year’s. Every year, it hosted the Parade of Blooms and the Briar Bowl—a famous, college tackleball game held in an arena of the same name. Sevardin had seen both the parade and the big game a few times while training at the Athenaeum, and while he enjoyed the traditions for their own sake, it was the atmosphere they brought to the city that he found most appealing.

He opted to spend the New Year with Juel, Sala, and a handful of mutual friends, playing trivia games and drinking themselves dumb. But New Year’s was a day behind them now, the parade pavilions were already half-deconstructed, and the hangovers had faded. Sev’s phone woke him just after 10, ending his post-run nap a half hour later than he hoped. The caller ID read Delle.

They hadn’t spoken much since Live. Delle had to convalesce after her injuries for a full month. After that it was just hellos in the hallways, and one afternoon when they happened to get coffee in the break room at the same time. Sev had thought about reaching out to her more than once, but he didn’t want to overstep himself, professionally or personally.

“Hey there. Happy New Year,” he answered.

“Likewise,” Delle said. “You do anything fun?”

“Got together with my partner and some folks from our cohort on the 28th. Drank ‘til dawn. Slept it off on the day of.”

“Ugh. My head is still killing me,” Delle said.

“Damn! You must have gone all out.”

Delle scoffed.

“You’re what, twenty-three? Twenty-four? Shit gets less funny as you get older, Sev.”

“Mind over matter, Delle! You’ve just got to say young at heart.”

“Tell that to my liver,” she groused. “But while we’re on the subject, I was wondering if you’d care to grab a drink. You know. Shoot the shit. There’s some stuff I’d… well. I want to catch up in general, but there’s some stuff about Live that’s been bugging me.”

Sev was fully awake now. Time seemed to pass strangely in the months following the massacre. He had trouble remembering the details of the case that had totalized his life, forgotten moments of horror that he was sure would stick with him forever. As per protocol, he had seen an amagiate appointed analyst who assured him that such feelings were common; a natural blend of mental repression and urdic obfuscation intended to mitigate trauma. They gave him sleeping pills and an anti-depressant, but he hadn’t taken the former and noticed no difference with the later. But the world seemed both more and less real than it had when he was working on the task force.

“Yeah. Me too,” Sevardin said. “When is good?”

“You on duty?” Delle asked

“No. Back in the trenches tomorrow, but I’ve got an open schedule today.”

“Nice. Have you heard of The Drowned Book?” Delle asked.

“You mean like, the Dowland reference?” Sevardin asked, semi-facetiously.

“What?” Delle snorted.

“It’s a line from The Tempest. This warlock, Prosetro, talks about giving up his magic, and says he will ‘drown his book,’ ‘break his staff,’ and a bunch of other melodramatic shit.”

“Huh,” Delle said. “I had no idea. It’s a good spot in Old Town. Amagia bar. A Keeper’s wife started the place in the late twenties and now her son has taken over. I never realized the name was so cultured though. You either, for that matter.”

“I’ve been known to crack a book on occasion,” Sev said.

“Seven o’clock?” Delle asked.

“See you there.”

— Arroyo. 6:56PM. Old Town (The Drowned Book) —

The Drowned Book was small at first glance, a green and black façade with a wooden sign writ in craftsman script, hanging over the single door entrance. The interior was just large enough to accommodate three tables, a very small bar, and single-file traffic between them. But a staircase at the back of ground floor led to a colossal basement. This place is an iceberg.

The far wall was lined with an expansive, brass-railed bar, while the center of the floor was occupied with stools and four red-felt pool tables. A heavily pocked dart board was nestled beneath the staircase. The other walls were lined with intimate booths that could comfortably seat four to six people.

The place also had an extremely powerful Inherence. Most restaurants and bars were cloying with their hospitality, or affected affluence, or convenience. But upstairs, the Book’s energy was almost wary. A vibe warning prospective clients that it was not a refuge for everybody. But as Sev descended to the lower hall, he was welcomed with a wave of reverence and fraternity.

Its architecture was chiefly craftsman. Angular, polished hardwood. Black leather upholstery secured by steel studs that gleamed silver, reflecting keeper’s uniforms. Speakers and emanators murmured the sort of rock music that Sev savored; irreproachable classics ranging from the turn of the century to the late 30s. Yeah. I have a feeling I’m going to get along with this place famously.

The clientele was almost exclusively comprised of amagia—Keepers in particular—many still in their work robes, sleeves peeled back and jackets half or fully unbuttoned. Sev spotted Delle at one of the stools near the pool tables, dressed in comfortable asfalis clothing. Black denim jacket, light thigh hugging jeans, lavender blouse, and a violet silk scarf.

Sev took a surreptitious whiff of himself, hoping he hadn’t over-scented himself like Juel. He’d had no idea what to wear—no idea where he stood with Delle, outside of their professional relationship. He couldn’t deny that he was attracted to her, but her seniority, both in terms of age and hierarchy, intimidated him. In the end, he had settled on his favorite leather jacket, a dark-washed pair of boot-cut jeans, and a gray-blue striped button-up, untucked.

“May I buy you a drink?” He asked, approaching.

She looked up from her phone and smiled.

“Not yet. This place has certain… ‘proprieties’ that must be observed.” She hopped down from the stool and led Sev to the bar at the far wall of the basement from the stairs. “Even though the Book is definitely an Amagia bar, they will serve anybody anything, with the exception of bluebies. If you try to come in here while you’re still at the Athenaeum, they won’t pour you anything but water.”

“I’m an Officer Two now,” Sev said reproachfully. “Aren’t we passed the bluebie business yet?”

“I’m just letting you know the lore,” Delle chided. “The other custom is that COs and superiors introduce newcomers to the barman the first time they arrive. I buy you your first drink, and then you can run a tab as large as you like.”

“Works for me,” Sev said, smiling.

The crowd at the bar was fairly thin. A big man with a ruddy complexion and a red mutton-chopped mustache was polishing glassware. He had one of those hard-to-place faces, age-wise, that could range from mid-twenties to late thirties.

“I have a virgin for you Hodd,” Delle said, jerking a thumb at Sevardin. “Meet Sevardin Harker. Six months on the job and already an Officer Two.”

Hodd inclined his head, emanating respect and hospitality, followed by a curious frown.

“Surprised I haven’t seen you in before now,” he said.

“Yeah, well, Ashford’s his CO.” Delle said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway. Sev’s going places. He did good work on the bridge case, he had my back at Live, and I owe him big for that.”

Sev extended his hand to Hodd.

“A pleasure, boss,” Sevardin said.

“Hodd McGregor,” he said with a firm grip. “How are we starting, Delle?”

“I think two of your barrel-aged Old Fashioneds are the right way to kick things off,” she said.

“Coming up,” Hodd confirmed, and turned to the back bar.

The bartender poured a dark amber liquid from a small wooden cask into a shaker, added dashes from two different unlabeled vials of bitters, followed by two teaspoons of a dark syrup. He stirred the concoction with a practiced, almost meditative surety before dividing the contents of the shaker into two old fashioned glasses with perfectly clear globes of ice. Once finished, he garnished each drink with an orange peel wedge and brandied cherry skewered on metal tooth picks.

Sev enjoyed watching people work, especially when they went about their craft with care, and Hodd was clearly a master. After Hodd served the drinks, Delle and Sevardin raised them first to the barman, then clinked a small toast before taking the first sip.

The bourbon had a smokey, oaky quality in addition to more familiar flavors of caramel and spice. The syrup added a pleasing viscosity to the drink, and the bitters featured vanilla, cherry bark, notes of orange, and a darker flavor that was harder to place. Currant? Raisin? Whatever it was, the drink tasted like a dream.

“Oh,” Sevardin said, awed. “Thank you, sir.”

Hodd placed the tips of his fingers together gently and bowed his head with humility.

“Damn. Ashford’s really been holding out on me,” Sev said, as they made their way back to Delle’s high table.

“He burned a lot of bridges with some of the regulars. Yours truly included. Well,” Delle paused, reconsidering. “Technically, I was the one who lit the torch. But he soaked it in gasoline.”

Sev raised an eyebrow, having been cautioned about prying before. Delle snickered.

“I imagine you heard by know, but he was demoted when some evidence went missing following a bust. Even I don’t know the precise details—cash, drugs, or something else—but whatever it was, they never found it. They couldn’t prove that he was the one who took it either, but since it happened under his venture, he bore the brunt of the penalty.”

“I had heard,” Sevardin said truthfully, having overheard office gossip from Juel.  “From what I understand it was a hundred grand in cash. Man’s a prick, but I gotta be honest, he doesn’t seem like the type. When he isn’t playing by the book as it suits his convenience, he’s phoning it in. Putting in the bare minimum. All about the paycheck.”

“He’s always been an asshole, but he was different before. Cocky. Entitled. Delusions of invulnerability. Now he’s just switched to feeling sorry for himself. The only reason he toes the line now is because he got caught before and he knows there’s no coming back from the consequences next time.“

Sev sipped his drink and held his tongue a long moment before speaking up.

“If you’ll forgive the observation, I’m getting the sense that there was something a little more personal between you two as well.”

Delle took a deep breath and nodded.

“We fooled around once or twice. I was a stupid bluebie. He was a handsome, rising star. But anyway, after our… ‘liaison,’ he offered to recommend me for my Officer One promotion. Dumbest thing I ever said yes to—and I’ve said yes to some stupid shit. I earned that pin. But he was the type to brag, and after word got out, the story was that I was sleeping my way up the ladder. So when he asked me to act as a character witness for his little ‘mistake’ I advised him to find a dick and start suckin’.”

Sev chuckled, raised his glass and they toasted.

“Well. That’s more than enough about Adams. What did you want to talk about?” Sev asked.

Delle paused a moment, stirring her drink with the garnish pick.

“I’m retiring from the Force,” she said at last. “Aquarius will be my last month as a Keeper.”

Sev’s hand froze with his glass to his lips. He was grateful he had a chance to savor a few sips of the cocktail before she spoke up, because the revelation obliterated everything else from his head. Oh no. Don’t leave. You’re one of the good ones and God knows we need more like you. You do good work. We did good work together. I like to think we can do good work again. But he stayed his tongue, finished his sip, and set down his glass with nothing more than a tilt of his head sideways. He couldn’t think of anything witty, encouraging, or intelligent, so he spoke on autopilot instead:

“I am real sorry to hear that.”

Delle smiled and emanated gratitude.

“Part of me is sorry too. I worked hard for these,” she said, tapping her right license with her finger. “I worked hard at my job too, and I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. But I’ve also got a lot of life left to live and… I want more out of it. Different things out of it.”

“Are you switching Disciplines?” Sev asked.

“That was my first thought,” Delle said. “But after thinking it over… I’ve decided to go asfalis.”

Another chill arrested Sevardin for a second.

“Aren’t you going to miss magic?” Sev asked.

Delle nodded emphatically, looked at him like he was dumb for asking the question, and took a large sip of her drink before answering.

“Of course. I’ll probably have to attend a clinic for urdic withdrawal. But… what I saw at Live… I don’t need that in my life anymore, you know?” Delle said. “And when I thought about teaching people…” she sighed. “Instructing aspirant Keepers is the only other thing I could do. Can’t teach an old bitch new tricks like artificing, leximancy, or animathurgy this late in the game. I just don’t have the focus for study anymore. One run through the athenaeum was plenty.”

Sev took a sip of his drink and waited for her to continue.

“When I think about sending other people down this path… I can’t do it. I have enough blood on my hands. Asudo and Trinna died because of me. It feels like I pulled the trigger myself.”

“With respect Delle, that’s bullshit,” Sev said. “Nobody could have predicted that Dessen had an army of egregores. He deliberately omitted it from his manifesto. He set us up.”

“I still pulled them into it, Harker. If I hadn’t landed this case…”

“If you brushed the case under the rug like Boreman wanted, we never would have seen Samhain coming. Nobody would have been prepared for the attack on the festival. No telling how many lives you saved.”

Delle didn’t seem to hear him. She just shook her head, keeping her gaze lowered to the table.

“The fucked-up thing is… I don’t trust my memories. I see Asudo getting trampled by the centaur thing. I can hear Trinna crying out when the egregore bit her around the waist… but it doesn’t seem real. In my dreams, I…” Delle shook her head. “In my dreams, I see myself killing them. And it feels more real. More valid.”

Sevardin felt a hot wire tug in his head. He saw a quick series of flashes. The interior of the dimly lit Logistick Arena. Delle advancing on him, sword drawn. Dessen, laughing. Forsythe, with his hair white. Then it was all stricken from his brain. Nothing but a muted ache remained, paired with the maddening sensation of a fact flicking the tip of your tongue. He shook it off, and tried to comfort her.

“You risked your own life trying to protect them. Whatever happened; whatever you dream or remember, it wasn’t your fault.”

Delle nodded at him with a wan smile, appreciative but unconvinced.

“I’ve gone over Samhain in my head at least a thousand times. And I know trauma can distort your memories, but so much of it is just… blurry. Not just that night either. I feel like I’m forgetting other important things. I also have nightmares about the storage unit. Like we didn’t just find a journal, but a meat locker full of bodies…”

Sev took a long drink from his cocktail, barely tasting it. The same feelings had haunted him. Certain Keepers, especially those who saw extreme violence and trauma were frequently diagnosed with a sort of amnesia, thought to be induced by a combination of PTSD and magic use. It wasn’t the kind of thing they covered in the Athenaeum.

“Point is, I don’t want to put somebody else on this path. Not when I don’t feel fit to walk it myself anymore.”

“What do you mean by ‘fit?’ You’re an excellent detective, Delle! You did everything you could to save as many people as you could—”

“And we have forty dead people to show for it!” she said sharply.

Sev raised a hand in concession and emanated a muted apology.

“But ‘fit’ is the wrong word I guess,” Delle conceded. “Sure, I can do the job. But I honestly don’t want to do it anymore.” Sev had no idea how to take that, so he continued to let her vent:

“Trinna was engaged. Supposed to marry her girlfriend this spring. They wanted to adopt.” Delle shook her head again. “And Asudo? He never once struck me as happy. I mean, it got to the point where I called him out on it. He explained that he was living for a better future. He planned to work until forty, when he had a grade four, or ideally, grade five pension. After that? He was going to spend the rest of his life traveling. He lived his whole life, saved people and served people and worked his ass off for a future that he never got to enjoy. And… In certain respects? I realize I’m worse off than both of them.”

Sev furrowed his brow.

“How?”

“They were working towards things outside of work. Me? I’ve been pretending to be twenty-five for over a decade now. Fun car. Nice home. Late nights with lots of booze. Sure, I’ve considered advancing in the Force, but it’s always in the abstract. Like, ‘yeah I guess I could hit Commander if I really work for it.’ But do you think I give a fuck about shaping politics and policy?” Delle snorted. “A desk job would be a fate worse than death for me.”

“What do you want?” Sev asked.

Delle pursed her lips, and shook her head.

“That’s the thing. I don’t know yet. I haven’t given myself the opportunity to find out. So that’s my first priority. Finding a reason to actually live beyond exercising my death drive. Like, that’s it really. I wanted to be a hard-drinking, devil-may-care crusader against evil, like my daddy before me. But my mother left him a year younger than I am now, and he died alone and bitter at fifty-two. I mistook his sob story for martyrdom. But after seeing what happened to my partners… Living like that just seems offensive now. We get one life, and I should try to do more with mine, for my own sake.”

Sev digested Delle’s words. Of all the things he thought they might discuss, this wasn’t even on the periphery of his radar. And it’s way beyond my realm of experience. Part of it struck him as selfish, but—

“Does that seem selfish?” Delle asked, possibly sensing something in his subconscious emanations.

Sev blushed and shrugged.

“That was my first thought,” he admitted. “But that judgment itself is selfish coming from me. You aren’t wrong. Nobody deserves to feel guilty for surviving. Nobody should die without feeling some measure of fulfilment. And if this isn’t giving it to you… Yeah. It’s time to find something else.”

Delle smiled, emanating tremendous relief.

“I was worried you’d try to talk me out of it. And I was terrified that if you did, you’d be right.”

Sev held his composure, but doubt kicked him in the groin. Maybe I should. You’re a good detective, Delle. This job fucks with your head—it’s the nature of the beast—but you can take it better than most. A rebuttal came almost immediately though. But why should she have to? And who am I, a dumb kid fresh to the game, to judge her?

“So. What are you gonna do?”

“Well, now that I’ve made Detective Three and have fifteen years of service, I’m at Pension three. Not enough to comfortably retire in California, but enough to supplement whatever else I decide to do? So I was thinking I’d try playing at an Asfalis PI.”

Sev tried to hide his surprise and failed. Delle laughed and Sev did too.

“Gotta admit, that’s not what I would have guessed,” Sev confessed.

“Well, here’s my rationale. First of all, pulling strings is what I’m good at. Novels aside, most PI work is suspicious spouses and insurance fraud. If there was a way to specialize, I’d focus on missing persons. But I figure a bit of generalist work wouldn’t be bad for building a reputation, and it’s safer than chasing murderers and monsters.”

“Could also give you some stories to tell,” Sev said, nodding.

“Yeah! And that’s actually something I had been flirting with too. My opus is writing. Like, the act of putting pen to paper, though what I write doesn’t really matter. Or at least, I haven’t let it matter to me because I’m afraid of getting invested in it. But now I’m thinking, maybe I have something worth saying.”

“I’ll be the first to buy an autographed copy of whatever you put out,” Sev said grinning.

Delle smiled, then shifted gears.

“Care for a refill?”

“Next round is on me,” Sev insisted. “Want another of the same or something different?”

“The same, please,” Delle said.

Sevardin gave her a two fingered salute and walked back to the bar.

“Drink to your liking?” Hodd asked as he approached.

“It was exquisite. You’re a craftsman. We’d like two more.”

Hodd inclined his head humbly and emanated gratitude. Refilled, Sev returned to the stool to find Delle standing at one of the unoccupied pool tables, upholstered in red felt. She held two pool cues and wore a haughty smirk.

“Have you ever played Fallaciter?” she asked.

“Once or twice,” Sev said.

Sev was familiar with the game, though he had only played it a handful of times, late in his teenage years at the Athenaeum. Fallaciter was a popular variant of pool that played similarly to a normal game of solids and stripes. The shooter was not permitted to use their wyrd when making a shot, but their opponent—titled the fallaciter, joker, or fucker—could use kinetic sorcery to move one of their balls across the table after the cue broke contact with the striking ball. The fallaciter was not permitted to guide their own balls into a pocket using sorcery alone—doing so deliberately or accidentally resulted in instant defeat—but they could use their ball to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way, or intercept the striking ball, and get an opponent to sink balls for you.

Delle sank a stripe from the first break.

“What about you? How are you holding up?” she asked.

Sev opened his mouth and then shrugged away whatever he would have said.

“Life has certainly been a lot less interesting since we stopped working together. Juel just made Officer One though, and our combined promotions pushed Ashford back up to Detective One. So as of this week, we are working in a detective venture.”

Delle raised her glass in a toast, and Sevardin responded in kind.

Truth be told, Sev had mixed feelings about his own recent promotion to Officer Two. Every time he saw the rank pins on his uniform collar, he felt a twinge of guilt. Or possibly imposter syndrome.

It wasn’t uncommon for Keepers to jump ranks in a single promotion, though such leaps were less common earlier in an officer’s career. Ashford offered his characteristically curt congratulations, while Juel was genuinely happy for him, but Sev could tell his pride was wounded. What did I really do to deserve this? Reviewed some security footage? Helped Delle talk to Attisha? Panicked with the rest of us when the world came crashing down around us? In recognition of his voluntary-but-retroactively-sanctioned role in the Samhain Massacre, he had been promoted for providing “crucial insights and assistance” that brought resolution to the case.

The recommendation for his promotion had come from Edryr Forsythe, whom Sevardin could remember very little about, save for the fact that he mostly played the role of a task force coordinator, and his odd eccentricities—the white bow in his black mane of hair, and his cross-shaped stave. I’m surprised I made much of an impression on him. His involvement as a Special Agent was always something of an anomaly; while Dessen had become dangerously skilled at domination magic, cracking licenses, and commanding egregores, neither he nor any member of his cult had done anything to warrant inter-state attention.

Delle lined up another shot and sank a ball in the corner pocket, but Sev fired one of his own balls after her striker, causing her to scratch and setting himself up nicely for his own turn. They weren’t terribly good at the game, but they employed amusing strategies and went for difficult, long-odd shots which made for a fun, lively match.

“When it comes to Samhaim, I feel the same as you,” Sev said. “It’s like we only have half the story on this case. Even though we were on the frontlines, I never understood why Special Affairs got involved. And if the press ever learns that we knew about the terror threat at the festival, and that we let it happen anyway just to catch Desssen… They will rightly crucify us.”

The Keeping Force was forbidden from releasing operational details of recent cases to the press. It was, in Sev’s opinion, the ugliest part of Amagiate governance. And it made him seethe. He remembered arguing with Forsythe, though again, the details were indistinct; the explanations he recalled were highly technical and unsatisfactory. Delle frowned as she took her next shot.

“That’s a big part of why I don’t want to be a member of the Force anymore.”

There was a long lull in the conversation as they enjoyed their drinks and finished the game. Once again, Sev was able to actually appreciate the flavor after that first sip. That flavor is definitely raisin. Never would have thought to add it with those other flavors. Hodd knows his stuff.

Delle had an excellent run and started to wipe the table with Sev, but when it came time to sink the eight ball, Sev used the same scratch trick he had at the beginning of the match, resulting in her defeat.

“This motherfucker,” Delle said, with faux disgust. “Can’t believe I fell for that.”

“All’s fair in love, war, and Fallaciter,” Sev smiled.

Delle insisted on buying another round of drinks as retroactive stakes for their game, and they retreated to the small, two-stool table where they started the evening. The bar was filling up now, and they were happy to relinquish their spots to people who actually knew what they were doing.

“So,” Sev asked. “Have you told anybody yet? About your decision?”

Delle sighed and shook her head.

“I mean. I talked it over with my family, but you’re the first person I’ve told on the Force. I have other friends at work, but… I dunno. Even though I’ve been promoted, I haven’t been assigned a new venture yet. In a lot of ways, you seem wiser than most of my superiors and cohort. Hell, you have a better head on your shoulders than I do. Honestly, of all the people in the AKF, I think I’m going to miss you the most.”

Her cheeks pinkened slightly as she said the last, and a thrum of energy flared through Sev body. Is this what I think it is? And if it is, should I go for it?

“No need for this to be goodbye,” Sev said. “In fact, some relationships can be better without work in the way.” He tried to sound smooth, or at the very least casual, but his emanations faltered. Christ, my voice may as well have cracked.

Delle seemed charmed though. She arched an eyebrow and leaned on her left hand, smiling wickedly.

“Do you like older women, Sev?”

His heart beat so hard he could feel it in his teeth. Things are getting extremely real, extremely quickly.

“I like to think of myself as a discerning gentleman,” Sev said. “But age has never been a major factor for me.”

“Really,” Delle said, amused to watch him squirm. “What are the major factors?”

Sev tilted his head from side to side in exaggerated consideration.

“Integrity. Intelligence. Good taste,” Sev said, swirling the globe of ice in his glass for emphasis. “A nice car doesn’t hurt either.”

Delle went from pink to red.

“Physically, though. What’s your type? A dashing young officer like you can afford to be picky.”

“There are too many kinds of beauty to get hung up on specific fetishes,” Sev said, waving away the question. “I can appreciate make-up and perfume, but I don’t care for women who routinely hide behind it. I respect women who aren’t afraid to be as messy as the men around them. Really, more than anything, I’m attracted to confidence.”

“Even if it comes with crows’ feet, scars, and stretch marks?”

Sev shrugged dismissively.

“Marks of experience. Paired with poise, I think a woman like that could be very instructive. And I am always eager to learn.”

Delle drew her head back haughtily.

“Older women don’t have time to waste training little boys, Sev.”

“I’m pretty sure I could show an older woman a thing or two myself, Delle.” Sev grinned, then added slyly: “Provided she can keep up.”

Delle bit her lip.

“Do you want to get out of here?” She asked.

Sev finished his drink and leaned across the table conspiratorially.

“That depends. Are you coming with me?”

Delle grinned hungrily. They settled their tab, ascended the staircase, and walked into the welcome chill of an early Aquarius night. What followed was an educational evening indeed.

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