Seven years ago, alliterative magician Darius Liviu met a talking sword belt in the Great Souk of Rajad. Since then, he trained as a swordsman and now works as a mercenary guard. He picked up a few jobs with merchants who don’t mind the loquacious belt, but he is yet to find the work—or the employer—that gives his training and his life purpose. In truth, he’s not sure he shouldn’t just pack up and return to Greenstone. The impulsive, forward and insulting Efe Kadri, or at least his sister Aysun, just might have the answer, if Darius can survive life on the road with the king of Siya…
Story count: 10 245 words.
Content advisory: Efe has a moment of being a casually/unthinking transphobic (and ableist) arse, but he doesn’t get away with it. The belt is still the belt (a pushy, demanding, frustrating eldritch object that cares way too much about sex and will try anyone’s patience).
Note the first: This follows on from ‘Certain Eldritch Artefacts’ in my Crooked Words collection and takes place seven years before the beginning of The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March. The more I came to know Efe Kadri through Darius, the more I wanted to write about how the awkward Darius I first knew came to ride the worldroad with a king who abandoned his throne (and then came to be the harder man who returns to Greenstone). Since Efe and Aysun are so big in Darius’s world, it seemed absurd to not meet them, if only for a story here and there.
Note the second: The major literary problem with being an undiagnosed autistic was my tendency to write characters who are autistic with hindsight but aren’t written in such a way that their autism is acknowledged and centred. (How do you do that when you don’t know what you are?) Darius, more than anyone, is a character who should have been centrally autistic and isn’t. So I’m sure the reader will note the jarring dissonance between the approach in ‘Certain Eldritch Artefacts’, where Darius is just awkward and clumsy and odd, and the approach here, where Darius knows he’s autistic and more of his experiences unique to being so are written into how he experiences his world. That dissonance absolutely exists: the difference is that I now know who I am. Not to mention the fact that a world I created for the sole purpose of a single short story is now the home of a novel. Maybe someday I’ll rewrite it…
Similar people have the power and structure of society behind them, but March’s divergents are magicians: knowledge can’t be surrendered.
“You! You with the dark curls!”
Darius hesitates halfway through whispering the words “provisional paralysis” and narrowly misses copping a rattan blade to the gut. He wheels sideways and back just in time for the edge of his opponent’s blade to whip past his vest, lets the momentum pull him down to the floor of the arena and snags as much of the fine white sand as his right hand will hold. As far as he knew, the only people about in the cool of pre-dawn were his opponent, himself and the belt, and the belt knows better than to call out while Darius focuses on both not letting a rattan blade touch his skin and inventing ever-more disabling spells on the fly. Of course, Darius knows better than to let a shout distract him, but theory isn’t practice.
He lets the sand fly as he raises his own blade to meet a driving thrust that would have bruised him, and, when she jerks her head back from the flying sand, snakes her extended foot with his right ankle.
“You! Man with the dark curls! Come here a minute!”
She falls with a thump and a few curses, but Darius scrambles upright, sways to the left as he plants his foot just in time to keep from falling, and tosses his blade at her feet. She stares at him with livid green eyes, already rising, but she jerks her head in something likely meant to resemble a nod as she swipes her fingers over her eyes. He didn’t aim directly for her face, and the still air should have prevented too much injury from flying debris, but the viciousness of her hands suggests pain or anger. “Seems you’re wanted, mage.”
She doesn’t sound disappointed. Nobody much likes sparring with Darius. If he wields magic, nobody else considers it a fair fight. If he wields his clumsiness and a weapon, he cops the bruises he earnt in that moment and every bruise saved up for the awkward magician from Greenstone. If he wields clumsiness and a weapon and every non-magical trick he can conjure to avoid a magnificent loss, he finds nothing but bruises held in abeyance for his next defeat. Without magic, he doesn’t have skill enough to belong here; with magic, he has skill nobody can beat. If there’s a space in the middle free from derision, some acceptable balance of ability, he hasn’t found it, but Darius knows it no more exists than a tolerable talking sword.
“Magician.” Darius sighs. Even after seven years, he still dislikes Rajad’s tendency to shorten the word. He isn’t a mage. Words mean things. “Alliterative magician.”
She pulls a face.
Darius can’t think of anything to say or do, so he turns to trudge across the arena. Ward spell? Or better, perhaps, just to let her carry out her revenge? In the end, he allows the fine grains to rain down on his head and shoulders: while the sand annoys him, it doesn’t hurt him. He doesn’t expect watching him run his hands through his hair to shake it loose will make her feel better, but warding will only make her feel worse, and his yearmates’ unhappiness has a direct correlation to the number of bruises Darius will garner the next time he’s awake early and there’s nobody else around.
The pre-dawn quiet suits him best. No shouts, no clanging doors, no shining midday sun, no students layered in soaps and perfumes and the clinging hint of incense. Just the arena, the dry smell of the sand, the fading stars above as the cobalt sky lightens, the peace of only a single opponent, the rules inherent in training. No, the real world isn’t like that, and Darius knows that even if nobody else knows he does, but reality is why he likes the consistency of these precious mornings.
It’s an annoyance, therefore, to approach two figures standing by the main gate, just to the side of the stone walkway leading to the baths and the student quarters. A row of benches rest behind them, used by employers wishing to watch, and Darius wonders why they don’t seat themselves. A man and woman, he assumes by their dress. She wears a flowing red robe trimmed with sequins and gold braid and tiny embroidered leaves, upturned brown leather shoes and a filmy pink veil tied over her luscious black curls. Rings, set with pearl or amber, rest on every finger, and she holds the gem-encrusted leash of a lean brown sighthound in her right hand. He wears a long red tunic, decorated with the same braid and embroidery, over brown leggings and the same shoes, but while his hands are ringless, chunky gold hoops and amber-set studs pierce both ears. Brother and sister, Darius decides, perhaps even twins: they have the same thick black brows, the same square jaw and narrow nose, the same middling height, even the same short-cut beard. They’re both, in fact, rather attractive, although they stare at him with a focus that smacks more of the politeness discarded by rank than it does too-intense study.
He learnt, over the last year, that employers, especially employers of title, rank or name, have their own rules of social conduct, their own permission to eccentricity. If Darius stares too long and hard, he betrays divergence; if his employer does, it’s the employer’s tacit right to render Darius uncomfortable. It isn’t his world. Easier to rail against that in the College, but he’s spent the last eight years surrounded by all manner of people. Maybe others come by their survival in means other than quiet fatalism, but in that truth exists a strange peace. It just isn’t his world.
So be it.
Darius takes a careful sniff as he approaches. Sand and his own salt sweat, of course, but also sandalwood and a touch of cedar merging with a citrus blend of bergamot and lemon and some underlying hint of lavender. No scent is strong enough to make his head tighten—the last man to interview him drenched himself in neroli as if to display his impressive wealth, and Darius ended that miserable conversation merely by lying on the floor and announcing his dizziness to a most-offended merchant who promised to blacken Darius’s name from here to the Twinned Green—and he edges closer to the pair, relieved.
Neither bears any insignia, although it wouldn’t help him if they did. Just red and amber. Siya, maybe? Most of the continent’s amber comes from Siya, and while he can’t bring to mind the composition of the Siyan flag despite six years of learning these things, he’s fairly sure red features in some fashion. So. Merchant family, most like, or possessed of title so great they need not bother displaying it. Either way, they have him at a disadvantage, but since Darius has never known any family to play the game any other way, he doesn’t even bother sighing. He just waits until he approaches the gate and sweeps into a bow just deep enough for nobility. If someone takes offense at that, they’ll take offense at anything.
“I am Darius Liviu. To whom have I the honour of addressing?”
He practiced with the belt, at the belt’s insistence, until he had the art of saying as little as possible. Oddly enough, it works. He doesn’t have to fuss around with his own titles or guessing what degree of deference or explanation is required, and only the very highest of personages seem to take it askance that Darius seldom recognises enough of colour, cut and insignia to guess at a stranger’s identity or rank despite his training including such.
The woman looks at him with hawk eyes that don’t stray from his face. She smells of citrus and that faint suggestion of lavender underneath, possibly from her clothing, but also somewhat of dog.
Darius shifts his left hand behind his back and drums his fingers against the belt. He looks at the careful fingernail-sized golden leaves stitched into the collar of her robe, taps his fingers and waits for the torture to end.
Her low, quiet voice holds that careful melodic note that speaks of years of tutors. “You worked a spell on your opponent, did you not?”
“Before I was interrupted, yes.” Darius nods, and, when her brow creases just enough to tell him she wants more than acknowledgement, answers in full: “I am an alliterative magician, graduated from Greenstone.” His fingers drum faster. “I am not a great swordsman. I am a good magician. Which are you after?”
Slight warmth radiates from the belt, currently engaged in holding up Darius’s sand-smeared trousers, knife and coin pouch. There’s nothing wrong in admitting one’s flaws, the belt said at least once a week for the first three years of their acquaintance, as long as one doesn’t apologise for it. Even better if Darius can speak about his own skills as a statement of fact instead of waving a diploma around!
Darius isn’t so sure that he agrees, although he has to admit that, these days, he seldom gets cuffed about the head when he ventures into the marketplace. He doesn’t fall less: it’s a great deal easier, in fact, to face down a similar fighter, given that they all move with much the same rhythms, than it is to walk through the Great Souk, a being with its own unpredictable breath and heartbeat. Vendors, though, have become somewhat less inclined to argue. Age, he supposes. That and the sense of locality even a foreigner develops when he studies and trains here for years at a time. Vendors are far less likely to scream murder at regular customers than they are at strangers.
“You’re one of March’s boys, then?” The man’s voice is rougher, less careful. Both speak with a slight inflection Darius assumes to be Siyan-accented Orthodox.
For a moment, Darius blinks and wonders that anyone has ever heard of March. Other Rajadi magicians and witches seldom recognise the College, and it took Darius some time before the Master acknowledged him as a competent spellcrafter: something that seemed so big back home is tiny to the point of irrelevancy in the Eastern Confederacy. The man’s eyes, though, bring him up short. Honey brown, intent and no doubt sparkling or laughing for those with the soul of a similar poet, but drifting down Darius’s body whilst lingering in every place suggestive or evocative of desire. Neck, the subtle swell of chest, groin. There’s nothing subtle here: his gaze lingers long enough to make sure Darius marks it. Worse, as soon as Darius draws a breath, his lips curve into a smile.
Not again. Why does it never occur to them that they’re not the first one? That Darius hasn’t see this same thought cross the mind of several would-be employers?
“I trained under Professor Kit March, yes, although he hardly teaches only boys.” Darius folds his arms. “Top of my class. I specialise in eldritch artefacts and constructs.”
Before either responds, Darius meets the man’s eyes with as much intensity as he can bring to bear. He’s not good at it and doesn’t like it, but right now he doesn’t need to follow the mystical rules for the correct amount of contact that indicates the required degree of response or connection. Sometimes, a good stare beats anything he can say, and why should he care if this man feels in any way uncomfortable? If he wants a whore, sex bought and paid for, there’s a whole street of them a click away. Darius can even recommend a few. If he wants a lover, he can go about it in any way other than staring as though Darius is less a human man and more a side of lamb. Rajad might not concern itself with archaic limitations on the matter of who beds and weds whom, but it’s rude and insulting to just assume he is both available and interested.
Some people, he has learnt over the last few years, want the boy: a guardsman who can fight off enemies by day and warm the sheets at night for little extra cost. Convenient, but not for him. Most of these clients he refuses straight out of hand. They’re already getting a magician for the price of a swordsman, so why be a whore as well when they don’t truly want him at all?
They want, as near as Darius can tell, a face suiting some composition of attractiveness associated with their preferred gender, mere presence and spread legs, and for some reason they assume youthfulness in appearance means a willing or ignorant obedience.
People like this man, those who stare and want with crude obviousness, don’t want a man who only tolerates certain kinds of touch and touching that varies from occasion to occasion, who objects to the smell of certain soaps and perfumes, who can’t bear long embraces. They don’t want to be told that he can’t predict when he might switch from enjoying touch to finding it a torment and will walk away from the encounter the moment overwhelmment rears its head—but may not be able to communicate that need to stop in words that soften his abrupt retreat. They don’t want the inconsistency or the fact that even Darius himself often doesn’t know what he wants or what he can bear until he’s in the moment. They don’t want the complications of divergence. They just want the pretty, but the love—or sex—they envision never existed.
“I know the kinds of students March takes. The strange.” He flashes straight white teeth as his smile broadens, apparently not in the least deterred by Darius’s best attempt at a flat stare. “Luckily, I’m a man who likes my boys girly.”
He hisses, breath forced between clenched teeth, and he speaks without thought of any of the belt’s scripts or the fact his words spill from his lips with a rapidity that usually render them incomprehensible to the similar ear. “Excuse me? I’m not a boy. I’m not girly. I’m a man. Everything about me is owned by a man and, therefore, masculine. No more or less than anyone else. In fact, I am far too much a man to endure your lecherous stares and insulting words a moment longer, and, if it weren’t an insult to everyone who isn’t a man, I’d question whether your behaviour makes you one. The word you should use, also, is ‘divergent’, and I’d rather be a thousand kinds of strange than a lewd arse like you. Good day, and my condolences to your sibling.”
He turns on his heel, just manages to keep from falling and stalks across the arena knowing that he’ll have to go the long way to the baths. How dare he? Oh, it isn’t as though Darius hasn’t run into this before, either: there’s still some people, same people, who don’t understand the basics of gender. It doesn’t happen too often, thank shades, but the combination of ignorance and insult leaves him rattled. March’s boys! Never mind the women and people who left Greenstone as skilled magicians, magicians who are so much more than the strange creations of divergent gender or mind-type. Isn’t Rajad supposed to be the heart of the civilised world? Isn’t Siya?
Darius kicks up sand as he walks, and he only stops when he climbs over the arena fence and heads down the armoury walkway, relieved that his former opponent is nowhere to be seen. It’s still cool inside: the sun hasn’t risen anywhere near enough to warm the whitewashed walls. He scuffs his feet over the sandstone pavers instead, focusing on the drag of leather boot over the worn-smooth stone. Strange. He doesn’t which insult bothers him the worst!
“I thought he was quite handsome, boy, aside from the ignorance.”
Oh, for the love of sanity! Darius groans. “Handsome? Him?” Yes, he wasn’t bad looking, in the way bought and paid for by title, family and wealth, but who cares about trivialities like smooth skin and a nice smile when those lips speak such dreadful words? “Belt, have we not established that I’m no longer an innocent virgin who needs you to manage my sexual engagements? Have we not established that I wasn’t such when I met you and certainly haven’t been such in many years? In any case, even if I were, I have this thing, oh, maybe you’ve heard of it—pride?”
The belt lets out quite a loud metallic whistle. “You haven’t had sex in three months.”
The hallway, at this time of the morning, stands empty: the students will be rolling out of bed, but their path to the arena won’t take them past the armoury, so there’s nothing but the long hallway leading out to the inner courtyard and the bolted doors set off by the occasional guttering lamp. Sweepers will come through to trim wicks and refill the lamps—and sweep, because students and masters alike track sand everywhere—but it’s still too early.
It’s not that the school isn’t used to Darius and his talking belt.
It’s just that Darius doesn’t need to have eavesdroppers when the belt talks about personal and private matters in public spaces.
“Before you embark on your usual speech about sexuality in humans, boy,” the belt says, just as Darius opens his mouth to say as such and it’s ridiculous that they’re still talking as though sex means anything at all, “I will point out that you like both sex and romance, and you need to stop using the valid existence of a lack of desire for either as a reason to not have this conversation.”
Again, he hisses. Not asexual, no: just divergent, complicated and, at present, murderous! If murder applies to the destruction of a sapient object who may or may not be alive in any organic measure, of course. For some reason, he’s inclined to think it doesn’t, and he rather suspects that there’s no judge in the Eastern Confederacy who’ll convict him. Darius stops, leans against the cool stone wall, exhales. Sometimes he’s sure the belt pushes him as an object lesson; sometimes he’s sure the belt spent far too much time in the company of a certain kind of soldier to have any true understanding of the diversity of the human sexual experience. Most of the time, he rather suspects both.
The belt isn’t a gentle teacher. March and Amelia and Osprey taught with a patient gentleness—even the Professors Roxleigh, in their own frightening way. That gentleness, though, comes from knowing. They made a safe little world and taught their students how to both navigate that safe world and come to terms with themselves within it. They taught acceptance. Acceptance, though, doesn’t always help navigate the world outside; it didn’t help Darius walk through the Great Souk. That, he learnt from the belt—how to talk with, or more often to, similar people. The belt, unlike similar humans and other sapient entities, appears incapable of taking offense. It doesn’t demand anything from Darius. It doesn’t despair. It just repeats itself with a relentless and incomprehensible willingness to teach what it believes to be the optimum way of being human via the art of driving Darius to distraction.
“There is no way on this earth,” Darius says, his voice tight, “that I will bed someone just because you happen to think it’s been too long. Stop it. You offend me and I won’t continue this conversation.”
The belt, thank the dead for small mercies, merely lets loose with a low-pitched metallic hum, and while it knows Darius can’t bear that sound, it isn’t, at least, talking.
He groans and shakes his head. He could have returned home. Not Malvade, no, since there’s no way to avoid his family and Darius limits his contact with House Liviu to the odd letter, since he can always burn missives imploring him to come home and wed the newest pretty-and-wealthy personage his parents found for him. Greenstone. Of course, he’s not sure what he’d do there, other than work as a travelling magician or guardsman, so what’s the point of being here or there when he’s no longer a boy driven by a boy’s fanciful notion of love? Oh, there’s differences in language and food and culture and weather, but the work asked of him won’t be much different, so what does it matter which side of the Shearing Straits he calls home?
In a distant, abstract sort of way, he knows the child who ran away to Greenstone to become a magician resembled very little of the boy with a diploma who later left on a grand adventure that wasn’t so grand after all. In the same way, Darius knows the boy with a diploma who met a talking belt now resembles so very little of the man who spent the last seven years training and working in Rajad. He cringes to think back on that young, naïve, infatuated boy, and if a large portion of the time Darius wants to lock the belt in a chest and drop it into the ocean, the feeling that the belt saved him from both a monastery and returning to Greenstone to moon over March keeps him from actually doing so. The belt never said, but Darius came to suspect that the belt pushed him here so he’d do all the awkward things that make a boy fall out of love with someone unattainable: kiss a fellow student, sleep with another, have a conversation with a physician-magician about the best kind of contraception, creep back to one’s bunk in the early hours of the morning hoping nobody discovers where he spent the night, discover what he wants and needs, enunciate that to someone else, turn someone down, suffer the pain of being discarded. All the messy, human experiences, Darius thinks, that most students at the College learn … but he started at the College as a boy of seven, and it never occurred to him on graduation that he was too young to experience them then or that he even needed to in future.
He isn’t a boy waving his diploma about in the desperate bid to assert his manhood.
Where Darius goes from here, though, he doesn’t know—not that he’ll ever tell the belt. He has accommodation here at the school between jobs, even if few tolerate him. He has steady work enough, more due to alliteration than his mastery of any combat arts, that he can pick and choose his employers. If he’s lonely, that won’t change working in the Twinned Green, so what does it matter?
“Darius!” The cry sounds just as he reaches the door to the baths, and Darius sighs and turns. One of the school runners—the newly-admitted, just as he was, once—waves her arms as she bolts down the hallway. “Darius! The Master wants you—right now.” She gulps, but even Darius can figure from the set of her shoulders and her flickering eyes that this isn’t good. “There’s two sparkles in their office. They sounded … tense. I’m sorry.”
Shades. Nobles, then, infuriated that a mere foreign commoner talked plain and didn’t kiss their upturned shoes? Darius sighs. “Thank you. I’m coming.”
The girl nods and scampers down the hall.
Darius turns and, at a much slower pace, follows. There’s nothing he can do about this other than face the chorus, although he might have to catch a fast ship out of Rajad afterwards. It’s not as though he was insolent or vulgar, but Darius has too often experienced that others interpret unwanted, direct honesty as rudeness, especially when the target possesses wealth and name. Nothing to do but go, but he won’t stint in explaining just why he felt the need to correct an arrogant, lecherous, ignorant same man. This is Rajad, after all! Heart of the enlightened world! Its politicians and philosophers boast of the fact that any kind of person can walk the streets safe—not in the market, of course, where one is like to be assaulted by geese and the corners of tables, but everywhere else. Everywhere that aspires to be progressive follows in the wake of Rajad and Khaloun and Siya, the shining stars of the Eastern Confederacy. If Darius can be himself anywhere, it must be here, and some lewd, ignorant sparkle won’t take that away from him.
The belt says nothing but to hum.
“You must know,” he says as he turns into a fountained courtyard and cuts across it towards the Master’s rooms, walking past the water lilies with an ache of regret because Darius likes the smell of water and the gentle, subtle sweetness of the flower blooms, “that if you were so set on teaching me to be the kind of man that isn’t trampled on, that means teaching me to not let you trample me.”
The belt hums louder.
“Very well. You’re entitled to your feelings. However, I am going to have a second conversation with that arrogant arse, so I demand you do me the courtesy of shutting up.”
The belt keeps humming until the precise moment Darius raps on the Master’s door.
The Master, a small, lithe, slight person who looks barely strong enough to heft a sabre, can run a person through in a single breath and has given Darius too many bruises to count over the last seven years, sits behind their desk, their pale hands folded around a mug of coffee strong enough to leave Darius lightheaded. They have a name, a short Takeshyo name Darius hasn’t remembered despite seven years’ acquaintance, and they dress in plain, severe brown robes. Their straight black hair falls free of its hasty knot, their pale lips pressed together in bloodless lines: they look every inch of a person roused from their bed only to be faced with a complication that shouldn’t exist.
Darius knows well the Master’s dislike for complications. If not for the belt’s long history of possessing a number of famed warriors, heroes, adventurers and soldiers, they mightn’t have taken him on at all.
Then again, if not for the belt, neither would he be here.
Opposite her, and looking rather out of place in the Master’s plain room, a space marked only by a desk, three chairs, lamps and a shelf for books and scrolls filling the wall behind her, sit the two nobles. The lamplight—the one window faces west and the morning is too young for anything more than grey light to illumine the room, but six lamps hanging from wall brackets more than compensate—glitters oddly off the gold braid trimming the hems and sleeves of robe and tunic. Darius tries not to grimace or mourn a youth in which these bothered him so much less. He’s learnt to tolerate the cloying scent of the Master’s lamp oil, but flashing or glittering light too often leaves him feeling as though he’s only half inside his own head. His worst defeats most often came from noon sun reflecting off rippled steel, not his clumsiness: the fact that Darius can’t predict how and when he’ll fall is too often mitigated by the fact that his opponent can’t predict it either, but Darius knows better how to recover.
The sighthound sits on the floor beside the woman’s chair and rests its head on her knee.
“Darius.” The Master pauses only to sigh and glare at him with their hard brown eyes. He respects them: they’re strict but fair. Respect, though, even on either side, isn’t the same thing as like. “I take it you are acquaint with His Eternal Majesty, Efe Kadri?”
There aren’t enough named Liviu ancestors to express the depth of his surprise. Even Darius knows that name, knows it from books and conversations with merchants and mercenary guards: Efe and Aysun Kadri, twin claimants to—and some say twin holders of—the Eternal Throne of Siya.
Darius raises his left hand and tugs it through his black hair, too stunned to know what to say, knowing he’s better to keep his silence. Two minutes to run to his room. Ten to pack at most; he doesn’t tend to leave his things strewn about and he never bothered properly unpacking in the hope he wouldn’t have long between jobs. Maybe five, even. Half an hour to the harbour, but he’s spent most of the last seven years in Rajad, six of those here at the school. He knows the backways, and if the Master grants him a little kindness, they’ll send the guard after him and not their own fighters. He’ll need that time to grab his gear—money, at the very least—but he has a binding spell or two that should buy him that time. He may beat everyone to the docks, then, and if Darius can’t find a ship willing to take a magician, even a magician on the run, he’s a poor magician. With a little luck, he’ll be gone, and catching ship from Rajad—instead of taking a caravan overland to Khaloun and then sailing over the Shearing Straits to the Twinned Green or Malvade—should throw pursuers off his trail.
He reaches into the hole slit in the pocket of his trousers and pulls out a stub pencil. It’s small enough to hide in his hand, and Darius angles his so that no one but the Master can see him begin to write on the palm of his opposite hand.
They arch both fine brows but say nothing—in large part, Darius knows, because there’s only a few ways of restraining a magician from working magic, and all of them involve force or the element of surprise. The Master doesn’t like him, no, but they respect him and the spells lodged in his head, so they only sit, watch and wait while Darius pushes plumbago over copper skin.
“Excuse me.” The woman gently pushes the dog’s head from her knee and rises in a graceful swish of fabric and beads. “I’m Aysun Kadri. Efe’s sister and the current heir apparent. Pretend I wasted your time with all my titles.” She turns and pokes Efe Kadri in the shoulder. “Efe, don’t you have something you want to say to him?”
Efe scowls. His lips screw up into a forbidding, petulant, bearded glower that nonetheless looks as though he’s one word away from raining hell down on the poor soul who provoked said glare. “I only said I liked him.”
Aysun glances heavenward, just for a moment. “Gods save me from stubborn men.” She pokes Efe in the arm, this time, before turning to face Darius. “Darius Liviu, my brother apologises for his ignorant, insulting and thoughtless comments in the arena. Unfortunately, he isn’t man enough to admit this and do so himself. While I have no reasonable anticipation that you should listen to my offer, nonetheless accept it, will you do me this great kindness?”
The pencil stub spills out of Darius’s fingers and lands with a clatter onto the sandstone floor.
The Master raises their eyebrows but says nothing.
Stars shift in the sky while Darius stands there and tries to make his throat, tongue and lips work in concert enough to speak one single word. “Offer?”
“My brother,” and here Aysun sighs, “has got it in his head that his service to Siya isn’t best spent sitting the throne. It might be the one useful thought he’s had all his life, to be honest, as he has no mind for administration.” She pokes Efe again, just as he shoots her another dark glare—one that has absolutely no effect. “He doesn’t want to travel with nobles and guards and the other tiresome accoutrements of rank. No, he’s got the idea that he wants to travel incognito, with a single companion. I told him that I will allow this, as long as I have the choosing of the companion. He’ll pick some pretty thing that doesn’t have the courage or the sense to tell him when he’s being ridiculous. I want a companion that can protect him from both the world and himself, and a magician-swordsman seems ideal. If, of course, you’re willing to endure Efe.”
He takes a step backward, blinks, frowns. Nothing in all his life has prepared Darius for this moment, and that seems absurd. Why did no one during fourteen years of education ever go over what Darius should do when the forward sister of an arrogant king offers him a job guarding said king?
“Of course!” The belt’s tinny voice rises with every syllable. “I’d be honoured to—”
“Be quiet!” Darius wraps his right hand over the belt buckle and looks straight at Aysun. “My apologies, your Highness. I am owned by a talking sword belt who likes to think it can speak for me. One of the more unusual drawbacks of being a magician.”
In truth, the belt’s continued possession of him has nothing to do with Darius’s ability to alliterate on the spot, but he’s found over the years that people accept the belt more readily as something to do with magic and not a strange matter of adoption.
“He says yes! He’s been waiting for just this sort of opportunity! Yes!”
The only thing to do is the obvious: Darius unfastens the belt, removes his knife and purse, pulls the belt free of his trousers and tosses the damn thing out into the hallway. Nobody will take it—nobody will even touch it. Even the students here have heard enough of the belt to stay away! The belt hums again, so he closes the door, holding his gear in his left hand and his trousers in the right.
The Master is too used to the belt to bat an eye at this latest absurdity, but Efe and Aysun stare outright. Darius can’t blame them.
“A talking belt?” Efe’s eyebrows creep up his face. “I wonder what kind of uses a man might have for such a thing in—” He stops because Aysun sits back down and thumps him in the ribs with her elbow. “What was that for? What did I say? And can you remember for one moment, woman, that I am your king?”
Aysun looks across at Darius as if Efe said not a word. “I don’t see how an enchanted belt makes any difference,” she says, her words soft, her brows furrowed. She is, Darius thinks again, beautiful, and he swallows back sudden gut-wrenching envy, because in all his days yet to live he’ll never move or speak with her unconscious elegance. “May even be beneficial, I suppose. Regardless, should you wish to take this job, I’m offering twenty chips a week plus a mount and all expenses, deposited against your account here on a monthly basis. Your job is to protect Efe—to go with him into danger and to keep him from going to places too dangerous. You work from your evaluation of danger, not his. You must understand that I want a guard who’ll stand up to him, because Efe will be the more dangerous to you. Efe and I have agreed that should we find a candidate I deem suitable, said candidate will be granted the prerogative and the right to disregard protocol and law in matters of handling Efe. He won’t be allowed to prosecute you for doing the job I pay you for. Of course, if you abuse that I will chase you to the ends of the earth, but the references given you by the Master and your previous employers are excellent.”
She punctuates that speech with a cold, stiff smile and a stare so sharp Darius looks down at his hands to avoid it. Aysun might talk about Efe with something verging on frustrated disdain, but that stare wasn’t the expression of a woman avenging her king. No, Aysun Kadri, Efe’s sister, will rain hell down on anyone who hurts her brother, and she is by far the more dangerous one of the pair. The fact she’s here and Efe has little to say about it says everything an employee needs to know about their familial love.
Shades. It would have been easier if he were here to face the consequences of ticking off a king!
Darius takes another step backward and leans against the doorframe, too bewildered to think—and yet, somehow, he must figure his way through this, even though the shining lamplight, the oil, the coffee or the situation leaves his head spinning. Twenty chips a week? That’s not fair pay: that’s a bribe to ensure ongoing loyalty! Three months and he clears his remaining debt with the school, and if this lasts longer, he’ll have savings against wet seasons and injury. He’ll never have to take a job he doesn’t like. Of course, he must endure Efe Kadri, who looks annoyed by proceedings at best, and Darius might be a good target for that frustration. Aysun Kadri appears to be the power here, but she won’t accompany them wherever it is Efe wishes to go, and Darius … well, he’s Darius. Better with people than he used to be, perhaps, but hardly skilled in this. If he were, he wouldn’t have earnt seven years’ worth of bruises in the arena.
He closes his eyes for a moment. He can seldom picture anything but vague outlines in his mind, sometimes a disability even for an alliterative magician, but he can still see flickering, shining bolts of light regardless. Darius draws a breath, holds it, exhales for as long as he can. He can think about this. He has to. So. Does Darius want to work for an unspecified period of time having to fend off advances all the while? The ability to do so, not to the mention the fact he long-since prepared spells to dissuade anyone intent on physical assault, shouldn’t determine the requirement. No amount of money is worth that. Besides, what is this, really? A king playacting at the adventurer life? Guarding a merchant on the road to Khaloun seems a great deal more honest, never mind necessary. Riding around protecting a king who wants to play the fool seems more like the job of a nursemaid, not a mercenary guard.
There’s a question, then, and it’s one any good mercenary should ask.
“Your Majesty.” Darius opens his eyes and bows his head just enough for politeness. “May I ask—where are you going? What do you mean to do? Why are you travelling?”
Efe leans forwards in his chair, his knuckles white as they clasp the worn-smooth wooden arms. The heat in his words takes Darius entirely by surprise. “A certain Ashadi nobleman just over my eastern border has spent the last two seasons hiring minions and fortifying his keep.” His brows, great thick brows that only add to his sudden forbidding look, creep again towards his hairline. “He hasn’t crossed my border, and I doubt he will, but displaced villagers have. Villagers mourning the loss of their youths, seduced by the dark lord rhetoric.” His voice thickens as though he rests but a thought away from hawking in disgust. “But my Ashadi counterpart is a snivelling piece of camel shit who does nothing. I can’t do anything without provoking war. A single traveller, though, who just happens to be Siyan? Hardly the act of a king interfering in another sovereign state.” He stops, swallows and fists his broad, calloused right hand, his following words slow and sure. “I mean to kill this noble.”
Said so simply, so baldly, yet it holds a world of feeling.
Aysun just nods and strokes the head and ears of her sighthound, and her silence is the final punctuation on a claim Darius has no reason to doubt.
Another king will send an agent, a mercenary, an assassin, anyone but himself—but Aysun, Darius suspects, is more than king enough for Siya. Efe might better serve them all anywhere but the throne, but the simple possessive pride in his voice leaves Darius sure that Efe isn’t the kind of man to abdicate. So this, then. Aysun rules in his name and Efe lives the life he prefers, king and not-king all at once. Yet their honesty before the Master, despite their vows of confidentiality, suggests that Siya, and by extension Rajad and Khaloun and the rest of the Eastern Confederacy states, will accept Aysun as king without hesitation or concern. What kind of country, he wonders, possesses such certainty in its dealings with others that the king’s heir and sister can rule openly and confidently while the king himself vanishes?
“I’m not an assassin,” Darius murmurs. Oh, he’s been taught to go for the throat: a good warrior doesn’t seek to injure, maim or disable. A good warrior fights with an eye to his own life and that of his ward, and that means killing as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible. There’s a difference, though, between killing someone intent on taking him out with the same necessity and … whatever this might be.
Efe snorts. “His life is mine to take, not yours. You protect me.”
It isn’t quite an answer, but it might be all he gets. “And then?”
Efe’s laugh is dismissive and derisive, but Darius doesn’t think it cruel. “Do you need the list, man? The Phoenix Guard slaughters Siyan and Rajadi nationals in Laiphu. Mul Dura! Anywhere the world is in desperate want of someone to decide no more and make the problem go away instead of sitting around wringing hands and bemoaning the result. What good is money and title and leisure if not for that?”
Aysun’s brown eyes come to rest on Darius’s face, and her soft glance differs in nothing from the beseeching look cast upon her by her dog.
A wealthy, entitled, bored, frustrated idealist, meaning Aysun’s assessment of Efe’s danger to himself might be well understated—especially, Darius thinks, if Efe has little experience of the world lived by artisans and merchants and beggars and even dark lords. His hands speak of weapons well handled, but even Darius knows one can acquire callouses without ever threatening one’s life or health, and while Darius has seen more of the world than some, he is experienced enough to know he isn’t experienced enough. Yet … yet before he met the belt, he travelled the continent, reading and scribing, and found the world to be less dangerous than he assumed. Isn’t that what Efe needs to be safe, that kind of simple boyish innocence, up until the moment he draws the knife? Isn’t that something Darius can give him?
Shades, what is he doing? He can’t be thinking about this, can he? Good money, yes, but too big a job. This request is too big and too dangerous for any ward not a king, and Efe himself stands as why Darius should choose anything else, anything at all. Were Efe a merchant, Darius would refuse the work straight out of hand. How the hell is he supposed to put up with a man who strains against the reins in his sister’s firm hand?
Merchants, though, don’t come to Darius with a grand plan to be the knife that changes the world.
He has spent too damn long with the belt, because it isn’t right or rational that his heart says yes.
“You’re buying a swordsman and a magician. You’re not buying a whore, a consort, a lover or any variation thereupon. I demand to be treated with the same courtesy and respect you extend to any other same man.” Darius pauses, just long enough to draw a breath and mark the frantic chittering of his usual, sensible thoughts. “I am also not your groom, your cook, your masseur or your serviceman in general. You wish to travel as a working man, you do the same work as one. And we travel as a scribe and a magician, not soldiers. Soldiers draw attention to themselves. A good scribe or historian can go anywhere, unasked and unquestioned. I’ve done it. Will you do that?”
He should have thrown in a title, even a mere “my lord” to soothe his words, but if Darius will ride with Efe as anything but king and bodyguard, there’s no point in getting into the habit of a formality he’ll need to drop.
Efe’s smile, some tiny part of Darius thinks, is, sadly, rather appealing. “Do you know how attractive you are when—” He grunts at the first contact of elbow to ribs, and growls when Aysun, apparently for good measure, repeats her gesture. “Sister!”
On second thought, that smile is just annoying and Darius will tire of it well before long. “And this is the last time you comment on my perceived attractiveness. No comments, no flirting. Nothing.”
Efe’s eyelids flicker, and it occurs to Darius in one absurd moment that Efe doesn’t know what to say when it isn’t encased in a provocative compliment. Shades. He’s going to have to teach Efe how to be decent, isn’t he? Because this job isn’t difficult enough and Darius isn’t the worst possible person to do it! “And if I do?”
Darius glances at Aysun—she tilts her chin ever so slightly—and then looks straight at Efe’s face with all the intensity he can muster. It’s bluster, but he needs must merely speak as though it isn’t. That and hope. “I’ll stuff you in a chest and ship you back to Siya. Shall I show you the constraint spells I’d use?”
For a moment, a moment marred only by breath and dim shouting echoing from the arena, there’s nothing but the stare and the rising fear that Darius has no idea how to respond if Efe speaks—but Efe says nothing, and even that fear ebbs the longer Efe continues to hold his silence.
Darius exhales a long, slow breath, but he doesn’t look away and he doesn’t speak, not even when the lights blur his vision and his head sings, with increasing desperation, of the need to be supine on any nearby flat surface.
Efe might be a king, but his power resides in his sister’s capable hands. Darius is a magician. If they’re alone on the road, as soldiers or scribes, titles don’t mean much at all, but magic is power in all circumstances. The world doesn’t fear it as much as it once did, dismissing magic as fancy work, but that dismissal suits every thinking magician just fine. There’s a reason March takes in his divergent flock and teaches them the power—political, esoteric, personal and metaphysical—of language as opposed to medicine or science or the combat arts. It evens the odds. Similar people have the power and structure of society behind them, but March’s divergents are magicians: knowledge can’t be surrendered.
He left the College too young to appreciate that gift.
Maybe he needed to become something else to see it.
Efe’s gritted voice sounds, to Darius, as though he speaks through an extra set of teeth. “Darius, I … will not flirt with you.”
It isn’t an apology, but it might be as close as Efe ever gets.
“Thank you.” Darius nods. Shades. He’s doing this. Efe’s reluctant statement voids the last refusal he can conjure. “When are you thinking to begin? I’ll need to gather you a kit—I’m assuming, at least, if you write, your box is too fine for a travelling scribe.” He glances at Efe, tries to guess his size, gives it up as pointless. “Maybe you should come with me. I don’t have an eye for clothes.”
“Of course I write, man!” Efe scrunches up his face, but he speaks low enough that Darius suspects the indignation to be more token than not. “I’m not as idiotic as my dear sister thinks me. I brought two saddle geldings, a pack mule and the kit of a traveller. The horses are Siyan crosses—strong, hardy, not given to looks or fire, too common to be branded. The mule is the ugliest creature I ever did see. I have only a secret compartment in the skirt of my saddle holding signet ring and proclamation; all else is drab and worn and ordinary. All I need do is pack food and dress.”
For some reason, Darius can’t shake the idea that Efe Kadri means to prove himself to Darius, and that’s a notion so absurd he doesn’t know what to do with it. Still, Darius has learnt a great deal in the last year of guarding merchants, enough to shudder in hindsight at the naïveté of the boy that travelled the continent for a year chasing after a talking sword. “And your money?”
Efe frowns. “I thought to carry little and draw what I need.”
“Even under a false name, exchequers will notice a drab commoner withdrawing money.” Darius glances back at Aysun. “Maybe Siya cares nothing for which twin sits the throne, but someone in the world must think someone will care and attempt to leverage this. No. Carry little and earn the rest. Everyone thinks the boot is a safe place, which means it’s the first place robbers look, so put a few coins there to keep them looking elsewhere. Sew coins into the hem of your coat, shirt, trousers—coins worn thin by handling. Rajadi chips are best for this, and I never knew anyone to turn away Rajadi coin, even when it’s light. Sew chips into your horse’s saddlecloth, your swag. I never knew anyone to look twice at the saddlecloth if you sew the hem clean. Keep as much on your person as in your gear. Carry a wallet—again, a gold penny or two, to keep anyone from looking further, but mostly slag. Most of this, though, we hope not to touch. How good is your hand?”
“I thought you were supposed to protect me from robbers,” Efe says, and Darius thinks his words, based only on their short acquaintance, are unwontedly slow. For the first time, though, there’s no aggression or passion or bluster, just a deep frown and his left hand running over his beard. That small gesture makes Efe seem more the man and less the king—it is, after all, the sort of movement commonplace to Darius—and he shakes his head, struck by the absurd feeling that the world has turned, because here Darius stands in the role once held by leather.
He remembers being a boy with a quest, and even though Efe must be at least ten years older than the boy Darius was when he sought a sword, it’s hard not to look on him as that boy, passionate and driven, but so naïve. Should Darius have not quested, though? He never found a sword; he just discovered that he didn’t need one. What Efe will attain on his quest, Darius doesn’t know, other than thinking it won’t be something Efe will look to find, but he can’t argue against its necessity. Darius is less and less a dreamer with every passing day, but the world needs them nonetheless—and Efe, for all his coarseness, might give him back that feeling of stepping out into the world in search of something more than the survival writ in coin. A reason for being. Might that be worth the rest of it?
Darius doesn’t laugh. “And if in protecting you I am injured or killed and someone else seeks to take advantage of this? One man against ten or more? I’d think you’d rather we be prepared, yes?”
Aysun and Efe’s eyes meet in the long, considering glance of two people who know the other like they know their own skin.
Darius leans against the doorframe, takes the moment to shut his eyes and waits.
“And what about you? What do I need to know of you?”
Darius blinks his eyes open to find Efe staring at him. “Can you be more precise? I don’t know what you’re asking.”
Efe jerks his head. “You, man! You moved in the arena as though nothing bothered you; here you close your eyes and use the wall to hold you upright. You look too much or not enough. I’ve seen you almost fall. I know what March’s students are. What do I need to know?” He raises his left hand and gestures at the wall behind him. “What is it, here? The walls? The sound? Do you think I don’t need to know those moments when you are less?” He snorts, nostrils flaring, although even this sounds more like a grunt. “The danger isn’t when you know you’re less; the danger is when you won’t admit it. Tell me and have it done.”
He should have thought, Darius thinks, that Aysun Kadri’s brother couldn’t be anything less than blisteringly intelligent. He should have.
Darius tips his head back until it rests against the doorframe and lets his eyes droop closed. Should he? Dangerous to answer, but no employer asked before Efe, and that fact alone draws the words from Darius’s lips. “Strong smells. Shining or sparkling or glittering light. Sometimes merely distracting or uncomfortable. Sometimes, if it is long, headaches or dizziness. Sometimes, seizures.” He exhales for as long as he can. “I am clumsy. I fall and trip and misjudge space. I don’t like unexpected touch. I don’t know how to look at people correctly. I’m not good at casual talk. I can’t remember names or faces. I don’t eat spiced food. People like me less the longer they know me. And I created or memorised two hundred and nineteen different combat-useful spells, speak three vocal languages and one signed, write ten forms of script common to both sides of the Shearing Straits, sew, ride, fight, carve and make the best camp bread you’ll ever eat.”
It’s too much, he thinks as his gut knots and his forehead tightens. He should have left out the seizures, at least, for what king wants a bodyguard whose health can’t be relied upon? True, if Efe means to travel the world he would have found out sooner or later, but Darius should have held back—and why does he feel a sudden flood of sadness at the thought that he’s once again put his foot in it? He doesn’t even like Efe!
A deep grunt, for a moment, is all the response he gets—a grunt followed by the creak of a chair and heavy footsteps that come to a halt just in front of Darius.
“Look at me, Darius.”
Darius sighs and opens his eyes.
Efe holds out one broad brown hand, fingers pointed towards Darius, thumb raised. By luck or design, he positioned himself so the trim of his tunic reflects as little lamplight as might be possible. “Go pack your things and come back with us this morning. You do authorise Master Ayako to accept and hold payment on your behalf?”
The Master—it occurs to Darius that he forgot all about them—breaks into a tight smile. “That is our practice, yes.”
Efe raises his thick brows at him, though, and keeps staring until Darius nods.
“Then we shake.” Efe twitches the thumb of his outstretched hand. “A person’s hand in Malvade, I am told, is as good as their word. Is this expected enough for you?”
Wordlessly, Darius nods and takes Efe’s hand in his own. His grip is firm and tight, but not crushing.
Efe jerks their hands in a hearty shake, three times, before letting go and stepping backwards. “Then Aysun will lodge the papers while you pack. You can sign when you return, and then we will leave. If you are not able to do these things, you should say so.” Efe nods and turns towards Aysun, who pairs a small, quiet smile with wide eyes. “Woman, are you going to sit there and stare at me, or are you going to do your job?”
There’s nothing to do, Darius thinks in bewilderment, but leave. He slips into the hallway, shuts the door on Aysun’s scathing reply and sags against the closest wall, staring at the sandstone pavers underfoot while his skull tightens around his brain and his thoughts skip all over the place. Darius said yes. He’s going to ride out with a king, earn an obscene amount of money for so doing, yet find himself in dangers that are likely more than equal to that money. Efe didn’t blink an eye at Darius. Shades. He said yes. He said yes, because there’s a part of him that thinks he can do this. Efe said careless words in the arena but all the right ones in the Master’s study. He said yes.
Darius slides down the wall and lies down on the floor, eyes closed, just as the nausea spikes.
He reaches and snags the belt, buckle-first, in his right hand. “Do you want to stay here, belt?”
The belt’s voice rises to a pitch sharp enough to make Darius wince. “What?”
“Quieter, please? Do you want to stay here? Pick another awkward student?”
The belt, thank the dead, softens its tone. “What makes you say that?”
It seems obvious to Darius, but he takes a moment, while working his left hand over his forehead, to frame it. “Because … because I don’t want to claim your job done, but … well, I rather think I’ll be doing to Efe what you did to me. Likely with less humming and fewer instances of deliberate, provocative annoyance, because I’m not you, but I’ll find my own way to do it. You might feel that your presence is … irrelevant? There has to be someone here who needs you, as infuriating as you are, and while…” He stops, exhales. It doesn’t help. Nothing, Darius suspects, will make this easier, so he forges ahead regardless. “I like you, which is why I haven’t stuffed you in a wine jar and tossed you into the ocean, and I respect you, which is why I didn’t throw you into the fireplace to watch you burn, and I’m … grateful. I am, belt. I don’t know if you’re done, but I think I don’t need you, not anymore.”
The belt’s voice is almost inaudible and unwontedly gentle. “You never admitted you needed me at any point before now.”
Darius shrugs. “Children don’t admit they need their parents, either.”
The tinny, ringing laugh, albeit kept at a volume that almost doesn’t feel like a nail driven into Darius’s skull, blows away something strange. “I could stay here. I think, though, that I’ll find watching you wrangle Efe Kadri to be … most entertaining.” It laughs again, loud enough to echo. “Sorry. No. You’re still mine. Oh, Dar, I wouldn’t miss that for all the world!”
Somehow, that feels right and relaxing and annoying and frightening all at once. It is normal, though, one little piece of awkward normal in a world suddenly comprised of a road wending its way to Ashad and beyond, and maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. “Fine. But you make one comment about my bedding him and I’m finding the closest wine jar.”
“I don’t need to comment. Give it three weeks and he’ll be in your swag.”
“You’re going in the jar with the wine, you know.”
The belt, who gave Darius a thousand lectures on not making threats with which he’s not prepared to follow through, merely starts humming. It stops, just as Darius thinks about detouring via the kitchen the moment he can stand without retching and the Master’s door creaks open, wafting lamp oil, coffee and cedar-hinted sandalwood out into the hallway.
“I thought Aysun chose you under the misconception that you possessed sense?” Efe’s deep voice sounds nonetheless light enough that Darius thinks him more amused than angry. “Man, I told you to say so!”
“When I’m sure I won’t redecorate the floor, I’ll be fine.” Darius opens his eyes. “Upright, anyway.”
Efe grunts. He stands with his arms loosely crossed, his eyes angled just off to the side of Darius’s face. “If the world were ideal and you got to this point, what would you do?”
It’s a strange and wonderful thing to feel as though he’s not risking anything with his honesty. “Sleep. Sleep or lie down until my head settles. Takes a few hours, sometimes.”
“If you got to this point in your training and career,” Efe murmurs, his chin tilted off to the side, “then you are capable of doing what is necessary when the world isn’t, yes? Nor is there any point in doing what isn’t required when it isn’t.” He waits until Darius nods and slides down to sit beside Darius’s head, his back resting against the sandstone wall. “Ashad goes nowhere. Tell me when you wish to move. If you are able to talk, perhaps you might tell me how you ended up in the company of a mystical belt?” He pauses, but when Efe speaks again his words dither and demand all at once. “I … won’t speak of the way your hair curls about your neck. May I touch it?”
Death curse him, Darius thinks, just as the belt breaks into ringing laughter.