Tes Alden, collector of words, rescuer of books and counter of objects, knows ze isn’t like everyone else. This wouldn’t be such a problem if everybody else didn’t struggle with it. Hir mother prays a run-down school in the middle of nowhere may be the best place to stow hir brand of peculiarity, and Tes has nowhere better to go.
Darius Liviu lost a limb and his lover in the hell of Mul Dura. He spent the last three months as a guest of the Greensward, crafting a jointed hand from elf-sung wood and trying to ignore the mutterings of the ghost that haunts him. Now, he returns to the College to take up the second-most dangerous job open to a magician: teaching.
Tes just might be a magician in the making, if ze can survive adventures in alliterative magic and hir own lethal curiosity. Darius, though, keeps a secret that makes the usual problems of overgrown rhubarb, basilisk hordes, verbose eldritch objects, shrieking purple monkeys and cauliflower explosions look like nothing at all.
The elves are coming, and nobody fears elves more than Kit March.
Welcome: Tes Alden arrives at a school impaled by giant rhubarb, faces the bacon test and finds an ally in the College’s headmaster.
Chapter count: 7, 400 words
Content advisory: Tes’s allistic (non-autistic) mother repeatedly dismisses her adult offspring’s stims and movements and responses as childish behaviour. “Hands down” is this universe’s equivalent of the dreaded “quiet hands”. General autism-specific ableism. Shutdown/quasi-verbal moment. Use of the word “normal” to describe allistic people (on account of autistic narrator’s present lack of language).
Note the first: I want genre stories about autistic queer and trans (especially trans) adults. (Surprise, surprise, it’s hard to find this outside of fanfiction and internet-form writing.) While all my novels feature autistic trans protagonists with the benefit of hindsight, they need rewriting to make this purposeful, not accidental. So I’m writing this in order that something exists in the interim. It will be far from polished and it’ll suffer all the plot holes and editing failures of a serial work written on the fly, I’m sure, but it’ll exist. Right now, I believe representation to be more important than perfection. So I’m writing a horde of autistic, trans characters travelling different paths in adulthood, just to make my heart happy.
Note the second: The College, March and Darius, among other characters we later meet, are featured or referenced in my Crooked Words short stories ‘Certain Eldritch Artefacts’ and ‘Old-Fashioned’, set in the same universe, but I don’t think they’re required reading at this point.
Magic rests in the space between what you are and what you should be, if you’re willing to look at the should and dismiss it to the dark where it belongs.
“Will you put your hands down?” Ma scowls, reaches sideways and yanks Tes’s fingers away from hir shirt buttons. Frustration edges her words every time she talks at Tes—ze hears it in the shortness of her voice and the soft sigh that punctuates every sentence, the sigh that says I want you to know how much you hurt me but I’ll never put it into actual words. Now they’re sharper, crueller. “If you act strange they won’t take you, and then where will we be?”
Her last simple words, Tes decides, betray nothing short of desperation.
They seem to think ze doesn’t notice things like that.
“We’ll be in the same place we are now,” ze says, letting hir hands fall down by hir sides because swinging hir arms as ze walks is acceptable, if ze takes care to keep hir movements small. Tes knows even as ze speaks, though, that hir words are both true and unwanted, because it is a strange point of fact that nobody in hir family cares for the truth. “We’ll just have to walk home.”
What changes if Ma has to walk home anyway?
“Yes!” Ma’s voice rises in pitch. She walks faster now, bustling down the drive. She doesn’t trip despite the uneven cobblestones or the weeds forcing themselves up through cracks—mostly great clumps of sourgrass, the yellow flowers blazing under the weak spring sunshine. Her large booted feet are sure and steady. “You’ll be where you are now. Doing nothing. What am I supposed to do about that? How am I supposed to look after everyone?”
Nothing? Tes presses hir lips together, but there’s no point in saying, again, words that made no difference the first time. Ze helped hir oldest younger sister with sewing the sheets, dresses, cloths, slips and curtains required for her trousseau, because Tes is good with a needle even though ze can’t walk without stumbling. Ze went out of hir way to be indispensable to Anise in the hope that when she marries in the summer, she’ll take Tes with her. Lesley built a house in the apple orchard on her plot a click out from town, a house big enough for two married women and Tes. Ze would have been useful to Anise and Lesley, and the orchard would have been quiet. A click away from Ma.
Ze sewed all winter long before ze got up the courage to ask.
Just thinking about the horror and surprise in Anise’s voice makes hir stomach turn.
So Tes walked with Ma for two and a half days down roads beside paddocks of green wheat and gambolling lambs, pondering hir options. Schools have books. Libraries. Chances are high ze’ll have access to far more books than ever imagined by the inhabitants of Flay’s End. Ze’ll also be more than a mere click away from Ma. A school, though. Tes never managed all that well in the village school, a seat under the great oak with fifteen other children ze knew all hir life. It doesn’t matter that Ma says the students will be older, adults: the adults of Flay’s End—the adults of the Wald, in fact—didn’t treat hir any better than the children under the oak. Why should anyone at this school, strangers all, be any different?
The easiest decision is to go with Ma, stay at the school for a week or so—long enough for Ma to return home, long enough for Ma to receive a letter reassuring her of Tes’s happiness—and then run for the hills in search of a lonely cave close to running water and fruit trees.
Magicians, as useless as they seem, might be able to follow hir.
Ze doesn’t know. Ze just doesn’t know.
Tes scrambles after Ma, willing hirself not to whine about the weight of hir pack cutting into hir shoulders, until they reach a second set of wired-back, rusting gates framed on either side by a blistering white post-and-rail fence. An iron arch frames the gateway, but the sign hanging from the right-hand fence post reads, in faded print, College of Magickery. Underneath, smaller print on a smaller sign reads Headmaster Kit March, and underneath that, on a jagged-edged piece of planking nailed to the bottommost rung and almost hidden by grass, clover and sourgrass blooms, someone scratched the words, No assassins, no elves, no dictionaries. Please bring bacon.
Tes stops, frowns, reads the sign again. Ze isn’t an assassin, ze isn’t an elf and ze doesn’t have a dictionary on account of nobody in the town of Flay’s End having much interest in correct spelling, so ze fills those requirements without difficulty. It never occurred to hir, though, to dash to the kitchen and grab a rasher of bacon from the cold shelf before swinging hir overstuffed pack on hir shoulders. Anise said that the teachers will feed Tes at school, so ze packed hir slate and as many chalk ends as ze could find before Ma stood over hir bed, pulled out the chalk and forced hir to pack stockings and underclothes. Ze also packed, once Ma deemed the job done and Tes filled hir skirt pockets with the chalk, Trader Edward’s battered copy of A Treatise in Unnatural Philosophy, since he only used the book as a doorstop. It’s not as though Tes didn’t do the right thing of leaving a heavy, clean river stone in its place. Ze isn’t a thief. Ze spent three hours polishing the stone until it gleamed. Bacon, though? Did Ma remember?
“Did we bring bacon? I didn’t know I had to bring bacon to school!”
“What?” Ma stops, turns, sighs once and then sighs again, likely on the basis that Tes isn’t going to notice the first sigh. She seems tired, her skirts layered with dust, her arms folded across her chest in the sure herald of looming frustration. She looks gentle in rare moments of sleep or happiness, with her greying red curls and sun-lined face, but most of the time she looks stubborn and fearsome. Her hard green eyes cut through Tes no matter how hard ze tries to look elsewhere. “Stop delaying, Tes!”
Ze points at the splintering plank. “The sign says we’re supposed to bring bacon.”
Ma plants her hands on her hips. Her eyes rest on the sequence of signs for long enough, Tes judges, to see maybe the first line, possibly the second. They shift to land on Tes’s face, and ze looks down at hir feet only to hear Ma sigh her loudest exhale yet. “Tes. It’s an old sign. Some student probably did it for a joke. Will you stop idling?”
Will you stop idling? Will you stop fidgeting? Will you stop arguing?
Ze hears those questions, sometimes, in hir dreams.
They didn’t bring bacon, ze thinks as Ma walks on and ze staggers along behind her. They didn’t bring bacon. The school lies just ahead, so they won’t have time to buy any. Ze has five sets of underthings, six pairs of stockings, a yellow dress, a blue skirt, one pair of brown boots, two blouses in red and green, a slate, two needles, three spools of thread, five books, a brown cloak, the pack, a hairbrush, flannel and soap, a bag of scrap cloth, two pockets full of chalk bits, the silver penny ze found in the street under Tailor Rona’s doorstep and Anise’s old rag doll with the beetle buttons for eyes. No bacon. Ze doesn’t know how Ma plans to talk the school into taking hir, since Tes snuck the letter out of Ma’s pack while she slept and it said only pleased to interview, but if the sign says bring bacon, surely politeness means arriving having followed that basic instruction?
Ze reaches up and slides hir topmost button—plain brown wood, not matching the red-painted wood buttons below—in and out of the buttonhole.
Ma doesn’t want hir. Anise and Lesley don’t want hir. Hir siblings don’t want hir. Teacher Mary, even though Tes knows books, doesn’t want Tes to help her. Shopkeeper Harriet doesn’t want Tes to even fetch and carry. Farmer Nessa refuses to let Tes anywhere near her horses. How will the school want hir if ze shows up without bacon?
“Tes! Will you stop fidgeting?” Ma pauses. This time her voice has the expectant note of a storyteller about to describe some fantastical Khaloun palace or an elfish princess, even though Tes knows that Teacher Mary never left Flay’s End and only knows what things look like from books. Expectation, but Tes knows it as distraction. “Look! There’s the school!”
Adults use this voice on small children, and Tes isn’t a child.
Ze drops hir hands and looks up. A rickety three-storey winged mansion, the slate roof sagging in the middle, with strange turreted towers on either end, rises out of a dip in the grass. For some reason, an array of bright purple winged gargoyles perch on the roof. Statues dot the lawns, mostly a sea of green and yellow as sourgrass heads bob in the breeze, although shrubs, blackberry brambles and tall dandelions reaching up to the ground-floor windows surround the house itself. The only things not entirely overgrown are the road and the flight of steps leading up to the main doors: everything else is a strange conglomeration of battered, chipped, peeling, weed-infested or broken, although Tes can’t imagine why someone covered a window with boards they first painted bright pink.
“It needs a carpenter,” Tes says.
“I’m sure it’s perfectly nice inside, Tes.”
Ze looks back at the school, just to double-check, but everything Tes knows about both houses and people labels this another case of people discarding the truth because they don’t want or like it. How hir family can decide what is and isn’t real like that baffles hir, but Tes is no closer to understanding it now than ever. “There’s a tree growing through the roof on the right-hand side.”
The tree’s bright red, yet slightly translucent trunk reaches twice as high as the roof, with individual broad, crinkled green leaves running the length of each broad branch. While Tes knows ze hasn’t read enough books to know what kinds of trees exist in the world, ze hasn’t seen anything of its like in Flay’s End. One of those leaves will cover half the roof of Ma’s house. Four of them will roof the barn.
“If a tree grows through the roof of a school,” Ma says with her millionth deep sigh, “I’m sure it’s meant to be there.”
Tes frowns. On the one hand, those leaves are broad enough to protect the hole below from rain. On the other hand, a gale or hurricane might well strip away the loosened tiles around the red trunk. “But it will weaken the structural integrity of the—”
“Tes! Didn’t I tell you it’s rude to comment on someone else’s home?”
Ma also scolded hir for interruptions, but the rule about interrupting seems more for Tes than for anybody else, despite the fact that Ma’s words imply the rule is universal.
“It’s rude,” ze says, stopping to hitch up hir stockings, “to not obey a sign. We don’t have any bacon.”
Ma does what she always does when Tes pushes her over that ever-shifting edge: she reaches up, takes her rosewood beads in her right hand, and recites the Mother’s Prayer under her breath. Her whispering, a low, pitched susurrus ze can’t quite understand, gets into Tes’s ears, so ze slams hir boots into the road in an effort to drown it out. Stomp, stomp-stomp, stomp. Why Ma can take her necklace and click the beads while she prays to sundry listening gods for the patience to deal with her infuriating offspring, but Tes can’t fidget with the top button of hir blouse, ze doesn’t know. People not hir make the rules, and that seems fine for everybody but Tes.
There’s no point in complaining, though. Hir own mother tires of hir. Hir sister doesn’t want hir. There’s nothing left but a run-down school with a strange tree growing through the roof, but Tes has no bacon. What does it matter if people are hypocrites by nature when nobody wants to listen?
Ze hopes that the tree isn’t growing through the library.
“Tes! Are you a child? Walk properly!”
Ze stops, but only because the stomping made hir stockings fall down hir legs. Tes isn’t good with clothes. Finding fabrics that don’t scratch is hard enough—ze wishes ze were born the youngest child, gifted with well-worn hand-me-downs—but hir clothes, even when well-worn, don’t seem to like staying put. Stockings fall down. Blouses ride up. Drawers wedge themselves between hir legs. Tes endured the torture of lessons spent, while Teacher Mary described things from books, trying not to wriggle because it wasn’t done to simply put a hand underneath hir skirt and pull the offending material free. Why is being uncomfortable for so long better than fixing it?
A cave in the middle of nowhere, away from people, seems like the best solution to everyone’s problems.
Ze read about hermits in caves in the book ze took from Tailor Rona’s sitting parlour—well, ze didn’t just take it, no matter what she said. Ze put the smallest saucepan, the one Ma hasn’t used in a year, in its place, because Tailor Rona has a baby now and must surely need to heat milk in small quantities. Isn’t that fair? But ze read about hermits in Jackson’s Encyclopaedia of Continental Wonders, after ze dusted the cover and repaired the binding: wise people who retreat from the world to contemplate its wonders. If they can live in a cave and talk with happiness to wondering explorers who write books, why can’t Tes? Live in a cave, talk to the odd explorer and spend the rest of hir days reading and thinking and wearing skirts without drawers underneath. Perfection.
For the life of hir, Tes doesn’t understand why Ma yelled the way she did the day Tes mentioned hir plan to become a hermit. She doesn’t want Tes, so why can’t ze live in a cave instead of going to a school two and a half days’ walk from home with a tree growing through its roof?
Up close, the school looks worse. The mortar around the bluestone blocks forming the walls has crumbled away. Most windowsills sag where they haven’t simply fallen. Several rooms lack windows at all. Tes shakes hir head, knowing ze can decorate and maintain a cave better than the owner cares for this once-grand building, just as they reach the bottom of the step.
A raucous, chittering shriek, followed by a chorus of banging and the thump of a loose slate tile slamming into the ground, sends hir reeling backwards.
“Tes! Stop idling!”
Not gargoyles, ze thinks, as the purple creatures start jumping up and down and waving filmy, translucent butterfly wings: monkeys. Monkeys like ze heard Teacher Mary describe in lessons, only they’re not brown and black and grey, and they have wings possessed by no mammal drawn in the book Animal Marvels of the Known World. Purple monkeys, perhaps as large as the hunting dogs Farmer Michael raises, with fine paws and winding tails looping onto gutters and chimney stacks as they howl, jump and scream. Tes grits hir teeth and stumbles forwards as another slate tile cracks onto the ground underneath the eaves: hir legs shake and the sound ricochets through hir ears, but ze knows what Ma will do if ze puts hir hands over them.
Tes cannot be strange.
Or not stranger than ze already is.
Ze counts as ze follows Ma up the steps, counts and struggles to imagine each item in hir mind: five sets of underthings, six pairs of stockings, a yellow dress, a blue skirt, one pair of brown boots, two blouses in red and green, a slate, two needles, three spools of thread, five books, a brown cloak, the pack, a hairbrush, flannel and soap, a bag of scrap cloth, two pockets full of chalk bits, the silver penny ze found in the street under Tailor Rona’s doorstep, Anise’s old rag doll with the beetle buttons for eyes, no bacon and many, many flying purple monkeys…
“Desist!” A voice thunders through the din just as they reach the top step.
A porch of slate tiles, a shade lighter than those on the roof, rests framed by stone pillar statues holding rusting swords aloft and a half-fence covered with dark green ivy. The porch holds a moss-covered dog statue, a wooden chair-and-table set, trailing ivy and blackberry brambles, and a bored-looking tortoiseshell cat, but a clear path leads to a set of grand wooden doors that are faded, warped and, in the case of the right-hand door, hanging off their hinges.
The left hand creaks open, leading into darkness, and a short, lithe man comes barrelling out, waving both hands up toward the roof. “Desist, you lot! Or I’ll feed you to the flesh-eating gnomes!”
The monkeys fall to an abrupt silence.
Tes presses hir lips together and promises hirself ze won’t cry from relief.
“Better.” The man turns, lowers his arms and looks at Ma. “You’re not another bodyguard, are you? I told the agency, time and time again, that—”
He wears a dusty black suit, grey waistcoat and white shirt, all of it somewhat wrinkled. His feet are bare, brown toes missing two nails, and his shoulder-length grey hair fans out from his face, a red ribbon caught in one of the myriad corkscrew curls as though it once tied his hair back. His coat pockets bulge, lending him an appearance of strange lumps and bumps. A black opal pendant—Tes knows it because of the colours and because the books say that black opal doesn’t look black—hangs from a brown cord around his neck, the glittering colours sharp enough to make hir eyes water. Despite the formality of the suit, the kind Mayor Elspeth wears at services and meetings, he wears a plain leather baldric over the coat, the hilt of a sword poking up under his hair behind his left shoulder.
His eyes, dark brown and curious, flicker from Ma to Tes.
Ze looks down at hir boots. Ze wore them for the last five years, but Tes polishes them every week with wax and they’re still good enough, despite the crack in the left sole. They’re comfortable, so ze won’t tell anyone that they’re wearing out. Ze spent six months gritting hir teeth and enduring the blisters just to be comfortable in these boots, no matter how many stockings ze wore. A cobbler might mend them, but a cobbler might make them different.
“I’m sorry. You’re not bodyguards,” the man says, although given that Ma wears a pack, beats most of the farmers into the mud during the Midsummer Festival and walks with a quarterstaff in hand, Tes thinks he should be forgiven the misunderstanding. “You’re … oh, you’re that woman, apologies for forgetting your name, who wrote asking if I’d take on a book th—” He stops, and Tes doesn’t need to look up at him to feel that particular chill in the air that accompanies one of Ma’s stares. “Welcome to the College.”
“Farmer Lisbeth. Madam Lisbeth, I believe, outside the Wold.” Ma bobs a rough curtsey. Her voice, though, sounds like the crack of a boot through an iced-over puddle. “I assume you’re Professor March? The headmaster?”
“Indeed, Madam. Kit March. Just call me March. Teacher, magician and professional liberator of elfish antiquities, at your disposal.” March bows. His movement isn’t a perfunctory bob of the head or a mere folding of the torso: he swings his arms out to the sides and tips his body forwards so far he almost falls, but launches himself upright with a scissor kick and lands on his heels, beaming. Tes ducks hir head just in time, because he turns towards hir, although he stops walking before his shadow crosses hir boots. “How are you called?”
He stands far enough away that ze can still breathe, but panic chokes hir thoughts. It always does when someone asks hir name: Tes has no trade name. A child introduces themselves with their personal name followed by their father’s name, and everyone knows that Tes is no child. Tes stops, draws a breath, exhales. Ze knows what ze should say. Ma made hir recite these sorts of conversations over and over, and ze knows, when ze isn’t faced with someone waiting to hear hir reply, what ze must answer.
Like always, the words ze should say aren’t the words that come from hir mouth.
“We didn’t bring bacon,” Tes says to hir boots. “The sign said that we should bring bacon, and we don’t have any. I didn’t know.” Ze stops, swallows, but even if all the repetitive lessons say ze shouldn’t say these words, hir heart says they need speaking. Ze isn’t a thief! “I didn’t steal books. I swapped them. And I only swapped books they weren’t using. They were dusty and broken and doorstops!”
“Tes!” Ma’s sharp voice holds a world of fury—and the promise that if Tes should accompany her on the walk back to Flay’s End, the walk won’t be pleasant. “Headmaster March, I am so very sorry. Ze’s not ordinarily like this. Ze certainly knows better. Apologise, Tes.”
“No. No need.” March steps backwards, turns and bows to Ma, his arms sweeping out to both sides. It’s easier to watch him, with hir head slightly raised, when he isn’t looking at hir, and Tes wonders that nobody tells him to keep his hands still. He doesn’t move like a man who had his parents and siblings slapping at his hands. “Madam, I am pleased and delighted to offer your scion full scholarship to Greenstone’s one, only and oldest College of Magickery.” He pauses only to sweep his arms again, in the manner of a speaker expecting great applause. His smile broadens and frames crooked white teeth. “Seven years’ tuition and board. Send a ten-chip note each year for stamps and other personal necessities. We only ask that all our students help clean up the divination lab now and then. The Guts and Gizzards course … well, the future is messy, sadly.”
Ma frowns, blinks, turns her head. Tes causes her eyes and brow to crinkle in annoyance and frustration on a regular basis, so ze knows what those minute movements signify. Here, her expression is softer, the lines shallower. What does that mean? “This is it? That’s the interview?”
“Ze likes books and ze passed the bacon test.” March shrugs: the movement starts in his neck, shifts to his shoulders and ripples all the way down to his hands. “That’s all I need.”
Tes shakes hir head. Yes? Somebody wants hir? “What is the—”
Ma breaks into a slow but beaming smile. “Oh, thank you, Headmaster. Thank you!”
“Please be aware,” March says, with another flourish, “that while we promise full employment prospects after the completion of our course, and we pride ourselves on ensuring all our graduates leave the College with a job in hand, between the basilisks, elfish assassins, the perils of tall grass, the kittens, a certain pesky case of rhubarb gigantism, my former position as a liberator of antiquities and artefacts, the Professors Roxleigh and, of course, the other students, I cannot promise that your scion will receive their diploma with the same amount of limbs. We’ll do our best, though. And I’ve a stitcher who’s quite good at reattaching body parts. She studied medicine in Siya.”
His voice holds that amiable, careful politeness employed by people who mean to be everything but mild-mannered but wish to be seen so—the kind of people who demand that Tes never enter their shop again but refuse to tell Tes why. Ze knows what he means—that the school is dangerous, but one look at its dilapidated state should tell anyone that—but ze doesn’t know why he speaks, other than the feeling that, for once, his tone isn’t targeted at hir. If he wants Tes, for whatever esoteric reason, shouldn’t he keep the danger to himself?
Ma’s expression tightens into its usual set of harsh lines. “What are you saying?”
Strange, Tes thinks. Ma looked at the building and the tree growing through the roof and thought nothing of it, as long as she can hand Tes over to somebody else, but now she faces that somebody, a man with bare feet and hair every which-way who talks of strange things, she hesitates. She, a broad-shouldered, strong woman who raised her children on her own, hesitates. She with her greying red hair and lined face and forbidding scowl, she who owns an ever-ready litany of everything Tes does wrong, she who never seems to like Tes at all and sobbed when Tes said as much, hesitates.
The tree wasn’t enough but this list is?
No, ze’ll never understand, so ze might as well work on the questions that have answers. Tes frowns and waves hir hands at March; he turns and glances at hir, but his eyes don’t rest on hir face, and that makes it easier to ask. “What’s rhubarb gigantism?”
March points towards the tree growing through the roof. “That.”
Tes frowns and studies the tree. It does look something like rhubarb, closer up, so ze swings hir pack down off hir shoulders. Ze sighs in relief to be free of the weight before Tes rests the pack on the ground, pulls out piles of rolled socks and folded underclothes, and frees the books at the bottom. Ze sits with the Treatise in hand, tucks hir feet under hir skirt and ze heads straight to the index. Tes doesn’t remember anything about rhubarb, but ze might have missed it. Nobody can remember anything, and people are always telling hir all the things ze forgets. Why should ze remember rhubarb?
“Professor, where I come from, it is considered rude to—”
“Thank you, Madam, for escorting your scion here today. Don’t worry: we have all our students write home every week. The Professors Roxleigh ensure it. I wouldn’t get a lick of paperwork done without them.” March’s voice raises to a shout. “Susan! Please escort Madam Lisbeth down the drive, will you? I’m sure she wants to return to her ordinary children.”
Something sharp, bitter and entirely unexpected taints the word “ordinary”.
A giant yellow corncob in a straw hat and splits for arms and legs comes shambling past the statues and clumps of greenery cluttering the lawn. Shreds of faded cornsilk shroud the space under the hat where it might be thought to have a face, its eyes appear to be two darkened corn kernels and its lips are a thin white gash a few rows of corn below the eyes. It moves slowly, unhurriedly, yet its split legs cover the ground in a stride twice the length of the average person. The dried green wings wrap about its limbs and most of the cob’s torso, the wings tied with twine and approximating something of clothing in the haphazard way of a creature not terribly concerned with the notion.
It reaches the edge of the steps and leans down to run the rounded point of its left arm over the back of the tortoiseshell cat entwining itself through the cob’s legs.
Ma’s lips part.
“Madam,” the cob says in a deep, bass voice as it reaches the steps, smiling between each word as though trying its hardest to be seen as friendly. It reminds Tes of the one torturous day ze worked in the shop and Shopkeeper Harriet implored hir to smile at everyone. “If I might have the pleasure of escorting you down the drive…?”
Tes looks down at the book. Resonance, reticent artefacts, running hobgoblins…
A set of strong, calloused, too-familiar hands tug at hir arm, and Tes jerks away only for Ma to scowl, curse a word she only speaks when she thinks Tes can’t hear her, and tug at hir again. She pleads, tears streaming down hir face to land on Tes’s forearm in shocking droplets of warm water, and the corncob begs Ma to come, and the monkeys chatter and screech. Too much, all at once. No! Ze bobs on a storm-cursed ocean of noise, a wild sea surging back and forth from crashing peaks of loud to ebbing moments of softness whipped away from hir by another cruel wave of sound. Easier, safer, to run hir free hand down the index in search of the word “rhubarb”, because the words won’t come out of hir mouth in the right way and nobody will listen if ze first tries to ask for quiet. Ze’ll only be screamed at if ze tries. Ze’ll only scream if ze tries.
It didn’t work last time with Anise, so why should it work now?
Reticent artefacts, running hobgoblins, sand prisons…
“Desist!” March’s voice softens as the monkeys come to an abrupt quiet. “You won’t find it. Richard got drunk one night, thought he could codify the so-called usual examples of his so-called ‘unnatural philosophy’ and penned a book you can buy for five chips at the closest souk. I hung my signed copy in the privy. Only made my way halfway through the book, so far, but the paper is good. You want soft paper that time of the month.”
Tes blinks and looks up.
On hir left, Ma pulls at hir arm, her frantic words lost in the wind.
On hir right, March sits on the ground with his arms wrapped around his shins, his bare toes tapping the stone slab underfoot, his eyes resting on the tortoiseshell cat rolling on its back and ignoring the chaos.
“It’s all true,” he says quietly. “I don’t know what’s in the grass and we lost half a wing to the rhubarb. I suppose I shouldn’t have set it as homework. If you want a thing done, so on and so forth … and don’t ask the students. Never ask the students. This way, though, there’s always something for dessert. Could be worse.”
“There’s a corncob flapping hir hands at Ma,” Tes says after a moment, although the giant corncob appears as dangerous as a pillow: potentially dangerous with the right deliberate application, but in practice not like to injure. It merely flaps its arms, something Ma ignores in preference of pulling at Tes’s arm and demanding that they leave this instant. “It’s not very frightening.”
Ze considers turning to the “C” section of the index, but Tes sighs and shuts the book. Trust Trader Edward to have a book that isn’t helpful! This school should have a better library, though, if rhubarb hasn’t taken it over, and March seems to know things, even if just knowing that he doesn’t know things. There’s a million things ze doesn’t know, but normal adults spend their lives pretending that they know everything about everything, and if they don’t know therefore it isn’t worth knowing. It always seemed to Tes that pretending to know everything is as irrational as a person can be: if nobody can know everything, why does anybody need to pretend that they don’t?
March doesn’t pretend.
“Tes!” Ma grabs hir arm, shakes hir and yanks hir up to hir feet, sending stockings and the useless book flying across the porch. “Thank you, Professor, but I think we’ll—”
Ma makes a small gasping cry as, quite abruptly, she sweeps backwards like a puppet on strings to flail against the archway.
March sits on the porch wriggling his toes and holding his fingers out for the cat to examine.
Stockings, in the chaos, rolled free across the slate tiles. Tes sinks down, banging hir knees and not caring: ze has to find all hir stockings. One, two, three … ze grabs hir bag and drops everything out onto the ground. One, two, three, four on hir legs, five … no, no, there’s only five stockings. Five! Ma told hir to be careful with hir things, but now ze misses the yellow-green pair Anise knitted hir for hir birthday, and even if ze thinks of Anise’s words when ze looks at them, ze likes the colours. Anyway, Ma told hir that stockings don’t grow on trees and only a child leaves them behind because of what Anise said—no, where are they? Where? Ze puts the four pairs of stockings in hir pack and starts searching through the rest of hir things: picking things up, putting them down, shaking out hir skirts, standing up to make sure ze wasn’t sitting on anything, picking up hir dress for the third time and peering underneath. Where are they? Ze can’t lose hir stockings! Ze isn’t a child, and adults don’t lose their stockings!
“What is it?”
“The, the—” Ze waves hir hands at the stockings on hir lap. “It’s, I—”
Ze waits for the sighing, the yelling, the frustration.
“What does it look like?”
Tes jerks hir head up, but March’s brow is soft and his lips rest in that comforting, natural position somewhere between a smile and a scowl. Ze knows how to read that expression, but ze so seldom sees it directed at hir that Tes just sits there and presses hir lips together.
Ze isn’t a child. Ze won’t cry.
“Can you describe it for me?”
Tes shakes hir head and points at the yellow dress, then at the green blouse, then at the stockings on hir own legs. Ma will scold hir for not talking, like a baby, but it’s all ze can do to not weep, and ze knows the words aren’t there when ze’s like this, are never there, no matter how much ze tries.
March’s brow furrows for a moment, but then he jerks upright and waves his right hand through the air. “Summon sage-sand-striped suspired stockings!”
A rolled-up wad of yellow and green wool leaps up from behind the steps, surges through the air and lands neatly in March’s outstretched hand.
“Suspire,” he says with a broad, tooth-bearing grin. “To desire intensely. One of those obscure words that’s surprisingly useful to know. Most spells are some variation on retrieval and removal, so the more synonyms you have for either of those things, the better off you’ll be, but if you can throw in a word or two that speaks to the specific item wanted, you’ll find yourself in fewer showers of multiple household objects. Don’t ask me about the time I had a hail of forks in my bedroom. I’ve still got the scars. Anyway, I could use that to find my shoes—actually, why didn’t I think of that to find my shoes?” He tosses the stockings into Tes’s lap. “I just need a descriptor for them—stygian should do, I think, and I don’t desire any other shoes at this moment.”
Tes’s hands shake as ze picks up the stockings, but ze can say words that are unimportant. “Why … why no dictionaries?”
“Clever! Do you know that? Maybe you don’t.” March settles himself back down on the tiles and beams, although he doesn’t look at hir. He doesn’t seem to notice, in fact, that ze ducks hir head while the hot, gasping tears drip down hir chin and spot hir blouse. He just taps his feet against the ground and looks up at the sky above as though he merely enjoys the brilliant spring day. “Oh, the talking might make it a little harder, sometimes, but there’s plenty of magicians who think faster with a pen in hand. Plenty of magicians who think fastest with their mouth, too. There’s space in the world for everyone. But you think, and thinking first is better by far than speaking or scribbling or signing the first words that pop into your head. Forks. There’s always the thoughtless forks. No. You tell me. Why is a dictionary the most dangerous thing a magician should keep on their person?”
Tes stops, exhales. This kind of answer isn’t so difficult or complicated, not like names or descriptions or feelings. Ma tells hir ze thinks too much, thinks about everything irrelevant while failing at matters of employment and partners and everything else required and valuable, all things Tes struggles to keep in hir head. Ze doesn’t know much about magicians, though: in Tes’s experience, limited to a small village in the middle of the Wold, they wonder in for a day or two, work spells on cool shelves, if they work at all, and wonder off again. Yet ze just saw a man summon a pair of stockings with a simple sentence conjured after a moment’s thought, and there must lie the answer. “If … if you have to stop, look up words, instead of knowing them, maybe the basilisks turn you to stone first. Better to just know them.” Ze frowns. “Is ‘stygian’ black or brown?”
“Perfect. It’s ‘dark’. Or ‘gloomy’. One could use it for either, theoretically, although for brown I’d use ‘sienna’ or ‘sable’, depending on the depth of brown. Theory and practice are quite different things.” March grins and slides his right hand up his left coat sleeve. “Magic has a certain flexibility: the greater the stubbornness in the user, the less precision required. But one must beware the forks.” He whips a bright red-and-green dotted handkerchief free from the sleeve and holds it out. “‘Sable’ is an odd one. It’s brown, so brown it borders on black, but using it as a substitution for black, despite what poetry has us believe, results in a rain of frogs. One of the students tried it last month, and we’re still finding wide-mouthed tree frogs, not indigenous to this continent, in the hall closet. Richard should have written about that.”
Tes takes the cloth, nods thanks and blows hir nose. Ze sits here listening to a man talk about the difference between black, brown and sable. It should have been irrelevant, but March talks as though it matters, and Tes presses the handkerchief to hir face from fear ze’ll cry again. Sable and stygian and wide-mouthed tree frogs and the word “indigenous”! Ze reaches for hir slate, housed in a canvas sack positioned by hir knee and, as carefully as hir shaking hands allow hir, pulls it free. Travel smeared the words despite hir care, but they’re still legible, and as soon as ze finds somewhere safe to store the slate, ze will write them again.
There’s just enough space at the bottom, so Tes fumbles a piece of chalk from hir pocket with hir left hand and writes: indigenous, stygian, never use sable.
Tes freezes, but March’s voice sounds curious at worst, and he looks at the slate, not hir. Even so, ze tenses, ready to pull the slate out of his reach. Anise erased hir words whenever Tes forgot to hide the slate away, and even hir other sisters used to point and laugh. Ze writes long, complicated words from books, words ze wants to remember or look up or think about, but ze also writes simple, ordinary words, words that feel nice when repeated, words that make hir smile, words that are pleasing when rolled off hir tongue. Puppy. Murmur. Drop. Hir sisters and the students under the tree laughed at words that are too unusual and complex for anyone to need to know, and they laughed at words that are so ordinary nobody need ever think about them.
There must be a magical word safe and right to record, but Tes has yet to find it.
“I’ve a drawer full of paper and a pencil somewhere.” March raises his hands, palms forwards, fingers angled backwards. People sometimes gesture this way for “stop”, but his movements hold none of the haste Tes associates with such a command. He just sits, and only when he makes no move towards hir or the slate does ze realise what he means. “Or you can chalk them directly on the wall of the bedroom, if you like looking at them.”
Ze looks down at the slate. Paper will be better, but to have hir words on the walls… He isn’t saying the words, but the meaning exists nonetheless. Yes. Stay. Yet the truth presses on hir shoulders, hir chest, every inch of hir skin and blood and bone. “I’m not—I mean, people like me aren’t—”
“It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? Small wonder you can’t say it. The synonyms are no better.” March shakes his head, but his voice carries the peculiar level of inaudibility that precedes anger and violence, and Tes snatches the slate, but March’s eyes look straight past hir.
They rest on Ma’s face.
“The one thing that magic cannot abide,” he says, almost in a whisper, “is a desperate insistence on what the world and the people in it should be. Magic, though, has an affinity for the abstract and the introspective and the curious, and magic adores the different, the divergent, the diverse and the perceptive. Magic rests in the space between what you are and what you should be, if you’re willing to look at the should and dismiss it to the dark where it belongs. Is the world simple for us? No. But we dismiss the thought that it should be, for there is no magic there.”
He leaps upright, hands flailing, and sweeps into a bow, his right arm pointing across the porch.
Ma doesn’t say a word. She just stands, both white-knuckled hands clasped around the quarterstaff, her eyes hard and her lips quivering as though she’s mad and hurt all at once. Tes watches, hir hands gripping the handkerchief and the stockings and the slate, but ze doesn’t know what to say to make that anger and pain go away, and some strange, traitorous part of hir isn’t even sure ze should. Ze just sits and watches as Ma sighs, turns and walks down the steps.
Susan follows her, the wind rustling through its dry, straw-like wings.
Tes can follow. Shove hir things back in hir pack, scramble upright, run after her. Ze can follow, and ze can return to a world where there’s so many things ze should be, with no ability to manage them—if ze could have, somehow, ze would have. Ze did try! Ze can return to what ze knows, even if everything ze knows crushes hir down into a gasping helplessness ze can’t fix, or ze can venture into a world ze knows nothing about, inhabited by strangers who enjoy talking about words.
If the people here don’t like hir, what’s to stop hir from packing hir things, running for the hills and finding a suitable cave?
Ze picks up hir stockings, counts them, returns them to hir pack, scrambles around for the rest of hir belongings. Ze hesitates over the Treatise, but it’s hirs, so ze pats the cover in apology and returns the book to hir pack, slid between hir spineless copy of A History of Lithography and Animal Marvels of the Known World. Only after ze counts everything back into the pack, swings the pack on the shoulders and returns the slate to hir hands does ze look up at March, his eyes resting on Ma’s retreating back.
He looks as though he too lurks on the edge of tears, but he turns as soon as Tes glances his way.
“Don’t despise her, if you can.” March smiles, a small, sad little curve of lips accompanied by a strange lack of movement and gesture. “She saw you well enough to write to me. Remember that. She saw you well enough to bring you here.” He stops, shakes his head and flings one arm towards the broken doors. “Shall I show you the school?”
Ze likes that he doesn’t ask if ze means to stay. He could have, in the way of people always having to make sure even though it should be obvious because ze sits right there, but he doesn’t.
“I’m Tes Alden,” ze says as ze stands. “I won’t sleep in a room with a rhubarb tree in it. I won’t.”
Hir pack presses into hir shoulders, but maybe, just maybe, ze won’t have to carry it much longer.