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.
Introduction: March introduces Tes to the College, Master Faiza, the kitchen and his theory of telepathic bacon.
Chapter count: 8000 words
Content advisory: Shutdown/non-verbal moment provoked by the overwhelming strangeness of understanding. Again, use of the word “normal” to describe allistic people by a distressed autistic narrator (later challenged by another autistic character). A heaping misery of autism-specific internalised ableism.
Note the first: One of the strangest things about seeing the right psychologist—the psychologist that knows autism looms large in the tangle of all I am—is the utterly confusing and devastating tangle of emotions provoked by concepts like permission to stim or any kind of declaration that acknowledges what I need or who I am as though this is right and normal. My general tendency to analyse is useless in the face of this, and since I have few coping mechanisms for emotion, I usually shut right down. The sad truth is that cruelty and disregard break me far less than simple kindness and understanding, likely on account of having little experience with the latter, and it feels right to me that Tes has this same bewilderment.
Is this what it means to be dangerous, to speak words aloud and bear the tangle of confusing feelings that follow?
Colours are the first thing Tes notices when ze steps into the foyer. Sun slants through the doors behind hir and the glass panes over hir head, illuminating dust motes drifting through still air, while before hir a wooden staircase, the treads of the stairs carpeted in threadbare red, lead up and branch left and right. Stained-glass doors, pastoral scenes set into a rich purple-brown-coloured wood, break up the walls to either side. The foyer itself can contain Ma’s house, and while cracks cut through the whitewashed ceiling where it doesn’t hold a horde of dangling cobwebs, the grand candelabra hanging above the stairs appears black from tarnish and the panelled walls bear splintering scuffs, it is still a grand entranceway speaking a world of wealth and power. It screams a world Tes knows nothing about, other than snippets from books: mahogany is imported and therefore expensive, stained glass requires skill and time, only someone with more money than sense will let silver blacken and pane a section of the roof in glass.
Ze wants to turn, run back out into the sunshine, chase Ma down the road, return to the known and the familiar.
Tes is too small for this place.
“Most of the time,” March says, looking at the ceiling, “we use the backdoor. I should get someone to come in and dust, I think.” He shakes his head and shoulders alike. A flaking piece of whitewash crumbles down from the ceiling and lands atop his thick grey hair; March jerks his head until his curls bounce and the chip falls away. “How do you wish to proceed? I can take you to the room you’ll have, and you can drop your pack and slate. I can then take you around the school, introduce you to the staff and students, explain what it is we actually do here. Does this suit?”
Tes looks down at the slate in hir hands. Hir shoulders ache, but ze isn’t sure ze wants to leave hir pack somewhere anyone else can go through it. “I don’t want anyone touching my things.”
Ze regrets speaking, though, as soon as ze finishes the word “things”. How many times has Ma told hir not to whine like a baby because someone touched hir slate? Why should a headmaster of a school, a man with many important concerns, bother about Tes’s pack? It’s not as though it contains anything valuable, but those things are hirs.
Hir world entire presses down on hir shoulders.
“Most of us mind it. Please take this as a request not to touch anything in my kitchen.” March shrugs and waves his right hand towards the staircase. “So we ask our students not to touch anything in anyone else’s space without permission. The roommate I have in mind for you won’t go through your things, but if you’d like to leave a note on your pack, we can do that. Or if you’d prefer to carry it, you can do that as well.”
The steps are too narrow and too high, as though they were made for a spindly, tall person, and every so often Tes trips over a step much taller or shorter than the others, as though the designer or the builder failed the basics of architecture. Or, perhaps, the step just sagged. Tes grasps the slate in one hand and the smooth, surprisingly clean wood railing in the other, but it takes all hir focus to make it up onto the lower landing without falling. March doesn’t seem to need a response, though: he just walks up beside hir and, with another gesture of his hand, directs Tes towards the right-hand side of the staircase.
“To the left,” he says cheerfully, “are the classrooms. The gnomes took over the Left Tower—we are an imaginative lot, incidentally—so you’ll find the door locked. Don’t go poking about unless you wish to lose limbs. They’ll eat you while you scream, and if the monkeys start yammering or there’s some other catastrophe, we may not hear you in time. To the right are the bedrooms and living areas for students and staff. The Right Tower is the domain of the Professors Roxleigh. They take our Expressive Language classes. Oh, and Biology. If you must meddle about in a tower uninvited, choose the Left. The Professors aren’t well disposed to students walking in and interrupting whatever two married women do in their own time, especially because I suspect it also involves creating unmentionable potions and concoctions. As I enjoy my sanity, I don’t ask.” March stops only to grin and shake his head. Tes can only blink. “If you must annoy them after hours, always remember to knock. Better to find me, Doctor March or Master Faiza first. I’m usually in the kitchen. Come down for food whenever you wish, as long as you don’t touch my pans.”
Tes is too taken aback to do anything more than nod. Ze reaches the upper landing, gasps for breath and settles the slate back in both hands, thinking that ze can’t complain: for the first time in hir life, someone explains what ze should and shouldn’t do. Most adults operate on the assumption that ze will magically know or find out, if they don’t just tell Tes to ask somebody else.
Still, ze isn’t sure ze’ll remember all of it. Left tower, flesh eating gnomes. Right tower, Professors Roxleigh. Don’t bother the Professors after hours. “If I … if I don’t remember, all this, sir?”
Ze stands, ze thinks, based on the location of the front steps and the fact they haven’t turned far right, somewhere close to the middle of the house, possibly somewhere underneath the sagging roof. The steps end at a landing that looks down on the foyer, and from here Tes can look across at the opposite landing. This side houses rows of battered armchairs with small tables squeezed between, and, while the cushions are threadbare and the legs splintering, dust mars nothing. Someone rolled a rag rug over the faded red carpet, and here and there vases of jonquils decorate the tables. A few packs of cards, bone dice, a bowl of clear glass marbles, bird feathers, books, mugs and other ephemera rest abandoned on the tables and even on the chairs themselves. A sitting room of sorts, and in contrast to the study area of the opposite landing, which features rows of tables and chairs with the tables bearing only sheets of paper and inkwells, although bookshelves line the far wall before the landing narrows into a door-studded hallway. Books! Not even hidden away in a library! Both landings are empty of people, but two black cats sit on one of the study desks, and a grey-and-black striped cat dozes on the armchair closest to hir. All of them look as bored, or at least uninterested, as the tortoiseshell outside.
“It’s a lot, isn’t it? Don’t worry. Master Faiza keeps a sheet with everything written down, and I’ll see they give you a copy. Some of our students do not process speech, so we accommodate that as best we can.” March waves his hand at the armchairs. “One of our quiet common areas. We have several. Talking is acceptable, but we ask, because most of us don’t enjoy noise, that we keep sound to a minimum here. You’ll find loud spaces downstairs for those who don’t mind sound or want to sing without being the target for twenty sets of shoes. I believe Iris spends his free time there trying to master the yodel. Shall we continue?”
He waits for Tes to nod before he strolls past the chairs towards the hallway running down the back of the landing. The wide hallway is furnished with the same worn carpet and blue gaslights, but single-width doors break up the mahogany panelling. Someone wrote names in white chalk, two to a door, although most of the writers have taken to other decorations above and below the names—stars, suns, flowers, concentric lines, crosshatches, detailed sketches of cats and horses.
“This and the floor above are lodgings. We separate our students into the junior and senior class. I’ve fourteen senior students and eleven junior. Most of my students are adults or older youths, although every so often I take someone younger.” March stops halfway down the hallway. Someone wrote a single word on the left-hand door in swirling cursive: Holly. He turns the knob and pushes the door open—all these doors, Tes notes, appear to be at the least functional—before waving his hand into the room beyond. “I believe Holly has the right-hand bed, if you wish to place your pack on the left.”
It’s a careless comment, but Tes marks it nonetheless: the headmaster not only knows where his students are quartered but also which beds they occupy.
The room, compared to the entrance foyer, is plain. Two narrow wooden beds rest on either side of a window that looks out over the front lawn. White sheets and pillows trim the beds, but both are covered with patchwork quilts that look as though they were made out of whatever material came to hand and washed many times since. Faded blue curtains frame the windows and a grey rug that holds the suggestion of blueness covers the floor between both beds. Both sides of the room hold a chest of drawers, a wooden desk, a chair and a set of three brass hooks hanging from the wall; the right hand side also holds a door, ajar, but Tes can make out a washstand behind it. Only a little dust on the desk mars the left side; the right looks as though a hurricane swept through it, with clothes and papers and books scattered everywhere but the desk and the hooks. Tes shudders, although the owner of said chaos nonetheless took care to ensure that it doesn’t spill over to the other half of the room, and they did leave a clear walkway to the washroom.
For all that, it’s still the largest, grandest, nicest space ze ever called hir own, given that Tes, all hir life, shared a bed and drawers and hooks with Anise.
“Most of us struggle with organisation or adhere to it with a certain rigidity, so in order to survive each other, we have a rule that we do not meddle with another’s belongings or space.” March’s lips curl upwards, as though he saw Tes’s shudder, and ze looks down at hir boots. Ze didn’t mean to react, but ze isn’t good at keeping hir feelings behind hir eyes, not like Ma and hir siblings. “Easier said than done for some of us, myself included, but the skill will serve us well in the world. Would you like to leave your pack here?”
Holly, whomever they are, feels no apparent fear at leaving dresses and papers all over their space. Tes might have hesitated, though, if it weren’t for the toy cat, made from several pairs of old stockings, resting on the right-hand pillow. Anyone can walk in and see it, but it’s there, and doesn’t that suggest not only that nobody will touch it but also that nobody will laugh at it?
Tes places the pack between the bed and the wall, where it’s less likely to be seen, and then turns hir back on March as ze lifts the pillow, places the slate underneath and arranges pillow and quilt so they cover the slate whilst taking care to erase as few words as possible. Ze draws a breath and faces the door, waiting for the inevitable comment, but March merely sweeps into a bow and gestures towards the hallway.
“The last five doors on the back-facing side have been taken over by the rhubarb. I’ve locked the doors, but should you feel the need to experiment with unlocking spells—and as headmaster, I consider it my job to provide students these opportunities—you’ll find them rather uninteresting. Unless you like rhubarb.” March waits until Tes exits before closing the door behind hir. “The steps at the end of the corridor are still accessible, and they lead up to the third floor. Shall we?”
Tes nods and follows March. There’s little sign of rhubarb in the hallway, just five doors, from sixteen in total, empty of chalk. Ze’s relieved, though, that hir room sits across from the rhubarb, and ze wonders how many students fled their rooms from the sudden arrival of an oversized vegetable. At the end of the hall rests another landing, this one empty of everything but a ginger cat grooming itself, with a rickety spiral staircase leading up and down and a door set into the wall opposite the stairs bearing the chalked words Professors Sarie and Marie Roxleigh.
March sweeps a hand towards the stairs. These steps are more uneven, but it’s easier going without the pack, and Tes just grips the railing and counts the steps as ze goes: one small, two big, one small, one big, three small, one big…
The third floor doesn’t differ: another, smaller landing with the same collection of chairs, tables and cats leading into another hallway lined with doors. The first four doors on the front-facing side have chalked names and decorations, but the doors following are plain, and March strolls down the end of the corridor, opening out on yet another landing, to where the doors are labelled again, this time with chalk-modified brass nameplates: me, Amelia Doctor Amelia March, Professor Osprey Darius Liviu, Master Faiza.
“The teaching staff sleep here. Me.” March waves a hand at the appropriate door. “However, you’ll more often find me in the kitchen. Our physician, witch and Magical Visibility teacher, Doctor March, has the room beside. She runs a small surgery beside the kitchen, which I’ll show you, but should you wake in the middle of the night and feel the pressing need for medical attention, please rap on her door. Should you venture into the Left Tower in the middle of the night and emerge alive, please rap on her door. Opposite is Master Faiza. Faiza supervises prep, oversees the students and teaches our Survival for the Practicing Magician classes. Darius Liviu hasn’t arrived—he’s replacing Professor Osprey, who left us to breed bats—so you won’t see him before the end of the week, but he’ll be taking Construct Magic. Don’t ask him about the hand. I have the distinct impression that he’s more than passing tired of everyone inquiring about his hand.” March waves a hand towards the landing. “Staff common area. Students aren’t allowed here, because this is where we go when we want to talk about you. Be warned: students have tried many creative ways to overhear us, and thus far we have discovered them all. The Professors Roxleigh were not impressed. That isn’t a state most students care to experience when it comes from the Professors.” March turns and raps on Faiza’s door. “Faiza! Are you able to come out for a moment?”
“A moment!” A scuffle sounds, and then the door creaks open to reveal a small, curvy person in a long red robe and a brown scarf, both trimmed with tassels of tiny beads in every colour Tes can name and many ze can’t. The robe covers everything below the neck but their feet and hands; the scarf covers everything above the neck but their face. Great leather boots, the kind that look as though they clomp as they walk, house their feet. Their russet-brown face frames a cheerful smile and a voice both low and pleasant, but Tes wonders how they walk without crunching the beads dangling from the robe’s hem. “Hello. New student?”
“Faiza, meet Tes Alden. Unless both come to find it objectionable, ze’ll be rooming with Holly. Should either of you find it objectionable,” and March turns to glance at Tes, “you can room up here. However, we usually find that, as long as everyone follows certain rules about noise and possessions and quiet time, most of our students prefer sharing a room. It’s good practice for life outside the College.”
Ze nods. Tes remembers Ma’s frustration about introductions, and ze knows the sorts of things ze should say—especially the part about being pleased to meet someone new, even though Tes seldom is—but hir best attempt means forcing hir lips into a smile, too distracted by March’s comment to find the script. Practice? Ze shared a room all hir life; ze imagines most people have, although it occurs to hir for the first time that the rich and wealthy might have rooms of their own. What must it be like to have a whole space, just for hir? “I shared my bed with my sister. I know how to live with someone else.”
March’s brow crinkles, and Tes knows enough of how eyes and lips move to take those lines for amusement. Ze stiffens and waits for the inevitable. “Do you know how to live with someone else where you don’t need to hide your things away? Where you’re also comfortable with the experience?”
He’s not laughing at hir, but that’s as much as ze can figure, and nothing else makes the slightest bit of sense—but ze doesn’t have to understand to feel, yet again, that nothing passes March by. Ze scratches hir arms, afraid to do anything more even though hir skin crawls and ze wants to be anywhere but in the company of a man who does this dangerous thing of seeing. But where can ze go? Ze’s stuck in a strange house, clicks and clicks away from everywhere ze knows: hir only safe place is a strange room and everyone will find hir there.
Ze needs to find somewhere, somewhere safe, somewhere hirs.
“I’m sorry, Tes. I didn’t mean to stress you.” Once again, March holds up his hands, palms forwards, fingers tilted backwards. “Faiza, perhaps you might tell Tes what you do here?”
Master Faiza inclines their head. They speak slowly and clearly, although not in that condescending tone some adults adopt when Tes can’t hear things. They’re merely comprehensible. “Welcome to the College, Tes. You’ll be in my class Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Many of our students have unique challenges when it comes to being a magician in the world, so we teach that—how to survive as ourselves.” They pause, nowhere near long enough for Tes to formulate a response to that surprising comment. “I also supervise prep in the evenings, maintain the students’ schedules and act as houseparent. If you need help with finding anything, doing anything, arranging anything or being anywhere, I’m the person to find. If you’re struggling with work or your roommate or another student or just tying your own shoelaces, I’m the person to find. Nothing is too small. If you find me uncomfortable or prefer to talk with another teacher, of course, you’re free to do so, but please know that I am here to do whatever I can to help you, in whatever you need.”
It isn’t a complex statement. The thinking, observing part of Tes’s mind knows that, but the thinking, observing part of hir mind is a distant voice overwhelmed by the sheer strangeness of it all. People don’t talk like this! Ze knows they don’t! They sigh and pester and voice the misery, confusion and despair provoked by almost everything Tes says and does—or doesn’t say and doesn’t do. Yesterday, ze would have thought it a good thing, if something possible only in daydreams, but today ze can’t breathe. Today, ze doesn’t know how to respond to this, and when ze doesn’t know…
Ze slides down onto the threadbare carpet, fists hir hands in hir skirts, presses hir forehead against hir knees, weeps.
“Tes?” The floorboards creaking underfoot accompany March’s single word; his next words sound much lower down. “Can we do anything for you?”
Stop, hir mind shrieks. Stop, because this, this kindness is unbearable, and if he and Faiza don’t stop talking, ze won’t stop crying. Ze isn’t sure why it even takes hir this way, just that hir feelings are too big and too much and too strange to be encapsulated in human skin. If March says another kind word, ze won’t survive it. Ze can’t speak, though; ze can’t make hir lips open, and how can ze say no to such a thing when ze spent hir whole life wanting this thing ze didn’t know existed?
“If you wish me to ignore you, I can do that. If you wish me to talk with you, I can do that. If you wish to go somewhere else, we can do that.”
They never just let hir be. They poked at hir, asking hir if ze’s okay while ze weeps and chokes on the flood of words that swamp hir thoughts but won’t make it to hir mouth. As ze got older, Ma and hir siblings and the people of Flay’s End cared less about what Tes wanted and more about the scenes ze caused. They wielded phrases like doing it for attention, phrases with edges that slice through skin yet leave blood nobody else can see, before grabbing hir and hustling hir out of the way. It didn’t matter that Tes wanted to scream that nobody, anywhere, wants this kind of attention. It didn’t matter that ze wanted so very much to speak, to explain, to say ze didn’t want or mean this, that ze doesn’t know how to cope with feeling and confusion the way others do, that ze doesn’t know and the not knowing breaks hir in ways hir siblings and family and neighbours don’t experience, that ze’s sorry for the hundredth, thousandth time. No, there’s just the tears and the wordlessness that make no sense because ze can think, so why won’t the words go to hir mouth?
Why can’t ze just talk like a normal person?
Ze’s nowhere near water but ze’s drowning just the same, and it’s worse, so much the worse, because March says the right words, but ze still can’t answer him. Tes raises hir head and ze looks at him while tears and snot alike drip on hir blouse, and ze opens hir mouth, but the feeling—that, please, please can he just ignore hir until ze can collect hirself somehow because his kindness makes it so much the harder to not flounder in this mess of reaction ze can’t name, can’t study and doesn’t understand—just rattles about in hir own head, punctuated by a few useless gasps.
Tes waves hir hands at him.
That’s not enough, but ze has nothing else.
March unbuttons his coat, reaches inside the front lining and emerges with a thick notebook and pencil. “First rule of being a magician,” he says as he holds both out towards hir. “Always keep pencil and paper on your person. Or, at least, a pencil. We teach sign—so those who cannot speak and those cannot comprehend spoken word can participate in and out of the classroom—but our students will be more successful, as magicians and people, if they possess as many potential forms of communication as possible. I once escaped a cell in the Greensward by scratching Laiphun runes in the floor with my toes, but that was only because the elves searched me and found the last two pencils.”
Smooth water-spotted tan leather forms the cover, the corners worn thin and soft. It feels nice to hir fingertips and smells of both leather and something warm and spicy. Tes flips past grocery lists, to do lists, a reminder to write his factor for the year’s rents, what appears to be the workings-out for an alliterative pesticide spell and loose letters shoved in between the pages. March writes a neat, tight hand, as though he’s well aware of the cost of paper. Ze finds an empty page towards the back of the book and writes, knowing it’s not what he wants or needs from hir, Why Laiphun runes?
Tears land on the opposite page and blur a list of soup ingredients.
“Because the elves speak and read Orthodox and most other continental languages, and the Laiphun rune is a peculiar series of pictograms comprising simple straight and curved lines that, when scattered across various parts of the floor and hidden under the mattress, don’t resemble, to the untrained eye, comprehensible text.” March shrugs. He sits with his legs stretched out before him, bare toes wriggling. “So while my jailors did examine the floor before entering, as indeed they should have, they didn’t see the script, and while they watched my feet during the resulting interrogation, as indeed they should have, they didn’t recognise the finial as anything other than the random scuff made by a man jerking in pain. Sadly, it’s the kind of trick one can only pull the once, but it was quite the trick.”
Ze tries to imagine hirself ever doing such a thing, but ze’s just an awkward, useless person who cries and can’t speak, and that just makes Tes drop the book to the ground and cry harder.
“Would you like a bacon sandwich?”
Bewildered, ze looks up.
Master Faiza turns and retreats into their room with nothing more than the heavy tread of their boots, only half-muffled by the carpet underfoot, and the soft swish of beaded fabric dancing over leather.
“It’s been, oh, an hour since lunch. I’m hungry.” March frowns, reaches up and plucks another piece of ceiling from his hair. “More cracking? I should watch for that. Anyway, if you eat bread, eggs, tomato sauce and, of course, bacon, I’ll make you a bacon sandwich, because if I’m going to make one for me, it’ll be rude not to offer you anything. I’m not offering Faiza, by the way,” and his voice increases in volume with every syllable, “because they refuse to eat bacon. No bacon! Can you imagine that? It does leave more for me, though. True fact: bacon cannot exist in quantities sufficient for the sapient connoisseur to deem ‘enough’. One can butcher twenty pigs and one still won’t have enough bacon for everyone—in point of fact, if one butchers twenty pigs, one is merely like to find oneself with more than the usual number of diners.”
A muffled shout sounding like two words not suitable for company echoes from behind Faiza’s door.
Tes ponders March sitting around the family table and trotting out such an absurd proclamation, but ze suspects the Alden table welcomes March’s theories no more than hir own. He talks, though, as if it’s perfectly natural to voice such declarations, and some strange, baffled part of Tes wonders what kinds of conversations students at a college for alliterative magic even have at table. Philosophies on the bacon deficit, locations of illicit dictionaries and the best ways to spy on the teachers, perhaps? Something that isn’t Ma and Anise telling hir to eat in quiet? Maybe, just maybe, a space where ze doesn’t have to choke down flavourless food because normal people eat what they’re given and enjoy it?
Tes draws a breath, reaches for the book and writes, I eat bacon and bread and sauce. Not egg.
“Egg and sauce are not required for a bacon sandwich to be a bacon sandwich.” March shrugs; the shrug continues down his forearms as he stretches his hands and fingers. “Do you like your bacon bendy or crispy?”
Ze opens hir mouth, shuts it again. Hir fingers hold the pencil in too tight a grasp, but ze can’t quite bring hirself to loosen them even as ze registers the pain. Ma tells me to eat what I’m given. Tes stops and frowns, but some traitorous part of hir mind keeps moving the pencil across the page. And be grateful for it, even when it’s charcoal.
“Charcoal bacon is an abomination against nature not allowed under my roof.” March rises with the grace of a newborn foal, all bendy-limbed awkwardness that somehow defies gravity. His lined, gentle face, though, is unwontedly still. He looks off to the side, but ze feels, nonetheless, that he focuses his attention entirely on hir. “I don’t require gratitude for an act that doesn’t serve its purpose. I don’t require empty repetitions because the world expects a rigid, misery-making adherence to similar interaction. The world isn’t for us, no, but the world only exists outside my front door, so you eat what you can and leave the rest without wasting a breath on guilt. Shall we, Tes?”
He holds out his left hand, palm up, fingers and thumb tilted backwards.
People use words in contradiction to their known meaning and usage. Sometimes it’s sarcasm, although Tes knows Ma and Anise both well enough to pick that, most of the time, from tone of voice. Sarcasm, after all, often comes hand-in-hand with anger or annoyance. The students under the tree used that, the art of saying pretty things in a tone that preaches hate, and Tes learnt soon enough both the difference and the fact that Teacher Mary won’t do anything about the cruelty in how they’re said if the words themselves are fair.
Sometimes it’s less obvious, the personal language adapted by two people of the same culture or occupation: a shying horse isn’t quite the same thing as a shy person.
Tes closes the journal, exhales. “I…” Ze walked the morning and climbed a few steps, but ze feels as exhausted as if ze was ten days ill in bed. This must be better than home. In fact, ze knows it already for truth, as bewildering as that is. March speaks strange words, impossible words, words that don’t exist at home, words ze never imagined to exist at all, but if he speaks them, it must be better than home. If it’s better, though, why is it so hard? Why is ze falling apart? “S-similar?”
March leans against the wall, heedless of the dust smears that mark the shoulder and elbow of his black coat. “You have a word for people who consider their gender to agree with that assumed at birth, yes? The Wold isn’t so backward as all that?”
Tes jerks hir chin, offended. They have no care for spelling and their homes and villages are nothing like those depicted in books, but ze never knew anyone in the Wold to struggle with comprehending something as commonplace and basic as rain or taxes or hemming a skirt. “Remain people! We aren’t backward!”
“I hadn’t heard that one before.” March smiles and dips his head towards hir. “I apologise. I have an educated man’s tendency to arrogance—please, scold me when I am judgemental. In any case, there’s us, the divergent—people possessed of mind types that diverge from that most societies assume people must develop. There’s everyone else, the similar, who possess that assumed mind type. You may use the word ‘normal’, perhaps? It is ridiculous to call remain people ‘normal’ for merely not taking the option to explore and express gender that isn’t assumed; I consider it just as ridiculous to call similar people ‘normal’ for merely adhering to an assumed mind type. We need a word, and they are, well, suffocatingly similar.”
He will break hir, ze thinks with an intensity that takes Tes by surprise. He will break hir and remake hir, and ze won’t know the person that leaves here seven years hence any more than Ma or Anise or hir sisters or anyone in the village of Flay’s End will know hir. This man who smiles and prattles and talks words and thoughts as though there’s a natural space for them to exist in the world, that the world behind his broken doors is as real as the world without—he will break hir. He will break hir with new ideas, with kindness and honesty and the impossible, and ze sits on the worn carpet, running hir fingers over the journal’s battered leather cover, more afraid of this than anything ze felt in hir life entire.
Ze always knew what ze was. Strange, different, damaged, useless, frustrating.
March will break that knowing, too, with a quiet, patient effortlessness, until Tes sees someone else in hir own mirror.
“You,” ze says in a strange, gasping, twisted voice that’s no more hirs than anything else here, “are dangerous.”
Nothing in hir history gives Tes any knowledge of how to decode March’s expression. The right side of his mouth curves higher than the left. His brown eyes don’t rest on Tes’s own, but focus on hir chin or lips with a force that speaks of emotion. His eyebrows, arching toward his hairline, stop just short of his curling grey hair. He rolls his shoulders back, his breaths deep and steady according to the shift of lungs under waistcoat and opal pendant, but he raps his left foot in a heavy, almost frenetic tap tap tap-tap-tap rhythm. Anger? Amusement? Evaluation? Everything?
“Yes.” His voice softens. “I am. You will be, I think, if you see it now, and it is no easy thing to be dangerous. It is, though, thoroughly worthwhile. Shall we go downstairs? The bacon calls my name.”
Hir head spins as ze rises, and Tes leans against the wall despite the dust and cobwebs clinging to hir skirts. The question seems absurd, but why should anything be too literal in this place where the staff includes a giant corncob and flying purple monkeys occupy the roof? “It, it … calls? Bacon?”
“Metaphorically. That or bacon possesses the telepathic ability to reach into my mind and tell me I should eat it, although what evolutionary purpose that serves, I don’t know.” March crooks his head to one side as though this, too, is something worthy of consideration. “Perhaps I should study that. Faiza, after all, has no susceptibility to its siren lure, so it can’t be universal. Coming?”
He waits just long enough for Tes to nod before strolling down the hallway, apparently unconcerned by hir continued possession of his journal. Ze follows, brushing off hir skirts with hir free hand and watching as eight clumps of dust land on the tread-worn carpet.
“I asked Master Faiza,” March says once Tes takes two steps back towards the stairs, “if they’ll send Holly down to the kitchen once her class finishes. She won’t like returning to her room to find a surprise companion; you mayn’t wish to have to introduce yourself to a stranger. I never much liked it—still don’t. For every person you discover to be an unexpected, sensible delight, there’s always at least five people you’d rather not have met at all.”
It’s ramble, just like the bacon: the kind of ramble that got Tes sighed at, the kind of ramble that doesn’t ask anything of hir, the kind of ramble that gives hir space to walk and breathe and find the corners of hirself that aren’t crumbling. Tes nods, because it’s polite to indicate that one heard another speak, but ze doesn’t have anything to say other than that ze never found introductions to be anything but a terror—and the truth, the sudden gut-wrenching relief that ze doesn’t have to introduce hirself to a stranger, is too big to speak aloud. Ze trembles just thinking about it, so ze opens hir mouth as March trots down the steps and says something else entirely different: “What’s the bacon test?”
Ze isn’t too surprised when March raises both bushy brows and tilts his head back in hir direction. “What do you think it is?”
Strange. Teacher Mary never wanted to know what Tes thought about anything and only answered questions she deemed proper and relevant, the kinds of questions with answers useful to a resident of Flay’s End. Questions about capybaras and mineral crystals garnered a flat voice and short answers before she turned away to another student. March asks hir what ze thinks as though Tes’s thoughts are useful, but he hasn’t stinted on giving hir information. Tes frowns and chews on hir lip, taking care to place hir boots on the wider steps. “It’s the sign,” ze says, “not the bacon in the kitchen. You only mentioned it after I told you, so…” Ze stops, because it seems too simple and too obvious, but March says nothing: he jumps down from the last step and continues his way down the second-floor hallway, trailing his right hand so his fingers smack against the edges of the doorframes. Tap tap, pause, tap tap. “You wanted someone who read the sign?”
March doesn’t slow his pace, although he doesn’t walk so fast that Tes can’t keep up. “Why would I want someone who reads a sign?”
Text scratched into wood for a purpose, Tes thinks. Signs exist to be read, yet Ma dismissed the sign as irrelevant, a prank. People do that—if hir lifetime in Flay’s End taught hir anything, it’s that the world that isn’t hir possesses its own understanding of what is and isn’t worthy of attention. People know, without stopping to think, what is meant, what should be understood, what is important, what can be discarded. Tes isn’t like that. Ze watches and thinks and considers because the things that make sense to everybody else don’t make sense to hir. Ze pierces together the rules and copies them as best ze may, but, for all hir considering, ze seldom comprehends the sense behind them, and the thinking and the copying is anything in the world but simple.
Ze walks behind March, tracing hir fingernails over the cover of the journal, and considers.
March doesn’t look at hir. He doesn’t clear his throat or cough—two little gestures that sometimes mean clearing physical irritation but often mean look at me now because people not Tes consider making the request plain in simple words to be high rudeness. He doesn’t, in fact, require anything of hir. He just brushes his fingertips over the tops of chairs as he passes through the landing and then, once he reaches the stairs, runs them over the panelling. Ma said that adults weren’t supposed to touch things just for touching them: children do that, but Tes isn’t a child.
Tes frowns and runs hir fingertips over the mahogany banister as ze follows him down into the foyer. The clean, dust-free wood feels smooth as though a score of hands before hir polished the wood to its bright sheen for the simple joy of touching, and ze smiles despite hirself.
“Two things,” ze says once ze skips off the bottom step and lands on the floor. Dust and flecks of paint drift down from the ceiling above, but ze shakes out hir skirts, and that gives Tes something to look at while ze tries to put hir thoughts to words. “People … similar people, they think they know the world, what’s important and not, but you talk like anything matters. So magicians should read things, learn. Pay attention. To be a magician, you need to know words. More than words. But you shouldn’t decide what is and isn’t important, because if it’s a sign, it’s there for a reason. Just … maybe not the reason the words say, for this sign. It’s a trick.”
For several breaths, not even the sound of footsteps relieves the pressing silence.
“It doesn’t keep the elves or the assassins out, alas. Do bolt your door at night, incidentally. Surandil knows I’ll burn the Greensward if he injures a student, but there’s no sense in not taking precautions. The sign is a thoroughly brilliant method of determining which students are right for this school. Of course, I thought of it.” March strolls across the foyer to a passage on the left side of the stairs. Relieved, Tes follows. “You don’t need to look at me; I’m quite happy to tell you that I’m smiling the smile of a man more than satisfied with his latest excellent, dangerous acquisition. Not that you’re an object, of course. Just a gloriously divergent magician.”
Emotion, ze thinks, is too big and too much and too present for comprehension. What do people call it, this hot-flushing stomach-knotting hand-trembling awkward thing that leaves Tes wishing ze can step backwards in time and remain in the safe shroud of a silence that means ze never hears March talk? Embarrassment? Shame? But the words are nice ones, in March’s odd, extravagant way, so why does ze want to curl in a dark corner where nobody can see hir shake? Is this what it means to be dangerous, to speak words aloud and bear the tangle of confusing feelings that follow?
March doesn’t look or act like a person who tangles himself up in too much when he speaks. If this is the state of dangerousness, he bears it with the same ease he wears his suit and carries his sword.
“If it helps you, I’ve had several decades to be accustomed to the art of being brilliant. You’ve had half an hour.” March skips his way down a long, dark hallway lined with dust-covered portraits. “The first door on my left is the storeroom. The second is the dining room. The door on the right—you’ll mark that it’s rather the cleaner door, aside from the sign—is Doctor March’s surgery.” He throws both hands forwards towards the open door at the end of the hallway, a few feet down from three closed doors. One bears a large lock and no key beside a second set slightly ajar; the third displays a chalkboard hanging from a nail reading the words Doctor March, surgery hours whenever he damn pleases. The open door, by contrast, rests tied open by twine wrapped around the handle and through an iron ring bolted through the mahogany panelling, but Tes can see the glint of light off metal caused by rows of saucepans, kettles, pots and frying pans hanging from the rafters above sinks, a long counter and the open shelves of what appears to be the largest pantry in the world. “This is my kitchen. Don’t touch my crockery.”
“You’re a—” Tes stops, but while ze never read the word in a book or heard it used before March spoke it aloud, the context seems right for the meaning to apply here. “Telepath?”
“Age and experience, if one is wise enough to see age as a state of reflection rather than a state of binding, grant one a measure of perception that appears magical only to the temporarily young and inexperienced.” March strides into his kitchen, pulls a stool out from under the counter halfway down the long room, stands on it and grabs a small frying pan from above his head. “There’s a table beside the hearth. Please sit there.”
A small round table, with four mismatching wooden chairs, does rest by the first of three hearths running along the back, stone wall of the kitchen. Unlike the rest of the house, the kitchen looks nurtured by a devoted, slavish, even obsessive hand. No soot or oil stains mar the ceiling’s crisp whitewash, never mind cobwebs; someone scrubbed every surface clean and white with sand. The stove in the corner gleams as though blacked every single day. The dark slate floor, despite Tes glancing under benches and in corners, betrays not even a single spot of flour or water. It’s a little too warm beside the banked fire in the hearth, so ze sits as far away as possible from the fire and looks around the kitchen in search of any imperfection, but the closest ze gets are a few soot streaks by the chimney. All cups are arranged on shelves by the door in colour of crockery and size order, as are plates and bowls and platters. Cutlery rests in great wooden racks at the back of the long counter. Even the pantry shelves are organised by type and colour of item, all sacks and jars labelled with slips of paper written in March’s own tidy hand. A small cot, a faded patchwork blanket draped so that each side hangs the same amount, rests in the corner behind Tes’s table, with a row of hooks fastened into the wall above it bearing suits and a nightshirt, not onions and peppers. It seems strange that the man who doesn’t much care that his house falls down around him devotes such attention to the kitchen, but maybe the kitchen is a sanctuary of a sorts, something small he can organise and tidy.
“It’s beautiful,” ze says. Bigger than Anise’s house, organised to a point where moving anything out of place must be accounted a sin, and lacking anything more decorative than a milk jug on the window stuffed with sourgrass blooms, but the room stands as homage to the elegance in order. “The kitchen, I mean. It’s beautiful.”
March, frying pan in one hand, stops in front of the meat safe—a large cupboard more like a pantry itself but for the mesh, the wooden frames carved with words too small for Tes to read from a distance—and turns to look at hir, his eyebrows raised, lips crooked. “I … well. Thank you? Thank you, Tes.” He shudders, a ripple surging down his body from neck to ankle, and for some reason it makes Tes feel a little better about everything to see him discomfited by something so simple. “I like having a place that’s mine.”
Tes threads hir fingers together and slides them back and forth to feel the drag of skin over skin. A place that is hirs. Half a room, yes, but also the house and grounds and the people in it. It’s too big and strange and overwhelming right now, but maybe someday it won’t be. Ma all but ran away from Susan, but if that kind of overwhelming is natural and reasonable outside but absurd here, isn’t that the same kind of irrationality normal people—similar people—express every time Tes does something they don’t like? They’re allowed to find things big and strange and overwhelming; why can’t ze? People fear different things, but surely places exist where it’s better to tremble at words than it is to run away from a creature that did nothing? Isn’t this such a place, a place made for hir? Similar people don’t baulk at meeting new people, but they run from corncobs. Tes cried in the hallway, but ze’s still here. Doesn’t that mean something?
Maybe someday this will be hirs.
“I think I’ll like it,” ze says. “Not—not now. Too big, too much, too strange. Good, but even nice different things are … different, and different is … difficult. Hard. I’m not running away from it. I’m not. But when it isn’t different, I think I’ll like it.”
March rests the frying pan on the counter, turns and glances just over Tes’s head. His lips frame a crooked smile showing most of his teeth, but his shoulders are soft and head slightly angled: amusement, ze decides, but nothing harsh or mocking. He doesn’t speak, though: he nods, just the once, before he turns back to the bench, grasps a knife from a wooden block and takes it, with firm enthusiasm, to the rind of a pile of bacon rashers sitting on a chopping board.
Tes lets out a breath ze didn’t know ze held.
This is different. He is dangerous.
It may not be such a bad thing, though, to be broken and remade here.