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.
Connection: Tes meets hir new roommate Holly Naoko, learns from the chattering historian Iris Edmé and discovers ze does, in fact, possess a valuable trade.
Chapter count: 7080 words.
Content advisory: Casual mention—and casual handling, deliberately akin to the way we talk about the latest character to die on Game of Thrones—of the fact Darius ended the Lord of Mul Dura’s life with no small amount of violent, even torturous enthusiasm. Ableist slurs like “stupid” used by a non-verbal autistic woman to describe how people regarded her. A salutary lesson in matters of trans characters’ access to gender-affirmative clothing. An aro-ace protagonist who thinks of hirself as frigid because nobody ever told hir ze’s fine and real and perfect as is. (This will happen.) Also, the word “strange” may not be an in-universe neurodiverse-specific slur to Tes, but given that Efe uses it in such a way and Darius considers it as such, I’ll note that Tes uses it, in moments of despair, to describe hirself as well.
Note the first: Why, yes, a trans narrator ends up at a school with a trans headmaster and is introduced to a trans teacher and then to two trans students who introduce hir to a third trans student related to the trans headmaster (and we haven’t even met the second narrator yet, who is, well, trans). In fact, I’ll mention that there’s one cis staff member, and most of the named students are, ye gods, trans. I don’t see how this is remotely unrealistic, but, if you feel that way, I’ll mention that, thus far, nobody’s commented on the unrealistic walking corncob. (Who objects to humanity’s habit of forcibly opposing notions of gender on a sapient species that doesn’t require it.)
Note the second: A lord is a noble of no specific gender. A Lord is a noble, magician, mage, ruler or other personage of note, also of no specific gender, who practices certain dark arts and often seeks to live out dreams of global domination. Efe Kadri assassinated several of them.
I want to know. I want to know things. History and magic and talking with my hands. Is it hard?
Ze hears footsteps just as ze reaches the last crust of hir sandwich, and Tes doesn’t know whether to feel frightened or relieved. While March doesn’t even look at hir while ze eats, as if the call of bacon, egg and tomato sauce encompasses his attention entire, the end of the meal must signal the return to conversation, and ze isn’t sure ze can take another bout of surprising, tear-inducing strangeness. New people, though? Hasn’t ze already met enough of them for today? How many more people must ze meet over the next few days? How many more new things? Shouldn’t there be a cut-off point at which ze can go no more for today, please and then retreat back to hir room and bed, themselves already new and frightening? Tes doesn’t even know how much the sheets will itch or how soft the mattress will be when ze lies on it—why didn’t ze think to test the pillow, for that matter? What will ze do if the pillow is wrong? Is that something Master Faiza will fix or is that just whining?
Ze would have brought hirs, if ze thought Ma wouldn’t have sighed and clutched her prayer beads whilst scolding all the way from Flay’s End, but now, as Tes stares down at hir plate and listens to those footsteps draw closer and closer, ze wonders if ze shouldn’t have risked her anger anyway. Ze’s here; Ma’s on her way back to the Wold, Tes no longer her problem. Ze could have survived the days of lecturing. Ze should have brought hir pillow. Ze should have something familiar to cling to amidst all the strangeness.
Ze eats the last crumb of toast crust, lines hir cutlery across hir plate the way Ma insists for esoteric reasons of manners and wonders what ze should say or do.
The footsteps echo as they enter the kitchen—two sets, ze thinks. One is a steady one, two, one, two beat; the other sounds a more energetic one-two pause, one-two pause.
“Professor March.” A high, clear voice sounds just as both sets of footsteps come to a halt. “The Professors Roxleigh said I should come, too, if the new student doesn’t sign yet?”
Curiosity makes Tes look up.
Two students, maybe hir age, maybe a little older, stand before the table. The speaker stands with hands threaded before them, their lips twisted and eyelids flickering over pale grey-violet eyes in the way that most often indicates nervousness or discomfort. They’re small and angular like a newborn foal, but unlike horses—foals, Tes knows from watching Lesley’s horses, are more like to be born dark and fade or shift colour as they age—their skin is a strange, translucent-verging white marked by the blue, green and purple streaks of veins just underneath the skin of their hands, forearms and neck. Their long, braided hair is even stranger, a faded mulberry colour, although Tes can see the white roots along part and hairline, and they dress in a riot of colour Tes rather likes: red trousers rolled up to the knee, green shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbow, bright yellow braided belt, blue scarf knotted about their throat, orange cord bracelets tied around their right wrist, pink ribbon finishing the braid. Their sandals—plain brown leather with three straps worn over bare feet—are the only boring items on their person.
The person beside them is a little taller, perhaps Tes’s height, but round and plump. Stick-straight black hair cut to their chin frames a pert nose, small brown eyes and a broad grin. They bounce on the spot, setting a plain brown dress—poorly sewn, as Tes can see where it was let out to the maximum to accommodate broad shoulders and taken in to better fit a small chest—and a white petticoat to shaking. A wooden pendant, a simple wooden circle with something like a water lily painted in now-flaking pink and green, hangs from their neck by a brown leather thong, and like March they wear no shoes, although Tes can see a braided cord, almost hidden by the unsewn hem of the dress’s skirt, knotted around their left ankle. Someone sewed grey wool pockets to their brown linen skirts with large tacking stitches in red silk, and the top of a book peeks out from the rightmost pocket. Their hands, though, draw the eye: not because their nails are long, but because they flash and twist in jerking movements that, it seems to Tes, hold much the same emphasis as when someone thumps cutlery on the table to make a point. That and the look in their eyes as they glare at their companion!
The speaker jerks their head. “You think I don’t know that? Was I going to tell the bloody Professors that—” They stop, grimace and turn their head, ever so slowly, towards March. “The … the amazing Professors, sir? Who donate their time towards, uh, furthering the linguistic and scientific knowledge of we grateful, so grateful, students?”
The signer’s face screws up just before they tip forwards as though desperately repressing laughter.
“Oh, I refer to them as the bloody Professors all the time. Never to their faces, though. I enjoy breathing.” March sighs, reaches up to dab at his lips with his handkerchief and drops it on his plate. “I suggest you don’t make a habit of it. You never know when something might accidentally slip out.” March rolls his shoulders back and beams at the pair, who almost simultaneously glance down at their feet. “Tes, Holly was pointing out that she has, in fact, mastered the art of both pen and chalk and doesn’t need a translator. She probably shouldn’t have referred to Iris as a jabbering parrot. Iris, meanwhile, was trying to say that as the Professors ordered him to come, the best thing to do in those circumstances is, always, obey. Not for reasons that involve calling esteemed teachers with thirty years’ service to the College dismissive names, but possibly because, unlike Holly, they didn’t assume Tes’s literacy.” He pauses. Holly worries at her drooping hem with her toes; Iris runs his fingers through the tail-end of his braid. “Tes, your roommate, Holly Naoko. She prefers non-verbal communication. Ask her to show you her mastery of lock picking spells. Holly’s friend Iris Edmé sleeps across the hall from you. If you ever want to know anything about the history of Greenstone, ask him and not me. You both,” and March waves his hand, fingers outstretched and angled to the side, towards the pair, “this is Tes Alden, and I understand that ze repairs books and collects words, and hopefully I’ll soon add to hir introduction.”
While Holly’s head tilts towards her feet as she jiggles on the spot, her eyes dance over Tes’s legs and skirts, and Tes decides she regards hir with much the same focus ze does Holly.
Ze runs hir tongue over hir lips, but the dialogues Ma made hir recite flicker through hir mind too fast for hir to snag any of them. “H—hello?”
Holly’s hands surge into a series of movements too fast for Tes to even think about what they might mean, but she finishes by stopping, tilting her head and pointing at the hem of Tes’s skirts, right eyebrow raised.
Ze doesn’t know what else to do but nod.
Holly bounces forwards, lands cross-legged on the slate-tile floor and picks the hem of Tes’s skirt up in her hands, running her fingertips over the rows of coloured chain stitch trimming the cloth. Her fine brows furrow, as if in consideration, but when she looks up at Tes she does so with a beaming smile and another rapid series of signs.
“Holly wants to know if you made it. She thinks it’s pretty.” Iris shrugs, his eyes flickering off towards the kitchen windows. His fingers run through the tail of his braid with force enough to drag a few stray hairs free. “We don’t really sew, you see. We would have learnt, before Professor Osprey … uh, left, but she … well, left.”
Holly flaps her left hand at him.
“I sew all my things,” Tes says, not sure if his speech is stilted from nervousness or something he’s trying to avoid saying about Professor Osprey. “Ma made sure I learnt, so I’d have a skill, if I married. Or I could work for Tailor Rona, but she didn’t want me … but I like sewing.” Ze pauses, but nobody seems annoyed or uninterested, so ze keeps speaking: “It … makes sense. You just cut where you’re supposed to cut and sew straight lines and keep everything tidy and it’s predictable and—”
Holly leaps to her feet, spins around with both arms flapping and leans forwards to wrap Tes in an abrupt, crushing hug. She smells nice, something florally and soft without being oversweet, and she lets go almost as soon as she finishes closing her arms around Tes’s back, swaying from side to side with a wide, cheerful smile. Her hands shift into more signs, but she finishes by pointing at the open kitchen door, eyebrow again raised.
“Remember to ask before hugging, Holly.” March leans forwards and stacks the plates. “Go. But ask Tes if ze wants to see everything before you drag hir all over the school. Ze might be like me and think now is a good time for an afternoon nap.”
Holly jumps once, grabs Tes by the hand and pulls hir up off the chair. She moves fast, Tes thinks, scurrying to keep from falling, and ze barely has time to look back at March—who just smiles and skips towards the sink with his plates in hand—before ze finds hirself once again in the hallway with Iris following along behind hir.
“Did he say anything about Darius?”
Holly, thank heavens, slows, although she doesn’t let go of Tes’s hand as she bounces her way down the hallway. Iris, moving with long steps that belie his height, falls into line on Tes’s other side, pale eyebrows raised, eyes fixed on Tes’s face with a yearning intensity. It takes hir a moment, though, to realise he’s talking to hir, although why he should be, ze doesn’t know.
“Darius.” Iris tucks his hands behind his back. “He’s taking over from Professor Osprey.” He pulls a face, lips wide and low enough to bare most of his teeth, and Holly breaks into a loud, deep giggle. “Darius Liviu, third child of House Liviu’s Lord-Governor Adela Liviu in Malvade—they trade in spices, oils and other fine commodities on both sides of the Shearing Straits. He studied here, travelled across the continent, trained in Rajad under the First Master themself and spent the last six and a half years serving as guard to the Lost King of Siya, Efe Kadri. They rode the Eastern Confederacy and surrounding lands, taking down such notables as Laiphu’s Hamide Golzar and the Phoenix Guard, not to mention putting down the Fourth Khalouni Rebellion in 1299, until—”
Holly rolls her eyes, stops, lets go of Tes’s hand and delivers what appears to be, based on the speed and jerkiness of her movements, an emphatic rebuke.
“He and Efe rode to Mul Dura, and nobody really knows what happened there, but Efe Kadri was murdered, the Lord’s keep was destroyed and nobody knows where Darius went after leaving Siya—and then March said Darius was coming to replace Osprey, coming here, but he won’t answer any other questions about it!” Iris’s words, quickening the longer he speaks, come out in a near-incomprehensible flurry. He stands there, though, eyes bright, hands fluttering at his sides as his voice grows higher and louder. “He did it, he had to have, because Doruk Ekber, in his book, said there was nothing but rubble and ash and corpses, like from an earthquake, surrounding the outer walls of the keep. What was the outer wall! All but the Lord, who sat tied to his throne with spikes through his eyes and his nose and mouth smashed in, but Ekber needed three Siyan magicians to shift the rubble enough to even get to the audience hall, but the hall itself was this untouched bubble of perfection in the middle. Except for the Lord, of course. So it stands to reason that someone killed the Lord, warded the room and then collapsed the keep of Mul Dura behind him. But it’s only speculation; if Darius told anyone about it—he must have told Aysun Kadri, and maybe the Siyan Parliament, but they haven’t talked to anyone, so we don’t know what really happened! And if he told March anything, he won’t tell me!”
Holly waves a hand and, when she has Tes’s attention, hands her a notebook, slanting writing in pencil covering half a page: It’s his special interest. That and Greenstone’s history and maps and trying to yodel. He falls in love with and researches all the famous magicians of the College. March and the Professors and Faiza and everyone already told him a thousand times he’s not allowed to ask Professor Liviu what happened in Mul Dura.
Tes knows of those places as entries in books: Mul Dura, ze remembers, is the home of the inland taipan, the most venomous land snake on the continent according to Animal Marvels of the Known World. A massive inland salt lake, overlooked by the largest freestanding tower in the world, was also mentioned in Jackson’s Encyclopaedia of Continental Wonders, and Tes guesses that’s the keep Iris means. Desert, sand, salt and snakes, but that knowledge isn’t enough for hir to imagine it. Ze knows, too, that Siya has amber they trade to the Greensward—something to do, ze thinks, with Siya being a great forest millions of years ago when the Change hit the world—and has great wealth because of the elves’ willingness to trade dead metal for the memory of a world long gone.
In Flay’s End, a small village in the middle of the Wold, Tes was the one who knew things that had no place in the day-to-day lives of farmers and merchants and tailors, but Iris talks about countries and places and things as though people commonly cherish knowledge without practical value. What makes Mul Dura important? Why is Efe Kadri a lost king? Who or what are the Phoenix Guard? How many magicians from the College have gone on to travel the world, meddle in the affairs of royalty and make it to the pages of a book? Are March’s stories more common than Tes has any reason to think?
More importantly, Holly’s note suggests that this sort of knowing is commonplace, and that someone whose knowledge doesn’t come forth in a great enthusiastic deluge at least knows what Mul Dura is—and assumes that Tes knows, too.
Ze doesn’t. But ze will.
“You learn all this?” Tes shifts hir glance back and forth between two people who seem, at worst, mildly amused. “Places and dates and people and—you learn it all? Everything? Is there a class? Or are there just many books? There’s a library, isn’t there? Can I see it? Can you take whatever books you want? I don’t … I don’t know, these things. I’ve only got five books. But I want to know. I want to know things. History and magic and talking with my hands. Is it hard?”
Holly drops her book back into her pocket and slides her right arm under and around Tes’s, leaving both hands free to sign. It’s strange to have somebody touch hir so freely, and Tes isn’t sure how much ze likes it, but it isn’t unpleasant to have someone want to walk beside hir as though they’re friends—and her gestures, ze thinks, are important. Maybe not so important when Tes learns to understand Holly, but now, when her hands are still a mystery, this is another way of talking, and how can Tes take that away from her?
“She says we’ll take you to the library and show you all the good books and teach you sign—if you show us how to sew.” Iris shrugs, but the casual movement of his shoulders doesn’t seem to match his intent eyes or the drawn-in shape of his lips, and Tes can’t help the idea that Iris wants this as much as Holly does. “Holly wants to know how to make and trim her own dresses.”
Tes looks at the large, clumsy tacking stitches holding Holly’s pockets to her skirt. “Didn’t a parent teach you? Even a little bit?”
Holly’s brows flatten and her lips fall with the abruptness of a sudden summer thunderstorm. Her hands jerk through the air, her gestures wide, swinging and reminding Tes of any number of the farmers in Flay’s End who take their annoyance out on innocent doors and trees and fence posts.
“She says,” Iris says in a small, quiet voice, his eyes flickering everywhere but Holly’s face, “that her parents thought she was too stupid to learn anything. Because she doesn’t talk. She learnt to read, before March found her, because her mother read stories to her siblings and she’d match the sounds to the words on the page, but they only trusted her with herding the ducks and cleaning house.” He dips his right shoulder and reaches up to tug at the ribbon fastening his braid. Holly continues to sign. “It’s hard when you’re a vary. The clothes that are right for you aren’t made to fit you.”
Tes never stopped to think about that: most people in the Wold are clothed by family members who sew new or remake castoffs. They might not have much, but the villagers of Flay’s End had a great deal more pride in the less they had: nobody suffers the shame of allowing a candelabra to tarnish, and nobody lets their kin step out in ill-fitting or shabby clothing. It didn’t matter if hir shoulders are broader than Anise’s or hir legs too short for Ma’s skirts, not when Tes spent the last ten years sewing hir own clothes. Ma brought the bolts of cloth home from Trader Edward’s store, told Tes what clothes ze and hir siblings needed and left hir to it while Ma got on with the important work in the fields.
Ze looks, again, at the unsewn hem of Holly’s dress and the rolled-up sleeves and legs of Iris’s trousers and shirt. It’s a warm spring day, but not so warm that a gawky, slender person wears sleeves and legs rolled up—and ze remembers Lesley, once, talking about how her younger brother’s shirts fit her torso but the sleeves were too short for her arms. Those things aren’t so simple to fix, but a skirt hem should be, surely? If a parent can teach someone to sweep and herd ducks, a simple running stitch doesn’t seem to be much more difficult, and hemming isn’t a great deal more difficult than that.
Ma at least taught Tes to sew. She might have come to think Tes so useless at the ordinary, expected, important ways of being a person that the College was the only place to stow hir, but she thought Tes capable of learning that skill, at least, even if she despaired to Tes’s face at hir inability to master everything else. Ma thought Tes had some worth ze failed to live up to, but what must it be to have one’s family, one’s kin, decide that one can’t learn anything? To deem uselessness without even trying to teach?
The words flutter right out of hir head, but ze darts forwards, wraps hir arms around Holly’s shoulders and squeezes until Holly rests her hands on Tes’s back. Tes jerks backwards, heart pounding, but Holly only grins and spins around in circles until her skirts flap about hir shins.
Anise would have told Tes to say the words.
Holly knows better.
“Wouldn’t your parents have made sure you’ve got the right clothes?” ze asks instead, still confused. Tes can understand, perhaps, arriving here only for clothes to wear out, perhaps a victim of some magical mishap, but shouldn’t the students have arrived with something proper to wear?
Holly stretches her lips wide, opens her jaw and flutters her eyelids, wildly, before signing.
“Her mother would have, but her father thinks the only girls in dresses are stay girls.” Iris snorts. “And I didn’t know until after I arrived here. I’ve got a cupboard of petticoats, but we don’t know how to make them fit.” He stills, pauses. “Maman did teach me how to embroider, or she tried to, but … that’s my sewing.” He points at Holly’s pockets, his eyes fixed on his own sandals. “And Professor Osprey…”
Holly flaps her arms up and down.
“The last month she’d come in and spend the whole lesson just hunting for things in her desk.” Iris breaks into a broad grin. “Professor March says she’s retired to breed bats.” He stops, looks back down the hall, and starts walking, Holly and Tes a step behind him, and ze guesses, like Tes, he’s more comfortable with the change in subject. “How do I say … it’s the perfect place for her to be, right? A bat cave? Because that’s what she’s like. Except that it’s an insult to bats. But it doesn’t matter, because we’re getting Dar—” He pauses again: Holly slides one finger inside an encircled thumb and forefinger, a sign that even Tes learnt under the tree in Flay’s End. “Holly, that’s rude. And I’d never. I just want to find out what happened for my book. I’m writing a book, do you know?” Iris looks down at his hands, clenched around the end of his braid. “Not that I’d mind if he’s pretty. All the teachers are so old! He won’t be!”
Holly lets loose a fit of shoulder-shaking, raucous giggles, pulls her book out of her pocket and scribbles in quite a passable hand given that she walks at the same time: He’s a teacher. That’s grotesque.
A thumping noise and a few indistinct shouts echo from the foyer-end of the hall, and Tes frowns. It was so quiet before. Is the school as noisy and rowdy as the lunch recess at home? Talking children tossing balls and jumping rope and clapping hands and making a racket—one Teacher Mary wouldn’t let hir escape by walking away from the village—and if ze couldn’t endure it then, how will ze bear it now?
Iris flings his hands up in the air, and only Tes’s abrupt halt saves hir from a poked eye. “I know that! I know he’s a teacher! But if he’s pretty, you’ll be sitting in the front row beside me, watching. How many times did you wonder past March’s door trying to catch a glimpse of his last bodyguard? Fifty-three before I stopped counting!”
Holly’s lips purse and her cheeks colour, but that doesn’t stop her from whistling the tune Tes heard a many a time under the tree—the song about kissing and marriage children sing when someone dares to confess an interest. Ze doesn’t understand both the fact that people deem romantic interest vulnerable-making enough to merit teasing or the process of experiencing said interest, and for the first time in the conversation ze feels as though ze walks in the company of strangers, not people who seem to be like hir. Is it normal here, too, for people to like others in that way? Will they tease hir when they find out Tes is too strange and frigid to feel that way at all?
Ze slides the topmost button in and out of the buttonhole as they step back into the sunlit foyer, unsure if ze should speak or not, but the tableau before hir drives thoughts of noise and hir own oddity right out of hir head. Adults, one Holly and Iris’s age and most older—ze guesses them to be students, clad in everything from a farmer’s trousers to what appears to be an ancient ballgown—have veered to the extreme outer edges of the steps, clutching at caps, bonnets, headcloths and hair. All of them engage themselves in some combination of shouting, handwaving and chanting, but the reason is obvious: a person in a pale wood—maybe pine or a light ash—and red-upholstered armchair, bright green-and-yellow-striped wings sprouting from the legs, whizzes over their heads. The wings—short, feathery wings something like those attached to the back of a crow, merely anchored into the legs at unnatural angles—don’t look big anywhere enough to support the chair’s weight, despite flapping madly, but that doesn’t stop the chair from swooping down and its inhabitant from plucking a jonquil from someone’s cap, the thief wearing a broad, impish grin all the while.
“That’s Wings.” Iris sighs and steps back into the hallway, his hand held over his eyes like a farmer squinting into the midday sun. “Wait here a bit, Tes. They’ll come and poke at us, otherwise, if they see someone new, but the Professors will be along. Sarie Roxleigh can’t stand the yelling.”
Even as Iris speaks, a tall, lean figure in a dull olive robe storms out from the second-floor landing, leaps up into the air as Wings and the chair swoop down to snag a pencil from behind someone’s ear, and grabs the front right chairleg in both hands. If the chair can bear itself and the weight of the inhabitant, Tes would have expected it to bear the figure, too, but they both float down to land on the flat middle-landing of the staircase, the figure letting go just in time to avoid being squished by a descending armchair.
The students above them almost melt back into the common area; the students below break into a run as they descend the stairs into the foyer.
Sarie Roxleigh doesn’t shout, though: she signs with jerking movements and a glare so severe Tes cringes just watching Wings’s round face collapses into a mess of drooping lips and downcast eyes.
“She’s saying that the goalie of the school’s three-year-running championship wingchair handball team is held to higher standards of appropriate behaviour, although any moment now she’ll turn around and snap at everybody else for yelling—” Iris breaks into a quiet snicker as Sarie Roxleigh turns around and signs at the students in the common area. “There she goes. Don’t be too scared of her. If you don’t make much noise, she’s perfectly nice. Holly laughs too much and—” Iris sighs, waits until Holly’s hands still, and sighs again. “Yes, Holly, I yodel. I was going to mention that. But you seem quiet, Tes. She’ll like you.”
It’s hard to imagine: Sarie Roxleigh appears as austere a person as Tes has ever seen. Her robe has no trimming or ornamentation, she wears no jewellery and her shoes are plain brown slippers. Grey hair falls in a long braid down her back almost to her knees, the longest braid Tes has ever seen, tied only with a brown thong or cord. Her robe fits her lean body without so much as a tuck or crease, though, and while she looks older than March, her cream face caught in deep creases about the eyes, nose and brow, she still has an elegant, cold beauty in her sharp gaze and stiff shoulders. Nor had Tes seen even a moment of hesitation as she jumped off the landing and into space, and that’s something Tes had best remember … but then, given Susan and the monkeys and the gnomes March spoke about with such casualness, should ze expect the teachers to be anything but fearless?
Ze watches in silence as Sarie Roxleigh turns and stalks back up the stairs, past the chairs and into the hallway, glaring at the now-quiet horde in the common area as she sweeps past.
Holly taps hir on the arm and points towards the stairs.
If they say it’s safe, it must be, but Tes pulls at hir shirt button regardless.
“Wings.” Iris waves at the person in the chair, still sitting slumped against the backrest in the middle of the landing. The chair’s wings beat against the ground, but the chair doesn’t take off, leaving Tes to choke on the dust stirred up by the feathers. “This is Tes. Ze doesn’t sign yet. Tes, Wings. Or Tresha, Tresha March. They don’t care which. They’re an arse, but they’re good at throwing things and they always have a spare pencil. Wings will be in class with us, Tes.” Iris sighs. “And they’re my roommate.”
He doesn’t lower his hand from his face as he talks, and nobody else seems to take it askance. Holly twirls in a circle as though she’s content to wait out the conversation in her own little world, and nobody pays that, either, the slightest bit of attention.
Wings leans forward in what Tes believes a bow and holds out the yellow jonquil plucked from their victim’s cap. They wear long, full skirts of a creamy blue-spotted lace paired with a plain brown work shirt and leather vest. Woollen slippers peek out from under the skirts and rest on a matching upholstered board attached to the front of the chair’s legs. Pencils, torn pieces of paper, an eraser and a yellow feather poke out of the vest pockets, while an even larger collection of things poke out of the satchels hanging from the back of the chair: paintbrushes, leather straps that look as though they’re part of a bridle or headstall, books, layers of folded cloth that might be a coat, a glass jar holding five blue-and-black butterflies, a loaf of bread. “Welcome to the College, Tes Alden.” Their voice is deep and cheerful and somewhat strange coming from a face bearing pointed ears and wisping short-cropped brown hair. Elfish? Ze has seen pictures of elves in books, but Wings looks far too … human. Too dark and round and real. Are the pictures wrong? “I see you have the Explainer dragging you around the school. I’m sorry Grandfather didn’t give you a more interesting guide. Anyway, do you fly? Are you good at catching or kicking a ball?”
Iris’s nostrils flare, but he only glares across at Wings; Holly breaks into giggles.
Tes shakes hir head and takes the flower. “I sew. I don’t know what else.”
“Pity.” Wings sighs so deeply Tes thinks their disappointment must be genuine. “Oh, well. Welcome, despite not being useful. Maybe you’ll discover some unexpected talent for flight.” Their lips twist upwards in another smile. “But I can always practice on you! It won’t be a loss! See you later, Holly!”
With no indication that Tes can see, the chair surges up into the air, the chair’s wings beating at a level with hir head—and ze can only duck and gape as the chair surges across the foyer, slides through the hallway doorway without even slowing and zooms toward the kitchen, apparently unhampered by the fact that the chair itself is nearly as wide as the hallway.
“They’re such an arse!” Iris slams his hand down on the railing. “Just because they can throw a damn ball they think they’ve—”
Ze knows not to interrupt, but Tes can’t help hirself. “How do they not run into the walls? They didn’t even slow!”
“Magic.” Iris turns, shrugs and grins at hir, and Tes wonders what he sees in hir expression. “Making a chair sprout wings is easy. Even I can do it.” He grins harder as Holly pokes him in the arm. “Well, I can! Some of the time. Making a chair fit in spaces it shouldn’t, though? Making wings that respond to the thoughts of the chair’s user? Deep, deep construct magic.”
Tes blinks. Isn’t that unnecessary? If magic is that difficult—or ze assumes Iris means this by “deep”, although it occurs to Tes that ze doesn’t know that for sure—then why not do any of the more mundane things that don’t require difficult magic? “Why didn’t they just make the doorways bigger? Or the hallway? Or not have stairs? The stairs are awful anyway, so why not do something else?”
They answer not by words but by a fit of violent laughing. Iris leans against the railing, gasping; Holly flops down on the landing and rests the back of her head against the steps, giggling hard enough to make Tes wonder how she still breathes.
No. No. Ze did it again, didn’t ze?
Ze wraps hir arms about hir chest, presses hir lips together and promises hirself ze won’t cry. Why should it be any different here? Ze says the wrong thing, asks the wrong question, thinks about things in the wrong way, and March can say all the grandiose words he likes, but he isn’t here right now, is he? No, he’s off in his kitchen, but ze’s stuck with people who are supposed to be like hir and ze’s still being laughed at. Tes is still trapped under the tree in Flay’s End, wanting to learn but liked by nobody. Ze’s still strange, still different, still certain that it doesn’t matter how ze feels about anything and the only right thing, ever, is silence. What happens when ze says ze doesn’t feel romantic interest, doesn’t even care to talk about it? Will ze be laughed at some more?
If ze doesn’t belong here, where can ze go that isn’t a cave in the middle of nowhere? Isn’t that better than once again being laughed at? It must be, but the conclusion feels as though hir heart shatters into a thousand brittle shards, because the way Iris spoke, as though it were safe and right to say anything … ze hoped, for a moment, but shouldn’t Tes have known better?
“Tes! Tes!” Iris waves a hand at Holly, who grins and points up and across at the chandelier, draped with so many dust-covered cobwebs it looks as though it has sprouted some form of misshapen fungus. “Did Professor March take you on a tour? You saw the rhubarb, didn’t you? Instead of getting brighter lamps in the Biology classroom, he gave Emory a stone tablet that glows.” He stops and waits while Holly signs. “Holly says we’re laughing at him, because it’d never occur to him to just make doorways bigger, and even if it did, he’d never actually get it done. He goes and does some absurd, wizard magic where anybody else would pick up a hammer and nails.”
Hir throat is too tight and hir eyes too wet for words.
Holly leaps upright, bounces over and wraps her arms around Tes’s back, running her fingertips over the linen of Tes’s red shirt with a firm, heavy hand—nothing like the light, flinch-causing touches that drive Tes half out of hir own skin. She doesn’t speak or sign, doesn’t try to look at Tes’s face. She just shifts until Tes’s head rests against her shoulder and rocks them both from side to side, her fingers moving in something that might be an investigation of the fabric but also might be meant as comforting—or, for Holly, both. Tes trembles, but Holly doesn’t notice or care. She just hugs and rocks a stranger, and Tes doesn’t know what to do about the strange fact that a girl who may well have known far more grief than ze can imagine thinks Tes’s discomfort matters. Hir mother taught hir to sew, gave hir the goods for clothes, accepted hir discomfort with gender, thought Tes capable of something. It wasn’t enough, but it’s something Holly can’t have taken for granted.
Ma wouldn’t have done this, though. The childhood days of even brief hugs are too far distant. All she had was her impatient sigh—likely followed by a second—and a hard, bitter reminder that Tes pull hirself together and start acting like an adult, or how will ze get anywhere? How does someone who cries hold down a job, find a partner, look after hirself?
A man who can’t take a broom to the cobwebs on the ceiling and is incapable of using a hammer, though, is nonetheless headmaster, and maybe there’s a lesson in that. Sarie Roxleigh didn’t speak a word, but that didn’t stop students from fleeing. What about Iris’s list of crushes, former College students who have gone on to be famous for something?
It’s different, here.
“Are you all right, old thing?”
“I’m not left-handed,” Tes says, although ze knows the moment ze finishes speaking what Iris meant—it’s just that phrases like that don’t make any real sense. “So I rather think I have to be.”
Holly lifts her hands—Tes can feel the muscles in her forearms and the brush of air left by moving hands—and then, giggling, pulls away from Tes, although she stops signing for just long enough to loop her arm through Tes’s.
Terror sparks until ze realises Holly’s grin is all for Iris.
“Yes, you’ve told me before.” Iris sighs and shakes his head. “I know it isn’t logical, but that’s how people speak at home, and that’s what I’m used to saying. Forgive me for not being quite so literal.” He exhales, running his fingers through the end of his braid, but his face is soft and his lips curve upwards, and Tes takes that to mean he isn’t angry in as much as talking for the sake of talking—and that a great deal of Iris and Holly’s conversation appears to include good-natured ribbing. For that matter, Iris and Wings’s conflict might not be as serious as it sounds, either. “Can I do anything for you, Tes?”
Ze wants to see the library, but ze isn’t sure ze wants to walk around the school looking, yet again, like ze’s just been crying—and maybe, just maybe, it isn’t a bad thing that ze’s had enough of the new and strange. Maybe ze can retreat, for a little while, in something ze knows, for the library won’t go anywhere, will it? But thread and cloth are always just that, and at the very least ze can give Holly’s skirts proper pockets. Tomorrow ze can venture out again, go somewhere new, explore. Tomorrow when pieces of this world are known to hir and ze has somewhere safe to retreat. Tomorrow.
“I’ll teach you a proper running stitch,” ze says, pointing upstairs, “if you’ll teach me some signs, Holly, and you tell me about … about the famous students from the College, Iris. Everything they’ve done. Everything.”
Holly grins, pinches Tes on the arm and walks hir up the stairs, bouncing all the way.
“Well, we should start with March. His real name isn’t Kit March, so don’t try casting a spell using his name as target. The Greensward has offered a hundred thousand chips to anyone who’ll provide his heartname, but I don’t think even Doctor March knows it. Wings doesn’t, although they brag otherwise.” Iris rubs his hands together, skipping steps entirely as he follows Tes and Holly up the stairs. “Did he give you his ‘liberator of elfish antiquities’ line? Because he isn’t exaggerating. Among sundry choice swords, knives and trinkets, including a talking washstand said to be created by the Queen of Maën, he stole the Worldblade from Surandil, current High King of the Greensward Elves, in 1260. He keeps it in the attic, watched over by the monkeys; everyone says he leaves it under an inch-deep layer of dust and mouse droppings just to offend the king. Do you want to go up there tonight and have a look?”
Tes stops, whirls around, stares. Even ze’s heard of the Worldblade, although Teacher Mary spoke of it more as fairy tale than as historical fact: the sword wielded by the human who felled Alië the Soultree and sundered the elves from the heavens of the Above, forcing them to live and age in the mortal world, a crime for which they despise humanity forever more. The elves of the Greensward kept the sword, Teacher Mary said, and remade it into the High King’s first, most powerful weapon against encroaching humans. Tes thought it a pretty story, but since Greenstone and the Greensward are, practically, a singular country, ze doubts the elves hate humans that much. Besides, how can a tree grow so high as to reach a whole new world? “The headmaster stole the Worldblade, and keeps it in the attic, and we can go look at it? It’s just an ordinary sword, right? A relic that got myth attached to it, like how everyone says that if you ride to Reymont’s Crossing and touch the horseshoe on the belltower door, you’ll have good luck for a day? But we can see it?”
Holly and Iris exchange broad, broad grins.
“We’ll take you tonight when the Professors have gone to bed.” Iris pushes Tes up the last step. “I don’t know if it’s real, in that it’s an eldritch artefact—looks like a plain old sword to me—but March stole it, and it’s there in the attic. The curious thing, I think, is that Surandil threatened to wage war against Greenstone for the return of the sword, but the Lord-Governor just laughed, so I want to know whatever it is March did—or does—for the Lord-Governor that means she’ll let the elves threaten war, and, more importantly, Surandil never carried the threat out…”
Tes whistles and lets both Holly and Iris chivvy hir past the armchairs, tables and books towards the lodging hallway. March, powerful and dangerous enough that both rulers of the Twinned Green are content to let him do as he wishes with an important artefact, but unable to see to the removal of a little—or a lot—of rhubarb.
A little dark, fluttering thought in the back of hir mind tells hir it shouldn’t be so, but it does make Tes feel rather better about everything.
At the very least, ze can help Holly and Iris by sewing—and if this Osprey should have taught sewing, as if it has something to do with magic, maybe the new teacher will.