Certain Eldritch Artefacts (A Kit March Prequel)

Alliterative magician and College graduate Darius Liviu has travelled half the world in search of the rarest of rare magical artefacts: a tolerable talking sword. He knew it wouldn’t be an easy quest, but, after a year of failure, one last rumour sees him risk Rajad’s chaotic, cluttered, terrifying Great Souk. The noise, the smells, the people and his inability to move without provoking disaster make everything difficult, but Darius dares the nightmare in hope of an item that just might draw the eye of the man he loves.

The sword he finds may or may not be tolerable. It may not even be a sword. It has other ideas on the matter of being a lover’s token, however: ideas that make Darius ponder the reason he travelled at all…

PDF | EPUB | Kit March Master Post | Next: The Adventurer King

Word count: 10, 530 words.

Content advisory: Darius is seventeen, and young for a magician, but—being short and transmasculine in a time and place where medical transitioning is less of an option—not so young as he appears that the ageism others display is justifiable, if it ever is. (Personal experience time.) “Normal” used to mean “allistic” but, I hope, in a tone that is meant to be snide-leaning. Depictions of anxiety/social anxiety provoked by being a dyspraxic autistic having to navigate a world (a crowded, chaotic, noisy, busy, smelly, cramped world) truly not designed for him. The behaviour of the stallholders is an exercise in unthinking ableism. The belt is a pushy, demanding, frustrating entity who is nonetheless somewhat ideal as a mentor for an autistic teenager because it isn’t an easily-offended allistic neurotypical human. Whether or not the belt is being transphobic, deliberately provocative or both is open to question. Since mainstream autism portrayals tend to be light on the SPD aspects of autism, I wanted to show both the Sensory Hell of the setting and what Darius does to try to survive it.

Note the first: Yes, this is a rewrite of something I’ve already written. I thought I’d do PDF versions of Kit March so that people (like me) who don’t love reading long-arse chapters on backlit browsers have an alternative. If I’m doing that, well, I should throw in the prequel short stories for context, because the problem with making one of your protagonists a thirty-one-year-old magician with history is that he has history. If I’m doing that, though, I should rewrite this in light of worldbuilding and character development (mostly that Darius is knowingly autistic instead of accidentally so) and make it a proper introduction to knowingly-autistic-Darius and the belt. And if I’m making those changes, well, I should post it on the off chance somebody is interested…

Note the second: Aside from missing sensory realism and deliberate stimming—and Darius’s frustration feels so much more natural to me when accompanied by flapping hands!—the original story’s conclusion strikes me as a direction to learn a set of skills to better mimic Real Neurotypical Adults. As someone learning how to move more in tune with my actually autistic self after a lifetime’s pretence (being the kind of person who falls going up stairs and has destroyed my ankle by tripping over a tennis ball), I’m desperately uncomfortable with this, even knowing that someone who doesn’t know that they’re an autistic author writing an autistic character isn’t like to avoid ableism. So this story has suffered quite a drastic reframing toward an autistic man having the opportunity to discover how he might learn to move, as a Real Neurodiverse Adult, in ways that both serve his needs and see him less abused by the neurotypical world. I don’t want Darius to learn how to be another neurotypical soldier (yawn) who gains great proficiency in the combat arts—he’s here to learn something else entirely, and the belt knows it, even if Darius doesn’t.

Note the third: In societies where pansexuality is the default, which is everywhere seen/referenced so far save Astreut, exclusive monosexuality is a little bit weird. Not so weird that it results in oppression and restriction, but weird enough that that the terms used to describe it by most pansexuals are unthinkingly not-quite-positive.

I don’t think they taught you how to move as you are in a world that isn’t for you, but why can’t you learn that?

Darius scrambles for the edge of the table, clutching at the tablecloth to stay upright. His hip brushes against something that clatters to the ground, and he almost screams from pure frustration. Not again, surely? It must be possible that he can make it for more than ten strides through the Great Souk without creating another disaster? But no: a small clay pot teeters on the edge for one fell moment before hitting the ground with an even louder clash, followed by the pinging bounce of several smaller items. Darius cringes, stands, blinks at someone brushing past him—and crashes into the looming chest of a man at least twice his height and counting.

He should have seen him standing there.

“Oh, I—”

“Get off!” The man’s fist slams into Darius’s ear with enough force that he fetches up against the table, sending more items falling in a rain of smashing, tinkling and jingling. The dampening spell he blocked—marked in henna on his skin, anchored in a set of bone hoops thrust through both earlobes—muffles the sound enough that he only flinches. “Can’t a man shop in peace?”

The seldom-voiced, darker part of his mind whispers that he too desires such a thing, but sardonicism never makes it intact to his lips. “I’m really, really—”

“Gah!” The man shoves Darius aside and turns into the seething crowd.

Darius stands amidst the debris, the rise and fall of voices belonging to watching shoppers broken only by the pitched wailing from the stall’s vendor. Whoever knocked him into the table in the first place has long-since vanished, of course, free from shouts and consequences. Why didn’t March teach his students that kind of magic?

He forces his lips into the kind of smile similar people expect. “Ah. Sorry. I’m…”

“You! Boy!” The vendor leans over the table and waves a knobbly stick through the air. His face is red and blotchy, his brow furrowed. “You watch where you’re going! I work a hard day’s living to sell those, and you think I’m going to let some fancy schoolboy just go ahead and damage my wares?” He swings the stick at Darius’s head. “Do you?”

Darius ducks the first swing, possibly more by luck than planning. The second lands with a heavy thwack on his shoulder as he tries to turn away, and he staggers down to one knee. “Ah … no, sir. Of course, sir. I didn’t mean—”

The end of the stick connects with his abused ear, the pain sharp enough to make the souk seem to spin; Darius swears and falls in a dizzy, ungraceful heap onto a pair of sandals and the lace trim of someone’s petticoats, half-stunned by the new, intense throbbing at the side of his head. The sandal’s owner shrieks, and Darius rolls under the trestle table just before a boot lands in his ribs. Under the table, at least, there’s no one close enough to punch or kick. He lies still, pants, waits for the nausea-edged giddiness to ebb and raises one hand halfway to his ear before deciding no, there’s no benefit to knowing.

He practiced ward spells on cauliflower florets, back in the safe, quiet classrooms of the College, but here, in the distracting chaos and reek of the souk, he can’t remember a word of it. He never thought, last night, armed with henna, the earrings he made in Siya and the pattern for the construct he spent the last year developing, that he’ll have to find a way to make it dampen physical force in addition to sound, smell and light. When he gets back to his room, he decides, he’ll see if he can weave it in, but there’s no point in trying now: Darius has never excelled in any form of magic that involves split-second thinking.

“You! You lousy cur! You pick those up, you hear!”

Darius swallows, far too aware that someone who isn’t hiding will have crawled out by now. He survived sandstorms and blizzards, he tells himself. He travelled halfway around the world. He endured brigands and marriage proposals and terrible food, albeit largely by appearing the kind of person brigands don’t find worthy of their time. What are the dangers of traversing a mere market in comparison? None, of course. So why can’t he make himself roll out from under the table and face nothing more dangerous than a crowd?

He exhales in a long, shuddering breath. No, that’s not fair. Sandstorms and blizzards aren’t as terrible, for the well-prepared divergent traveller, as the marketplace … and Darius had no reason to imagine Rajad’s Great Souk to be this degree of noisy and crowded. Similar people’s definition of simple isn’t his, can’t be his. He just had a vendor beat him over the head, after all, so how is this not difficult?

Even so, he remembers the look on Oma Petronella’s face as she dragged him through the lanes of Malvade’s merchant district while his younger and older siblings walked as far away from Darius and his screaming as possible … and a memory like that still makes nine years at the College seem like nothing, because the College isn’t the world. It should be simple. Shades, why can’t it be?

“If anything’s broken, you’ll pay for it, you will!” The vendor’s voice rises to a grating screech. “Guards! Guards! There’s a—”

“I’m picking them up!” Darius creeps halfway out from under the table, heads for a gap between shoes and scoops up everything that doesn’t look like rubbish in the aproned hem of his shirt—mostly marbles, polished stones, crockery shards and brown, wizen little things that look like dried-out monkey faces and smell somewhat like turned sweetbreads. He shudders, his gorge rising, only too able to imagine a set of trays covered with tiny faces, set out in the sun in the way sultanas and dates are dried with a midden of miserable, bleached-white monkey skulls sitting in a pit beside. What possible use does anyone have for monkey faces—well, anyone not the Professors Roxleigh? “I’ll pay you, sir, I promise.”

“I’m a hardworking salesman with a husband and children to support, and you come here, with your smarmy smile and your foreign coin, and expect to just waltz right in and commit property damage without any consequences at all?” The vendor thumps the stick against the table in time with each word, and Darius tries not to wince in time with each bang. “No. I will not take it!”

Personally, Darius thinks the vendor covered the consequences part quite well, but few similar people, and never the yelling ones, are open for discussions on the philosophical meaning of the word “consequences”. He grimaces, flicks something that isn’t mud off his fingers, waves off the flies droning around and makes a last pass across the ground. If he has missed something, it’ll just have to stay missed, because he’s going to retch if he touches another face-thing. Darius stands and tips the collection on the table before handing the proprietor a suitable coin from the cuff of his shirt. A shirt that now smells like offal gone bad and is too close to his nose for the dampening spell to make enough of a difference. “I’m so sorry. I really am.” Only then does he realise he’s waving his arm—no, not waving. Flapping. “Someone … someone pushed me, you see…”

“Get on with you!” The vendor whirls the stick around again. “Lazy schoolboys!”

Darius doesn’t even bother to try smiling this time, never mind explaining that he isn’t a schoolboy; he turns and runs, stepping on several sets of toes and stuttering several apologies. Someone cuffs him across the other ear, hard enough to send him tumbling into the side of a small hand-cart; an opportunistic hand grabs at his belt, fumbling for the wallet he doesn’t wear. It takes him several moments to find a free, relatively-safe corner by a cabbage seller, where he can huddle against the wall and watch the traders and customers of the Great Souk bustle past.

It’s a nightmare of movement and roiling, tumbling sound, a nightmare made worse by the commingled stench of manure and sweet incense, rotting vegetables and human sweat, roasting meat and bitter herbs. His head pounds despite the spell, and Darius sits still, watching a wagon piled with crates of squawking chickens wend past, too afraid to close his eyes despite yearning for a moment’s relief from the flashes of colour. No. He won’t scream or cry, and if sheer force of will ever kept a person from fainting or seizing, it must today. He reaches into the neck of his shirt and pulls out the wooden hoop lashed to the leather thong hanging from his neck. Before he glued the hoop closed, he threaded it with three wooden beads, carved during his first crossing of the Shearing Straits. They roll smoothly around the hoop, the hoop itself wide enough that Darius can run a finger over the beads. It’s hard to focus solely on the grain of the wood brushing over his skin or the turn of the beads, and the soft rattle is drowned out by the myriad denizens of the souk, but the fidget helps some. Breathe and roll the beads and breathe again.

This is it. No more questing, no more hunting. He’s done.

Once he has confirmed the status of this last sword, at least.

He draws in a deep, gasping breath, trying not to shake as he straightens his clothes and brushes the tips of his fingers against his swollen right ear. It feels five times as big as usual, which he knows from experience means that it doesn’t look anywhere near so swollen, but just touching the outer edge increases the throbbing to a breath-taking jolt of pain, and he still feels dizzy. Maybe he should see a doctor.

The Professors Roxleigh warned him about merchants out to cheat him of every coin, soldiers who’ll arrest anyone who looks like a thief, beggars with twisted limbs and Guild membership, and the pretty people up on the curtained balconies who decry their loneliness. Lady Plumeria and Amelia warned him about the desert, the snow and the sea—and told Darius to be suspicious of peaceful-looking green pastures. Nobody, even though the teachers are no less divergent than their students, warned him about the ordinary—similar—people who think it right to push, shove, cuff and hit anyone in their path. Why didn’t they? He’ll take on dragons over people any day: at least dragons can be reasoned with, collect items with much the same enthusiasm as the average divergent and hold an appreciation for educated verbosity!

Darius takes a swig from his hip flask, draws in another fortifying breath—wincing at the reek of his shirt and the pervasive aura of rotting vegetables—and dares to step out into the crowd only to land on a woman’s foot and dart into the path of a pack-leaden mule. “Oh, sir, I … sorry, sorry…”

Several people glare at him. Darius gives them his best apologetic smile and scurries away.

If, in future, Professor March or anyone else in the world wants a sword, they can go and get it themselves—and the fact that nobody pushed him to do this is quite beside the point. He’s done with questing. He’s certainly done with markets! If he doesn’t find the sword here, he’s going home regardless, and if that means spending the rest of his life trying to avoid dating the nice young ladies, gentlemen and aristocrats his parents think appropriate, so be it. Love isn’t worth this. Why did he ever think that finding the right sword will make a difference, anyway?

All told, Darius’s grand quest is a grand failure. It hasn’t cemented his magical genius by requiring him to fire out creative alliterative verses on the spot. He just asked about legendary talking swords, and, in the main, people, ogres and dragons seemed willing enough to help him—perhaps because Darius makes a good cup of tea, can stitch up a protection charm or a bleeding gash, and doesn’t mind proofreading family histories. The real problem, aside from the crushing of his expectations that this quest will see him become a great adventurer magician-hero instead of the awkward book-carrying scribe and tailor he’s always been, was that most of those fabled swords were either fakes, dearly beloved of their owners, or, worst of all, utterly authentic—but so damn irritating their tortured owners chained and buried them in the deepest dungeons in a vain attempt for everyone in the village, city or keep to escape their ceaseless chatter.

Darius became quite good at the art of the midnight runner, for every queen, king, lord, scholar, shopkeeper, ogre and farmer wanted nothing more than to bequeath their most noisy of heirlooms to someone else’s care. On the upside, he soon learnt that swords which sing bawdy folk songs without stopping provide enough noise that even he can escape undetected.

This last sword, after a year of travel through the Eastern Confederacy and surrounding countries, was a rumour at best: a pair of drunk mercenaries he met on the Khaloun border suggested that an arms merchant in Rajad had acquired a lot containing eldritch weaponry, and one item might have been a talking sword, come to think of it—or was it a whetstone? They scratched their heads a bit and decided there was a talking something in Rajad that might be worth his while. Darius didn’t have much faith in finding anything that won’t drive him to cutting off his own ears, but he decided it worth a final look. Rajad hosts the largest marketplace in the world: where else, if he can’t find what he wants?

If not—well, he’ll go home to Malvade and hide from the gentlefolk callers, because even House Liviu must find a use for an alliterative magician. Or become a magician mendicant wandering the Twinned Green, perhaps. Apprentice with a tailor. Anything sensible and quiet.

The hunt seemed like a better idea before a stick connected with his ear.

It takes Darius half an hour of knocking cauldrons, books, apples guaranteed to grant the knowledge of the universe, preserved rats, dried dates and supposedly enchanted rings—with the ensuing screaming, swearing, cuffing, hitting, punching and apologies—to make his way towards the corner of the souk reserved for swordsmiths and arms merchants. Here the whiff of spice is mellowed some by the tang of burning coal and hot metal. Darius swallows the last of the spit-roasted possum he bought for two chips and wipes his fingers on the hem of his ruined shirt, thinking that at least his mother and Oma Petronella will note with pleasure his new willingness to eat a boiled boot if he gets hungry enough. Navigating around a man herding five longhorn cattle through the alleyway makes approaching the closest stall easier said than done, however. “Good morning.” Darius pauses a moment to run the script through his head and check the name against the scrap of paper in his hand. “My name is Darius Liviu and I—”

The seller—a broad, slab-shouldered woman—looks him up and down before laughing. “You? You’d take your own head off if I sold you a sword.”

“Yes.” Darius sighs and rolls his eyes, not caring that most similar people take this to be high rudeness. He means it to be rude! It stopped being funny, if it ever was, once he heard the sentiment expressed in ten different languages. Yes, he doesn’t look like a swordsman—in fact, he looks like a scrawny twelve-year-old boy. As a magician, however, swords aren’t required to be dangerous; as a magician, looking like a non-threatening twelve-year-old boy is by far the preferable approach. Smiling, tripping and apologising doesn’t get him dragged into dark corners and his throat slit. Bruises are survivable. “I know. I don’t suppose you can tell me where Safi’s stall is, please?”

She gives him a long, doubting glance.

“I’m buying a present for a friend.” Darius stands straighter, realises he’s tapping his left fingers against his right arm and stills his hand by gripping his shirt sleeve. Similar people take fidgeting to mean incapability. This woman won’t know he fought basilisks—on Lady Plumeria’s back porch, but it counts—in addition to negotiating with dragons and building flying wingchairs. It isn’t right, but the more normal he appears, the more help he gets.

He wishes, though, that March thought to mention this in his stories of the Greensward.

She gives a shrug and the kind of sigh that Darius takes to mean she thinks this ill-advised but so not her problem. “Three streets down, fifteenth stall on the left after you turn right.”

“Thank you, sir.” Darius forces a smile—she did help him—and picks his way down the lane. Cluttered stalls crammed with a horror of polished metal reflecting the bright summer sun make him dizzy, but the worst part is the wave of clangs, bangs and thuds from the hammering forges across the way. It feels like surf smashing into the beach: here and there the sound ebbs a little, only for someone to resume the din of thumping as loud as before, the noise shuddering through Darius’s skull and down his spine. By the time he heads three streets down, takes a wrong turning and gets back to the right street, his ear has almost stopped throbbing, but his lip stings from biting and his headache is intense enough to blur his vision. How do similar people have the magical ability to not hear sound that bothers them? How do they survive living and working in this?

A faded red awning marks Safi’s stall, which otherwise doesn’t look any different from any other stall, displaying a collection of weapons from several countries that fall in the range from beautiful to hard-used, but all clean and shining. Two-handed swords brought in from the western side of the Shearing Straits by traders or left behind by mercenaries lie on the front table; a few dusty rapiers rest in a painted barrel; a multitude of curved-bladed shamshir hang on hooks at the back of the stall. Select pieces rest on swatches of velvet—Safi even has a few zweihänders and cinquedeas with nonsense alliterations scored into the blade.

Darius eyes them off and bites back a snort. Not a one of those alliterations make any sense, and they’re certainly not going to make a common sword any more or less magical. He may not be able to walk through a marketplace without causing a disaster, and he may look like a boy, but he was top of his year at school. He was good enough at artefacts to tutor for Professor Osprey. If that doesn’t tell him what’s rubbish passed off as magic, he doesn’t know what does!

“Good morning,” he says as he approaches the turning figure at the back of the stall. “I’m Darius Liviu and I—”

Safi appears at least three times as tall as Darius and five times as broad, his dark hair falling in raggedy curls about his face. He looks as though he can, and perhaps may, break Darius’s skull with a single punch, and just the way Safi peers down at him makes him feel a little nervous. “Go back home to your mother.” Safi jerks his head in a single shake. “You’re far too young to need a sword, boy.”

Darius sighs. “I’m not a boy.” He wipes his sweating, filthy hands on his trousers, trying to do so obviously enough to show the henna drawn over his copper skin, before reaching inside his shirt for the piece of crumpled paper more dear to him than anything else in the world: his diploma. He handles it by the edges, though, afraid of smearing the cream sheet. “I am a fully-qualified magician from Greenstone’s College of Magickery, on an errand of grave importance. I have heard that you have in your possession certain eldritch artefacts in which I may have a professional interest.”

This script, at least, is hammered into memory by repetition.

“I have what?” Safi frowns and peers at the diploma. Whether he can read doesn’t matter: a large, red, official-looking wax seal adorns the page.

“Certain eldritch artefacts that—”

“I’m not going to sell you anything if you don’t start speaking in small words. Don’t you roll your eyes at me, boy, or I’ll slap you into next week.”

Since Darius suspects Safi will hit him well before he successfully alliterates a ward spell, he nods and tries his best to straighten his face. He hadn’t meant to look annoyed that time, but he’s never been good at masking his feelings in the way many human societies expect. In truth, he’s never been good in dealings with people in any capacity. “Magic swords.”

Safi glances over towards the display, his face darkening into something close to a blush. “I see. I suppose you’re after something … well, real, then?”

“Yes.” Darius attempts a modest smile. “I’m—if you should have one—most interested in a loquacious … I mean, a talking sword.”

Safi stares at him before breaking into loud, raucous snorts.

Why, why does everyone laugh at him when he says that? Sure, the chances of finding a talking sword that isn’t obnoxious or cherished aren’t high. Finding a talking sword—if taste isn’t an issue—is in fact quite simple, and Darius already passed one by on the way to Safi’s stall, one that shouted not-so-helpful fashion advice at everyone that walked past. Finding that rare item, a talking sword that doesn’t drive its owner to despair, is a much harder quest.

It is, however, the only kind of sword Professor March doesn’t have displayed on his bedroom wall, the one thing that might make him look at Darius for just a moment and see something other than an awkward, green magician.

“A talking sword isn’t going to make you fight better, boy,” Safi says once he can get a word out between snickers. “How about a nice little dagger you can wear at your belt?”

Darius knots his free hand into a fist and counts down from ten before speaking. It doesn’t help. “This is an errand of grave importance.” It’s an effort not to snarl, and he flips his diploma back and forth with wrist-creaking force to brush away the flies droning around his face. “I am a magician in need of a certain magical artefact. Can you help me or not?”

Safi pauses, stares and sighs. “I’ve been saving it for someone special, of course.” He bends down for something tucked under the front display. “Here. If you want it badly enough. It’s real, I assure you.”

Too real, Darius thinks in horror once Safi emerges. Shades! The zweihänder is hideous, and for a moment Darius just wonders how he’ll get the damn thing home, since even Safi struggles to hold it: if the chape of the scabbard touches the ground, the pommel begins at a level well above Darius’s chin. He cringes, unable to look away from the gaudy hilt and guard fashioned like a serpent’s head and coiled tail, or the fist-sized red glass “gemstone” clasped between the serpent’s teeth to form the pommel. Someone covered the scabbard with paste stones, golden tassels and too many glittering trimmings to count. Darius can’t imagine anyone with a sufficient ability for embarrassment ever looking at the sword, never mind wielding it—the only thing not embarrassing about the sword is the battered leather belt wrapped around the scabbard, but even then someone tried to pretty it up with a few tassels.

He tugs his bead ring free from his shirt, runs a finger over the beads and stares. There’s no way he can bring that thing back to Greenstone and expect any kind of reaction save March throwing the wretched thing at Darius’s head—although March will need to stand on the dining room table to do so.

It occurs to Darius, after a moment of staring at a sword both a great deal taller than he and the epitome of some crafter’s tendency to unnecessary garishness, that he should say something.

What, though?

“See?” Safi draws the blade far enough that Darius can see the ricasso, etched with nonsense alliterations in Khalouni and Eastern Orthodox. How does Sword’s Strength Sings of Sweet Summer Sopranos Sighing in the Sultry Sands, in two languages no less, mean anything at all useful? “It’s the genuine article. I got it from a little old man who found it in a cave with other wizardly things, but—well, I think some magicians have trouble seeing past the outside to the beauty within.”

“R—really?” Darius draws in a deep breath and wonders what beauty that might possibly be. “Ah … no. No. I’m pretty sure if I return with that, my master will kill me.” If Darius manages to make it back to Greenstone with that thing in tow without dying from shame or a broken neck after tripping over it; he doesn’t like his chances on either point.

“You sure? I’m willing to offer a very discounted price. Just take it, even. I’m happy to see it go to a good home with magical-type folk who’d treat it right. That’s always important to me.” Safi holds out the sword for closer inspection. “I know people think I’m some common sword seller, but matching up warriors and their weapons is a sacred calling, you know. I think you both could have a lovely relationship.”

Darius takes a slow step backward. Only similar people, he thinks, can go from telling Darius he’s too young to buy a sword to, a few minutes later, trying to sweet-talk him into taking something horrific—and that, he thinks, says a great deal about the nature of this sword. No. He’ll go home and—well, he can always join the monastery, can’t he? He’ll spend his days gardening, transcribing sacred texts, composing prayers in honour of the Sojourner and never having lustful thoughts about Professor March or anyone else. “That’s, uh, really nice of you, really, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to d—”

He is silenced by a loud, strident, metallic-sounding voice: “You are going to give me to some random stranger off the street? A boy you don’t even know? Are you trying to get rid of me?”

Darius jumps and sends a matched pair of throwing knives clattering to the ground.

Safi doesn’t even blink. “Why the hell not? You’re annoying and bloody ugly. A boy like this is the only one too stupid to know how off balance you are. Do you think I’m made of money? Do you think I have the stall space for you to just lie around all day and not be sold?”

Darius swallows. “I do know that, actually.”

The sword raises its voice. “So you’re just going to give me away to the most pathetic person who comes in asking for a pathetic sword and expect me not to be insulted by that?”

“Yes! Yes, I am!”

Darius twists the leather thong of his necklace in one hand and waves the diploma in the other. “I’m not that pathetic. I’m a real magician.”

“I deserve better than that!”

On the positive side, Darius supposes, it talks without the distracting, annoying, seizure-inducing glow so many magical swords possess, and, overlooking the insult to his person, it sounds direct and sensible. March likes those sorts of qualities in his students, friends, lovers and flying monkeys. The sheer ugliness of the sword can be overlooked—albeit with great difficulty—if it happens to be everything else Darius wants. March might not even mind how terrible the sword looks if it happens to be a decent conversationalist.

“How about I go and nail you in a box? Or how about you go with the pathetic magician boy and stop complaining, or I’ll drop you in the bloody ocean!”

The sword gives a low, grumpy mutter. “Fine. Boy. Who are you and what do you want from me?”

Darius stares at it before shaking his head. Even with all the experience he’s had—and the first thing he’ll do in the monastery, between calling the hours and delivering sermons on the impermanence of existence, is write a book about magical swords around the world—talking to an object that rests, inanimate, in Safi’s hands never ceases to feel strange. No movement, no expression, nothing that makes the sword appear any different to any other less-magical sword, aside from the fact that looking at it makes Darius’s eyes hurt.

It is, in truth, a blissful relief, strange only in context. No having to pretend eye contact or worry about facial expression or tone—just the words, just a language closer to his own that isn’t burdened by all the other ways of communicating similar folk find as essential as the words that emerge from his lips.

“I’m Darius. Darius Liviu.” He folds his arms behind his back as if he gives a class presentation. “I’m a fully-qualified magician from Greenstone’s College of Magickery with a specialisation in arcane and eldritch artefacts, and I’m looking for a talking sword for my mentor, the Professor March, who is a notable and world-famous sword collector.”

Sword liberator, really, if by “liberation” one means “illegal acquisition”, but telling the sword how it is March came by the Worldblade is probably best saved until they’re on the right side of the Shearing Straits.

“Is it not ‘whom’ is?”

“It’s ‘who’,” he says, feeling comfortable for the first time in weeks. The Professors Roxleigh made any student who ever got it wrong in an essay clean up after divination classes, and one time scrubbing liver and entrails out from under his fingernails had been enough for Darius to make sure he never made that mistake again. “‘Who’ is in the subjective case—that is, the subject of a sentence, which usually precedes the verb. ‘Whom’ is in the objective case, which means—”

“Interesting.” The sword lowers its voice. “Are you saying, however, that I am to be hanged on a gentleman’s wall somewhere and ignored?”

Darius gapes for a moment before he remembers that the sword has no way of knowing what goes on in the halls of the College. “Shades, no! You’ll be displayed in his bedroom, which means that you’ll be able to watch, or sense, every time an assassin comes in to kill him, every night he spends with a bodyguard, every time he sends his shoes off to the wrong place, every time someone tries to burn the place down, every time students try and sneak into his room and unwire his swords, and every time the Professors Roxleigh come and drag him out of bed—it’s worth watching.” He gulps and wonders if that sounds, well, just a bit like he paid too much attention to the goings-on in March’s bedroom? “If he really likes you, he’ll probably wear you.” After the removal of most tassels and paste gemstones, not to mention reforging, since the sword is longer than March is tall. “And … it’s ‘hung’, actually. People are hanged; pictures and swords are hung. It’s an important distinction if you’re trying to create an alliteration to put things away … or hang someone, I guess.”

The sword lets the silence hang for a moment before speaking. “I take it you learnt these things at your College?”

Surprised, since few entities like being corrected, Darius shrugs. “You can’t create functional spells without correct grammar. Well, mostly. Exceptions being the principle of affinity and the principle of meaningful abbreviation, in addition to the fact that grammar is a fluid construct and a certain degree of stubbornness usually—”

Safi rolls his eyes and makes a few impatient scoffing noises.

“Indeed. So, then. What sort of bodyguards does this Professor March employ?”

Darius blinks. “Really?”

“I want to know what it is I am in for.” The sword sounds just a little prissy. “Or who it is I am in for.”

There’s a double entendre there, but Darius doesn’t want to think about that one too much. “‘Whom’. Um … well … they’re gorgeous ones, really.” He tries his best to say it without any particular weight, but some amount of envy must have crept in because Safi offers him a surprise smile, one far too sympathetic for Darius’s comfort. “Gorgeous, adorable men, mostly. Occasionally women and people, but he’s a bit bent that way. So I’m sure watching, or sensing, or however it is that you’re aware, and if there’s a correct verb and gerund please tell me … anyway, it won’t be a trial to you, unless you prefer women or people. But then there’s the Professors Roxleigh, so…”

Swords don’t have a preference, do they? It isn’t generalising, even knowing that Darius himself lies a world away from being a conventionally masculine man, too much to think that an oversized zweihänder is more likely to appreciate men than, say, a rapier? Or will a zweihänder adorned with gemstones rather watch women? Oma Petronella, after all, never stopped telling Darius and his siblings how lucky they have it because her Astreuch kin consider relationships a woman-man affair, so will a sword from that region have the same feelings? Or maybe they don’t have a sense of gender and don’t care who’s involved, or don’t care to the extent that human affairs are nothing but exercises in boredom, because they’re swords, not flesh entities?

The sword reveals nothing in the way of interest in its bland, bored-sounding question: “And I will travel with you to this College?”

“Yes?”

The sword’s silence lingers long enough that Darius breaks out in a nervous sweat, tucks his diploma under one arm and rubs his palms against his trousers.

“Oh, very well. But in that case, you can’t give this blade to this young man. Not that someone will want to steal it, mind; I just doubt he can carry it. Unwrap me and give him that … no, perhaps that … hmmm. Let me think on the matter.”

Darius isn’t the only one staring in confusion, thank the quiet dead: Safi blinks as if he doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do next.

“Just unwrap me,” the sword says finally. “That will do nicely.”

“Unwrap you?” Safi continues to blink. His arms shake from the effort of holding the sword upright. “I don’t…”

“Do you specialise in being obtuse? Good grief. Do you really, truly think that a talking sword looks like this wretched thing? I am the belt, numbskull!”

Darius stares at the belt. It looks as inanimate as the sword, and it may well be speaking the truth for all he knows: the first thing he learnt in school was not to expect magical items to come with a “Here Lies an Enchanted Object” signifier. He can carry the belt home, however. He won’t have to worry about someone mistaking him for someone capable with a weapon or laughing at him. He can even wrap the belt around some pretty-looking elfish sword from the marketplace back home. Who’ll know the difference?

After a moment’s thought, he rather likes the idea. It isn’t what he sought, but the belt seems a good sight more personable than those screaming swords embedded into blocks of stone, and isn’t that what counts?

“You.” Safi holds the zweihänder out at arm’s length as though the belt will loosen itself and bite his head off. “A talking belt? What kind of good is that?”

“Unwrap me,” the belt repeats with just a touch of petulance. “I want to go with the boy.”

“Magician.”

Safi blinks again—Darius wonders if he has something in his eyes—and then sighs. “Are you sure you don’t want the sword?”

“Very.”

The belt has even more enthusiasm on the matter: “Yes!”

“Fine.” Safi unwinds the belt and drops the sword, with a thunking clink hard enough to make Darius cringe despite the dampening spell, onto the display bench. “It’ll be easier to sell the damn thing without you yabbering, anyway.”

The belt, when Safi places it in Darius’s diploma-free hand, is a plain, common thing smelling of leather polish, sweat and horse. No decorative scoring or engraving; nothing but worn brown leather, pilling on the underside, marked by ten notches. The buckle is smooth and just a little tarnished. Nothing about it suggests sentience, sapience or magic.

“You can take those tassels off, boy.”

“I have a name.” Darius pulls at the closest tassel and drops it onto the bench. “It’s Darius. Darius Liviu. I’m a magician.”

“Yes. Boy.”

Safi’s throaty little chuckle makes Darius’s stomach knot in suspicion. Just what did the belt do whilst in Safi’s care?

“Now, you said that your master is a well-known sword collector? I have some examples—non-magical, of course—of exquisite work and such historical significance that any collector would be proud to display them, and, as you’re doing me a favour, I’d be quite glad to offer you a discount.” Safi winks. Darius glances up and down the alley and wonders at the lack of opportune cows or crowds ready to save him. “Anything to put a smile on your lover’s face, hey? I have a lovely rapier that was once wielded by the queen of—”

“No.” The belt’s voice sounds loudly enough that Darius jumps and almost falls over. “He doesn’t need a sword. Not yours, anyway. You, boy. Wrap me around your waist. We will leave. Farewell, sword seller.”

Darius tucks the diploma back under his shirt and winds the belt around his waist in three loose, overlapping loops before fastening the buckle on the tightest notch. Perhaps the zweihänder was intended for a giant, the belt a giant’s baldric? “Goodbye. And—thanks. I think?”

“Should you ever need a blade, you know where to find me.” Safi gifts Darius with another broad, warm-seeming smile. “Tell your friends! Tell your enemies! Tell everyone of my unending generosity!”

The belt doesn’t need to tell him to get out as fast as he can; Darius attempts a smile, waves and bolts away from the stall. Safi calls out something after him, but the jostling crowd drowns out the words. It doesn’t matter, Darius decides: he’s had enough. He heads south toward his rented room, barely making it twenty steps out of the arms quarter of the souk before running headlong into a flock of quacking, lean white ducks swarming the narrow lane in a horde of bobbing heads and beaks. A young girl in a plain shift herds them towards him, keeping them going with a stick and a shout.

“Oh! Sorry!” He darts to one side and lands on a duck’s foot only to screech when the duck lunges forwards, bites him on the calf and clings on. “Get it off me!” He hops, shakes his leg and spins, but the duck clings to his trouser leg and calf like a vice gripping wood, the pain fierce enough to make his eyes water. “Get your bloody duck off me!”

The girl balls her fingers into fists and screams back. “Stop stepping on my ducks, then!”

Something pecks at his fingers. Darius swears, grabs the duck latched onto his leg by the neck and pulls until it releases. He scrambles to the far side of the street, earning a few more hard pecks and a long stream of curses from the duck herder, and then stands, pressed as close to a cluster of barrels as he can, while the rest of the flock passes him by in a din of quacking that doesn’t smother the laughter from the closest stallholders. Shades! Darius closes his eyes, counts to ten, opens them again, crouches down, rolls up his trousers. Blood smears his calf around the ragged U-shaped indent left by the pressing beak.

No more markets, he thinks as he lowers his trouser leg. Home.

“You’re not very good at this, are you, boy?”

What to say to that? Darius stands and heads back down the lane, turning his head about in search for more dangerous livestock. Just people, thronging and shoving and waving and shouting, and he groans. Somewhere quiet, somewhere not cursed with the flickering colours of scarves and headcloths and bags, somewhere—he grunts as a shoulder sends him skittering into a wicker basket reeking of overripe oranges. Somewhere not here!

Not answering isn’t better than answering, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about the belt giving him smug smiles.

“Did you hear me?”

Darius steps past a jutting-out table laden with jars of eyeballs and holds his arms close to his chest to keep from knocking anything over.

“If you’re just the belt, why didn’t you say so sooner and get taken off that sword?”

“Can you imagine what it is to be a sword belt? You spend your time being worn by horrible, sweaty men and women and people who wield horrible, sweaty swords and spend their days riding and fighting.” The belt sighs. “Not a one of them were capable of good conversation. The stall was peaceful.”

A holiday, then? He supposes that makes sense, at least insofar as a belt probably doesn’t find a market stall a form of torture, but why end its peaceful interlude? “Why are you leaving now?”

The belt doesn’t answer, leaving Darius to stagger behind two women walking hand in hand, the pair so drenched in rose perfume Darius’s nostrils burn. A way to avoid enduring the chaotic blend of spices and stock and manure, he supposes, drawing shallow breaths through his mouth, but he slows his pace, enduring several shoves, just to let the couple and their dreadful halo of scent outpace him. How are similar people not bothered by this? Clearly the women are aware of the souk’s fragrance and disdain it, but how does their perfume not make the experience worse? How are they not stumbling along with a pounding headache? How do they not feel as though every step makes their skull contract around their brain?

“You might be capable of interesting conversation.”

He’s going to go back to his room, pull the shutters and lie quietly in the dark until he’s dead—“Sorry? What did you say?”

“You might be,” the belt says, raising its voice, although without the flat, snappish tone most people adopt when Darius asks for words to be repeated, “capable of interesting conversation.”

Him? Darius bites back the urge to laugh. “I was the most boring person in my year. The only thing notable I did was … well, uh, not be notable, I suppose.”

“You can tell me when to use ‘whom’.” The belt pauses. Darius manages to spend the next few moments traversing the crowd without being cuffed more than twice. He’ll have to note that in the book. “So, what are you going to do about becoming a bodyguard?”

He must be in the grips of a seizure aura, because, shades, he just hallucinated the belt asking him something about being a bodyguard! Darius scans the laneway—the rows of jars and boxes of polished stones along with the mingled cloying-burning scents of various spices and incenses tells him he’s in the witches’ quarter—for the safest possible spot in which to crouch or stand. “I’m sorry. Look—actually, that’s probably pretty insensitive to say. I’m sorry. Anyway, I’m not good at markets like this, and my head is pounding, and I’m pretty sure I just—what was it you actually said?”

“So,” the belt says, “what are you going to do about becoming a bodyguard?”

Darius freezes, loses balance and plants his right foot only to find a collared tabby cat now taking residence on that scrap of paving stone. It screeches and sinks teeth and claws into his leg; Darius flails, also screeching, at the creature clinging onto his shin before falling to his knees—knocking several glass jars of fingernail clippings off a stand as he goes. One jar shatters, scattering fingernails over the sandaled feet of everyone in the vicinity, which starts yet another chorus of shouts, curses and pleas from the vendor and anyone who ended up with fingernail clippings between their toes. The cat vanishes somewhere into the mess, of course, leaving the crowd to stare down at him and his clawed, blood-spotted trousers.

Why, why can’t he just walk through a market without making a disaster of it?

He sighs, babbles out a few apologies and starts to scrape up the mess, trying not to think too hard about the fact that he’s handling someone’s fingernail clippings. At least, unlike the divination classroom, there’s nothing squishy, but if he lets himself think about the fact that he has no idea from where those clippings came or how long they were in the jar—no. He won’t think about that. He’ll pick up as many of the clippings as he can manage and get the hell out of the market. He’ll sleep or pass out in his room, catch the next caravan to Khaloun, suffer the misery of crossing the Shearing Straits, give the damn belt to March and then hide in the closest monastery. Write his book. Research the Sojourner’s opinions on the evil inherent in ducks and cats. Live a quiet and unassuming life in the presence of no more than ten other people.

“I think it would be much easier,” the belt says, its voice only almost drowned out by the muttering stall owner, the advertising shouts of competing traders and the scrape of Darius’s own hands over the pavers. “You don’t want to give the professor a sword. You want him to notice you. You said he notices bodyguards. Therefore, become a bodyguard.”

There’s a thousand reasons why that is the worst idea Darius has ever heard, a hundred of which he has displayed in the last ten minutes, and they all tangle themselves up in his aching head. “I…” He grimaces as the nails bounce away from his fingers and settle themselves in the crevices between paving stones. It’s like trying to sweep up spilled rice or salt: impossible. “I, uh … I—”

“And don’t think you won’t be paying for that jar, boy! You can’t just come along as you please and break a hard-working woman’s stock!”

He groans and flaps his hands. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t—”

“Folk like you always don’t mean it, but are you ever careful? No!”

Careful? No, he spends his life trying to be careful, because he missed whatever ability allows people to control and place their limbs in the optimal arrangement for navigating the world! He spends his life struggling to move only for carefulness to make not a whit of difference: chaos happens no matter what he tries! Darius presses his teeth into his smarting bottom lip, unsure if he’s going to shout or weep but fearing the acceptability of either.

He’s never going to get this mess scraped up, so he shudders and gropes around in his right boot, dislodging two pencils in the process, for a spare coin.

“Hurry it up! You’re blocking customers!”

He stands, tosses the mess of collected fingernails onto the closest table and finishes by slamming the coin in the woman’s hand. “There.”

She glares at him from underneath a witchy-looking broad-brimmed hat. The cat sits perched on one shoulder and looks down at Darius with an equally smug, imperious stare. “That’s all you have to say? When you damaged my property?”

Both glances are petty, childish approximations of the glower mastered by the Professors Roxleigh, and he survived that, didn’t he?

“Yes!” Darius throws his hands up in the air, knowing that this more than anything betrays him as divergent, but he’s too tired to care. “That’s all I—no, actually, how about not putting jars on the edges of tables? Didn’t your mother or father or parent ever teach you that? Don’t put stuff on the edges of tables in busy walkways! And tie up your blasted cat!” He waves both hands toward the watching crowd, jerking his arms with each word. “And stop pushing! Stop shoving! Give people space!”

The crowd falls silent for one wonderful, amazing moment. Darius brushes the fingernails off his clothes and strides down the lane, heart pounding, hands shaking. Maybe he can do this. Maybe he’ll now walk through the crowd like the kind of person who isn’t shoved and jostled and called “boy”. Maybe he’ll be a man, a magician, the kind of person acknowledged by the masses. People will, for the first time in his life in a place that isn’t the blessed confines of the College, respect him—at least just enough that he’ll make it to his rented room without earning another bruise.

Five steps later, someone shoves him in the back and he falls headlong into a basket of grapes.

“Especially if you want to get into his bed, as I understand it,” the belt says as though their conversation were never interrupted. “Have you ever considered the fact that your search for a sword is nothing more than an extended metaphor?”

Darius pushes himself up and spits out half a grape. A saucepan sails over his head and he scrambles for cover behind a passing donkey cart. “That’s grotesque.”

“The grapes or the metaphor?”

“Both?”

“I gather that the thing you are truly hunting…”

Darius puts his hands over his ears and hums the Malvadan national anthem for several moments before he risks lowering them again.

“Are you listening? Boy? Good. Turn left at the next street, and then head north until you get out of the souk. I will take you to a fencing school, one renowned throughout the old Empire. Even just learning the basics here will attract the professor’s attention, I think. You could offer to pay your way through by doing whatever magic the sword master needs doing, although if I were you, I would offer to sleep with them. You can use the experience.”

He draws a deep breath and says, through gritted teeth, “I am not … I have had … I don’t need…”

“Yes, of course,” the belt says cheerfully. “It’s interesting that you respond to my commentary with regards your virginity first. Humans are such odd little creatures. In any case, turn left just up there. Give me a year. You will be…” It pauses, as if considering, but it makes an odd, high-pitched whistling noise as it does so, sounding rather like an annoying kettle coming to the boil. “Well, a little more capable than you are now. At least you have a brain. That gives you more prospects than most.”

Darius scrambles to his feet. “No. I’m not going to be a swordsman. You’re a gift. I can’t use a sword.”

“Why?”

He watches the flow of customers until a spot breaks behind a creaking produce wagon; he falls into line behind it. “What?”

“Why can’t you use a sword?”

Astonishment steals his voice: for a moment Darius can only flap his hands. “I’m a—no, it’s just—that, back there—” He stops, inhales, counts down from ten. It doesn’t do anything for his splitting head but it gives him time to order his words. “Because my head is killing me, because if I don’t vomit or faint before I get back to my room I’ll be shocked, because I’m not good with people, because their noise and smells drive me out of my own skin, because I have seizures, because I trip over everything, because I’m clumsy, because I’ll kill myself, because I’m divergent, because I’m a magician and because, oh, I just don’t want to?”

“So you can be assertive. That gives me something to work with.” The belt’s snort sounds remarkably close to human. “However, it strikes me that you’ve laid out several good reasons for not scouring a marketplace a thousand clicks from home in search of the rarest of rare things, an interesting talking sword. Yet here you are. Why?”

For a moment, it’s all he can to do stumble along, remain upright and stare at the fast-approaching corner, a quieter lane winding between fruit and vegetable sellers. “I don’t know. I got drunk one night and it seemed like a good idea?”

He knows that doesn’t answer the heart of the belt’s query, but the heart is something too frightening and compelling for speech. Darius risks a look down at the henna on his hands. He didn’t know that Rajad’s Great Souk would be this bad, true, but he knows himself: he has a lifelong history of being tortured by places much like this one. Yet here he is. It seems more like masochism than anything else, but it makes him think that if he wants to learn the sword, he’ll manage it somehow. Not well. If he takes ability out of the equation, though, he might have to argue, however reluctantly, that it’s a possibility.

“You got drunk? You actually got drunk?”

“Yes, I got drunk!” Darius steps sideways to let a cart go past. “I drink, sometimes, and I bed people, sometimes! And I’m sick of people acting like I’m this, this … innocent. I’m a man.”

The belt snorts again. “If you think, boy, that I’ll spend my time holding up your trousers, you’re mistaken. If you think that I’ll allow you to hand me over to hold up someone else’s trousers, you are also mistaken. I’m an artefact of great historical significance, to be used with a sword by someone who has the skills, knowledge and intelligence worthy of my company. So, I ask: does your professor ever use any of the swords in his collection?”

Darius decides then and there that the belt need never know what happened to the Worldblade. “I didn’t know that magical sword belts gave speeches.”

“It’s a hobby of mine.” The belt sighs, and Darius wonders why it makes all those breathy human exhalations when it has no need to do so. “Answer the question.”

Darius hesitates. “Well … they hang on the wall, mostly. They look pretty.”

“No.”

“They’re symbolic?”

“No.”

He flaps his hands in frustration. “We’re magicians! We alliterate! We don’t fight—well, we don’t mostly fight. Except for the basilisks and that time with the gnomes and—well, when we fight we don’t poke things with metal!”

The belt sighs again. “Then there’s nothing for it. We go to the school and you begin your quest to become a swordsman worthy of me. Turn left.”

His skull seems to be doing its best to squeeze his brain out through his eye sockets. “I don’t want—”

“Yes, you do. You want to walk through the crowd without being cuffed and shoved and shouted at. You want to be a man; you don’t want to be a gangly boy laughed at by everyone you see. You don’t want a sword to present to someone you love; you want to be seen. You want to be somewhere else, away from home—you want to be, in fact, someone else, or you wouldn’t have embarked on a fool’s errand to find something you know doesn’t exist. Magic hasn’t brought you what you want, or you wouldn’t be out here trying to find it.”

The speech isn’t the awful part. The feeling that the belt might be a little more than right isn’t the awful part.

The awful part is that Darius doesn’t have the least idea what to say.

“You want to be the man who went on an epic adventure and found the impossible and returned, glorious and triumphant. But all you did was talk to people and get knocked over and eat spit-roasted rat.”

Oh, no. No. No. “Possum.”

“I assure you that there are no possums in Rajad.”

Darius ducks to the side, stands very still and concentrates on not vomiting. It would be nice, he thinks, to have a stomach that didn’t threaten retching in response to any number of sights, smells, flavours and textures, but he supposes he has become rather good at telling it to stay put. The manure cart trundling past doesn’t help, though; neither does the onion stall behind him. “I … I was going to go home—Malvade or Greenstone, I don’t know—and go to the monastery?”

“Hide away because you failed, you mean?”

The belt’s tone almost sounds pleasant, but Darius sighs and reaches up to spin the beads on his hoop pendant as an alternative to clenching his fingernails into his palms. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

He flicks a finger over the beads with fierce savagery. “Fine! Yes! I was going to go somewhere quiet and hide. Hide because the real world is this horrible, reeking, banging, clanging, terrible place and I can’t cope with it. Hide because I’m miserable and lonely and tired of being screamed at. Hide because this whole damn thing has been unbearably useless. Happy?”

The belt somehow manages to speak above the sound of the stall’s proprietor proclaiming the health benefits of onions in a booming voice.

“So do something different. Turn left.”

This is too much, too hard. He breathes in, holds, exhales. “Why? What’s the point of it? I can’t—” He stops and counts to ten, but his throat tightens and his eyes prickle. “I can’t move like similar people. I can’t.” It didn’t matter at the College, a tiny separate world where nobody thinks and acts in the same way but everybody is united in their differences from the similar mindset. It matters everywhere else, and if Darius learnt anything this last year, it’s that his abilities lie in the matter of wielding commas, thread, a whittling knife and the written word. It’s not a terrible thing to admit that the grand dream of being a hero with a spell at the ready isn’t for him. He’s an awkward, bumbling magician with skills that don’t involve navigating marketplaces. Simple.

Hot tears splash onto the hands gripping the beaded ring, and Darius is too tried and frustrated and overwhelmed to care.

“No. You can’t.” The belt’s voice is calm, flat and measured. “Did anyone teach you to move like you? They gave you magic and grammar and books and a diploma and perhaps that cord around your neck—a good reason for a boy to love, I suspect. I don’t think they taught you how to move as you are in a world that isn’t for you, but why can’t you learn that? Don’t you think that training might teach you something of the sense and control you lack? Don’t you think it might give you the ability to learn for yourself your own measure of grace? No, you won’t be a great swordsman. It might be a challenge for you to be merely capable. You might, though, one day, accomplish something impossible by taking a stroll through a market.” It pauses, although not for long enough that Darius can find the words to form a comprehensible answer. “I know what you are! You left school to travel the world—you’re not done with learning! So why go back home to hide in a safe little corner when you can keep on discovering and studying?”

Darius raises one trembling hand to tuck an errant curl behind his ear. “You just don’t want go home to Professor March, do you?”

“When I have before me a project?” The belt’s voice rises in pitch, as if excited. “Of course not. Now turn, boy! Turn left!”

This is absurd, he thinks. A talking sword belt wants Darius to study the combat art of wielding an edged weapon and he’s standing, dithering, even considering this despite the chorus of reasons it is a terrible, even lethal idea. Yet … if he goes home to Malvade, it’s to the avoidance of the inevitable marriage proposal, and he has nothing in the Twinned Green save for the College. True, he can knock on the door of any monastery devoted to the Sojourner and find a residence, for a time, but … well, what reason does he have to say no?

Darius sighs and, certain that he’ll live to regret it, steps out into the laneway. Perhaps he can blame whatever happens next on the fact that he suffers a throbbing head-wound and is now incapable of making sound decisions. How else can he explain the fact that he doesn’t want to go home? That the idea of becoming the kind of man who can navigate marketplaces and defend himself, the kind of man that isn’t disregarded and dismissed as a mere boy, the kind of man that someone might notice, is something he wants more than magic? He’s a magician, he shouldn’t want—but he does.

Shades, he does, and magic hasn’t given it to him, so why not this?

“Good boy,” the belt said, almost whistling the words. “Now we start on the road towards getting you a penis.”

Darius flails in shock, almost on the verge of putting his hands over his ears once more, but while the world might mistake his age, there’s no reason for this kind of absurdity—not in Rajad, not anywhere. “Excuse me? I don’t need a penis to be a man. I am a man.” He folds his arms and ducks right to escape being sideswiped by a pair of cantering donkeys and their red-faced handler. “Keep that kind of sex-essentialist shit to yourself.”

“Exactly.” The belt breaks into a fit of babbling, incomprehensible, metallic laughter. “Exactly! You just may learn yet, boy!”

He’s too damn tired to think it through beyond feeling it has something to do with the belt’s comment on Darius’s searching for a sword, but he has the sneaking suspicion that the belt will ensure he figures it out anyway. In fact, he has the feeling that the belt will ensure he figures out a great many things—and if Darius finds himself now, having agreed to do something he would have considered impossible that very morning, he’s like to end up a stranger to himself. Is that something wondrous or terrible? Does it matter, if the belt says that he doesn’t want to be who he is? But what can he be, if he knows that he’ll never be like the crowd around him?

Darius sighs, shrugs and trudges down the laneway.

The belt, he supposes, will help him get there, wherever it is.

He wishes, deep down, that he didn’t know the fantasy of being like everyone else is just that.

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