The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Homecoming

Cover image for K. A. Cook's 'The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March'. Vector/cartoon styling of a creepy folly/shack/treehouse with various gothic accoutrements and a crow or raven perched on the roof. Folly is surrounded by more vector images of trees, bushes and scrub set on a cartoony green-hill background. Typeface for author and title credit is white stroked with black. The whole thing is very flat/one-dimensional and looks like a still from an 80s cartoon.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.

Homecoming: Darius Liviu arrives in Greenstone to take up March’s offer of a teaching job, only for the belt to betray a certain confidence involving the dead Efe Kadri.

Chapter count: 9550 words

Content advisory: Hallucinations, at least in the eye of the protagonist, that play with the line between auditory hallucinations and fantasy genre conventions of the talking dead/spirits. A protagonist who has a less-than-helpful relationship with previous healthcare providers, has undergone physical and emotional trauma and expresses his grief through guilt and numbness and depression. A protagonist who uses the words “crazy” and “madman” to describe himself because, like most of us, he suffers from internalised ableism (and lacks a suitable language). A narrator who experiences a partial seizure: I experienced dissociation/aura writing it. Lastly, Darius’s approach to food from here on in is reluctant and disordered at best even allowing for SPD/autism-related taste, scent and texture repulsion, and his narrative (speaking as someone who experiences just this) after this chapter colours food in a negative light. This could be extremely triggering, in multiple ways, for a great many people.

Note the first: We first meet Darius in Certain Eldritch Artefacts and later in The Adventurer King. Fourteen years of study and adventure have passed since he met the belt in the Great Souk of Rajad, and seven since he met Efe and Aysun Kadri. The belt and Efe (later, Aysun) are fairly important in his life/narrative.

Note the second: I’ve lived the position of having to come back home in failure with the consequent feeling that that I’ve come back home only to be the person I was in that space before I left it. I came home feeling far less than I’d found myself to be, and that’s a peculiar, adult kind of despair. This is a character arc explored more in literature than in genre writing, but since the beauty of this story is exploring different adult character arcs, Darius, however bleak and depressed, lets me play with this narrative (and the truth that this is one of the many lies depression likes to tell us).

Note the third: I can only speak to my own experience, and I’m aware that my experience isn’t universal, but after some time my experiences with hallucinations shifted from “There’s a horde of spiders swarming all over me! PANIC!” to “Man, here’s the spiders nobody else sees again. What are the fuckers going to do this time?” I don’t tend to see this kind of relationship to hallucinations in fiction, so it’s important to me to write a character whose approach is one of awareness and annoyance—to the extent that it’s actually an exercise in tedium, one that wouldn’t be half so problematic most of the time if only other people didn’t notice.

You come through my doors battered and lost and alone, and I watch over you.

Rain streams down from a leaden sky. For three days and three nights it has rained as though the gods are threatening another great flood. For three days, at least, Darius rode through the mess believing that the cloud bank must shift only to be faced with its baffling refusal to move. He should have stopped noticing the way the rain trickles down the back of his neck or pools in his boots. He should have stopped noticing the rhythm of rain drops beating down on the brim and crown of the stockman’s hat he bought from a passing farmer for thrice its worth. He should have stopped noticing the pain from unrelenting cold in his flesh fingers and the constant itch in fingers that are wood and shouldn’t itch but nonetheless do so. He should have stopped noticing his numb lips. Should have, but can’t: at best, it’s merged into a hell in which he can only grit his teeth, pat his poor mare and keep on riding.

He forgot, despite spending almost nine years here at school, that Greenstone is named as such in part because of the peculiar climactic conditions that result in regular and plentiful rain. Rajad, Siya and the other Eastern Confederacy nations at least have the sense to keep their downpour to a certain part of the year. True, there’s almost no time of the year in which anyone enjoys travel in Khaloun, between the wet season and the hot season and the windy season, but Darius will take heat over rain. One can simply ride at night, after all. It’s a great deal harder to ride when it isn’t raining when the rain doesn’t end.

Mul Dura, he thinks as the thousandth rain drop rolls down his spine, wasn’t as bad as this.

No, even Darius knows Mul Dura was a thousand times worse. Mul Dura, however, at least after that moment of awakening and before he found Efe, possesses the fuzzy, rose-coloured overlay of being, most of the time, in the past. The rain, however, is right now, and the human mind is quite good at looking fondly on any torture not right this minute.

“Why do you always ramble on, man?”

He jerks and turns, but there’s nothing behind him and his pony but the road, veils of rain and paddocks of green wheat and yellow sourgrass blooms; the heads of the latter are rolled into tight funnels against the downpour. Efe Kadri, former king of Siya, is quiet, most of the time, but the moment Darius’s thoughts veer anywhere close to his dead ward, Efe starts talking: anything from random comments and interjections to a chain of pleas that can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours at a time. That wouldn’t be so bad, though, if only Darius stopped reacting.

It’s one thing to hear voices that aren’t his own; another entirely to respond as though someone stands right behind him.

The elves might not realise he stole the seedling. They still might pursue him from the fear of letting a mad human out on his own, and Darius wonders, not for the first time, what Aysun wrote about him. Surandil seemed far too interested in a mere human’s health given that Darius was, at best, a mere inconvenience to be endured as an unexpected cost of amber imports.

“You weren’t supposed to leave me.”

“I’m sorry,” Darius says for the umpteenth time, although, by this point, he isn’t sure whether he’s sorry for Efe’s death or sorry that Efe won’t leave him alone. Most likely the latter, and Darius knows what that makes him. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Is there even the remotest chance that will be enough?”

He waits and hopes, prays, that he’ll hear nothing but the ceaseless rhythm of falling rain and Safi’s hooves splashing through mud. Even conversations with the belt might distract, but the belt—likely sulking given that Darius left it behind before he dared the nursery—hasn’t spoken since the Greensward. Before, Darius considered this preferable. He wasn’t one for conversation as distraction. Efe came to know that, too. He always gave Darius as much space as their positions and the circumstances allowed—

“May I touch your hair?”

Darius flinches, sighs and shakes his head.

The elfish physicians, once Surandil realised his guest had a habit of reacting to an invisible speaker, used a great many polite-sounding words to name the ghost which plagued Darius since Siya a mere hallucination. They avoided the word “voices”: they just pointed out that if Efe were a true ghost, the elves, connected as they are to the spiritual world, must sense him. Once Darius grudgingly allowed that point, not out of belief but in the vain hope they would stop annoying him, the physicians merely moved on to words like “guilt” and “neurosis”, as though that, in their studied opinion, the fact that Efe is not a ghost and just a conjuring of a broken mind makes some practical and significant difference.

What that difference might be, Darius doesn’t know.

It’s a ghost. Efe’s ghost. It must be.

Why shouldn’t it be? Yes, he wears the result of an elfish miracle attached to the stump of his left wrist, a miracle wherein he can twitch wooden fingers well enough to grasp the reins. No human maker will craft a hand that moves with a thought without sung wood. Nonetheless, Darius can’t accept, unquestioned, the notion that the elves have some greater mystical relationship to the universe and must therefore declare ghosts a simple manifestation of human delusion. Elves aren’t human. Why should they know anything about human spirits?

Of course, nobody not Darius hears Efe, not even the belt.

“Do you know how pretty you look when you pout, Liv?”

The physicians did repeat the word “guilt” several times, apparently under the assumption that Darius doesn’t know he wakes up berating himself for not escaping sooner.

“You’re easier to share with Aysun.”

He sighs in relief, for reasons that have nothing to do with rain, when a rickety manor house looms up out of the thick, clinging cloud.

The strangest thing, Darius decides, is that the College hasn’t much changed. It’s still the same, but he now possesses the ghost of his dead lover, a wooden hand, assorted scars and a presently-somnolent talking sword belt. He remembers being a student here; he remembers leaving in search of the kind of lover’s token a boy who so desperately wants to be seen presents to an older man. Since then, though, he’s travelled the world all over again, and if Darius thought any number of times that he should give up and find the nearest monastery to live a life of contemplation and quiet, he never quite managed to drag his feet from the worldroad. He never managed to drag himself away from Efe and Aysun. If he’s changed that much in the years since, if he’s lost teeth and fingers and a thousand shades of innocence, both Greenstone and the College must have, surely?

At best, and this likely an illusion formed by the low clouds shrinking the landscape under their cold shroud, the College only looks smaller.

The manor has changed some on second glance, but in detail, not presence. Some long-broken windows are now whole and fogged with rain, others now broken and boarded shut. More statues, a broad-leafed tree growing through the roof close to the students’ common room, the lawn—meadow, really—longer than Darius remembers. Despite this, he looks on the same ramshackle building owned by a man who has a mind for everything other than home maintenance, and Darius knows in one fell instant that it will be no different inside. The details may differ but the spirit will not, and he feels some tangled confusion of fear and relief made all the worse by the realisation that Darius doesn’t know what he wants to find here.

Distraction. Purpose.

He rather suspects, though, that he’s merely running away.

“We should go back to Siya when this is done, man. We haven’t seen Aysun in months.”

Just thinking about seeing Aysun again makes him shudder.

“Stop it,” he says to Efe as he reins the mare in just short of the flight of steps leading up to the ivy-and-blackberry-smothered porch. The roof is empty and silent of everything that isn’t rain sleeting down the sheets of slate, although it likely drowns out the noise of squirrelling monkeys waiting out the downpour in the attic. Maybe he should have gone around the back, but it’s been so long that doesn’t feel right, either. “Hello the house?”

Darius slides his feet from the stirrups, shifts the reins into his wood hand, grabs the pommel with his wooden fingers and the cantle with the flesh before he swings down from the saddle to land, squelching, on the drive.

The main door, already half open, creaks. Someone shouts before the door opens wider still to reveal a corncob carrying a pink heart-print parasol despite its broad-brimmed straw hat, its mouth turned downwards. Susan never much liked the rain, Darius remembers: drying its wings and silk always carried the fear of catching fire, so Susan tried its hardest to keep from getting wet. “Can I help you?”

Susan’s face was never easy to read, not that Darius ever excelled at facial expressions, and its black-hole eyes give nothing away as it darts out onto the porch and heads down the steps, looking Darius up and down all the while.

“Darius Liviu. New construct master. Professor March will be expecting me.”

Susan’s head bobs. “He’s in the kitchen. May I take your mount?”

His fingers ache and itch, he’s sick to death of the smell of wet horse and he’ll give his soul to be indoors, but he doesn’t run the risk of sprouting mould or mildew, even if he suspects his wooden fingers are an eighth of an inch larger around than when he carved them. “Would you rather I strapped her so you can get inside?”

Susan’s head doesn’t so much shake as twist around on itself in a complete circle. Once upon a time, it scared him. “It is my job to do for the animals.”

In the last five months, he’s become acquainted with both the need to manage as much as possible and the well-intended habit of humans and elves alike trying to help him by doing for him. He can’t do several things while not wearing his wood hand, and his clumsy wooden fingers can’t well manage certain things he once did without thinking twice. Most things people offer to do for him, however, he can manage well enough: people never think to ask if he wants the help before sweeping in and taking over! Shades, he knows what they mean by it, but what good is meaning when it strips away what little he has?

Darius holds out the reins. “Thank you. Her name is Safi.”

Susan’s lips curl upwards in something almost a smile. “You used to hide in the stables. You used to come barrelling out if you saw a rat.”

It remembers, then, and he doesn’t know what to think about that, but he can’t help a smile in return, a bitter smile that has nothing to do with Susan. He ran from rats. The belt took delight in informing him that the possum he grudgingly forced himself to eat, both to overcome his pickiness and from the lack of options on the road, was in fact rat, and it all seems so innocent and distant. Sweet. He was that boy, but Darius’s memories don’t feel like proof enough that he even existed: that boy, fading away on the worldroad, vanished in Mul Dura. “I ate rat in Rajad. Ate rat in Mul Dura, too. Had to catch them with one hand and a song.”

Susan doesn’t look at his gloved hands, although it takes a careful eye to see the difference between the two underneath the brown leather gloves and the bulky layers of coat sleeve and cloak. Susan also doesn’t speak, which is just as well, because Darius doesn’t know what he’ll say if it comments on the tragedy in those too-blithe words.

He pats Safi on the nose with his wood hand, makes a note to come out afterwards and thank both pony and Susan, and walks up the slippery slate steps, across the porch, around several blackberry brambles intent on snagging his boots and through the sticking doors.

No different, he thinks, as water streams down his clothes and pools on the tiled floor. Grand wooden staircase at the back of the foyer leading up and branching left and right; grand stained-glass doors on his either side, one set locked shut for reasons unknown to Darius the student, the other wide open and leading to the library. Everything reeks of age, damp and abandonment. Blue gaslights flicker on the walls, and the thick, choking veils of dust add to the ambiance of a ghost waiting to sweep down those stairs and—

“Do you love me, Liv? Not love love, not from you, but … well, love?”

He turns, but, like always, there’s nothing behind him but the rain and the sagging doors. No hint of cold, no presence, no unwonted gust of air, no suggestion of the sandalwood oils Efe wore or the cedar balls tucked into his saddlebags, nothing that the books—or even the Sojourner’s priests—associate with the lingering dead. Just the voice, Efe’s voice, always behind him even though there’s nothing there to speak.

“I took your body back to Siya,” he says through gritted teeth. A ghost hovers, unseen, behind him. If he’s sure about anything, it’s that Efe’s voice isn’t in his own head. He hears it, the soft, throaty syllables of Siyan-shaped Eastern Orthodox. For six and a half years Darius woke to Efe’s bleary-eyed grumbling and slept listening to the slow rhythm of his breath. He can’t not know that voice. “I could have buried you in Mul Dura, but, no, I carved spells into your skin and carried your lifeless bag of bones across the desert to Aysun! With one hand! Isn’t that love?”

No, perhaps not the kind of love in songs and lays and stories. Not love expressed with roses and kisses and avowals, but love with its own degree of absurdity nonetheless. Love deep enough to tolerate those things, however alien to Darius himself, when they came from Efe’s lips.

“It isn’t just sex, man! It’s you!”

“Please,” he whispers. “Please. Stop. Just stop. I should do this. I must. What else am I going to do?”

Efe, for a wonder, says nothing.

If a ghost obeys a request, it must be a ghost.

Darius sighs, fists both hands and turns left into a narrow hallway lined with dust-clogged, paint-peeling portraits of March’s ancestors. Once, in his first year, Darius spent an afternoon wandering the hall and wiping the dust from the plaques attached to the frame to read the inscriptions: as near as Darius can tell, March’s relatives, at least on his mother’s side of the family, go back to the first duke of Greenstone. Now, he can scarcely make out the silhouette of the sitter. He walks past the doors to the dining hall, Amelia March’s surgery—judging by the comment on her chalkboard, she’s still warring with her cousin—and the one March locks without explanation. This hallway, more than the foyer, gives Darius the feeling of coming home. Amelia, always arguing with March over something; locked doors; the tomato drifting out from the kitchen; dust. Maybe it won’t be so bad to come back. No, he won’t know the students, but he’ll be able to see Mitzie and Johannes again. If Mitzie forgives him for the letters he never wrote.

“Where did you put my shirt?”

Someone tied back the door leading into the kitchens a good half-century earlier, going by the dust collected on the cord tied about the knob, so Darius sighs and raps on the door itself before walking in. The kitchen was and still is the cleanest, best-maintained room in the house. The fire roars in two of three grates along the back of the kitchen, sending an instant smoke-tinged warm washing over Darius with enough force to make him shiver, and every lamp is lit, the sheer array of copper and silver surfaces—everything from pots to gravy boats—making the long room brilliant with light. Too brilliant: spears of light flash across his vision and his skull tightens in warning. Nonetheless, nothing here has much changed: a vast pile of rhubarb rests on the counter by the sink, and he’s sure the hessian sacks of potatoes in the corner used to be occupied by wheat, but the rest appears perfectly familiar. The racks of pots and pans hanging on the roof, the shelves of plain white crockery stacked above the counter, the great pantry doors crammed full of jars and bags and loaves, the spotless slate tile floor, the way March can’t abide anything more than a spoon sitting unwashed in the sink, the rich tang of meat and tomato wafting from a cauldron-sized pot…

Darius stops, half closes his eyes, breathes. The smell, so strange after the Greensward, leaves him perched on the cusp between desire and nausea. Beef, twinned with a salt smokiness that suggests March didn’t stint on adding bacon to the broth. Shades, does he still start the day with a bacon sandwich?

March, wearing a flour-dusted apron tied over one of his many identical black suits, his hair pulled back off his face with a bright purple ribbon, turns. “Oh, who thought—” He stops, blinks, blinks again. “Darius?

The last time he heard anyone speak his name like that, five months ago and more, he blinked up at Aysun Kadri while her guards carried him into the Summer Palace.

“Professor—” He walks forwards and realises immediately that he stood too long and dripped too much water on the floor, and that furthermore he’s too tired and too out of place to take his usual care with footing. His foot skids back over the slate tile and Darius tips forwards. Even now, though, he’s used to it: perhaps the greatest gift the belt ever gave him was the declaration that Darius doesn’t have to attempt to regain a balance he seldom possesses. If he’s going to fall, fall. It’s unthinking habit now, after fourteen years, to tuck his body even as he slips so he lands on his shoulder and rolls forwards, and if he misses the bench more by luck than good management, well, he doesn’t have to admit that. Many a soldier in the ring and in the field struggled to predict Darius’s movements, and many a soldier fell because Darius knows their rhythm and patterns better than they’ll ever know his. Magic helps, though. Magic and the belt. He flips himself up, rests his flesh hand on the tiles and pushes himself up all before the bruising pain hits. His head spins, though, but that’s just another thing to hide. “Uh. Professor March. It is good to see you again?”

March wipes his hand on the apron. “Save the script. You’ve been in the world too long. It’s got no place here.” His words are short, but there’s no unkindness in them. He looks older than Darius remembers, his dark hair greying at the temples, the wrinkles about his eyes and nose and mouth carved deeper into his brown face, but it’s a superficial, skin-deep difference. March is as timeless as his kitchen. So what if the skin ages? March is March, and the part of Darius, the boy that fell headlong in love—or what he thought was love—with a man who spoke the words and thoughts that made Darius feel alone in his blood family, won’t ever forget. “There. Stool. Pull off your wet things and sit in front of the fire. Are you hurt?”

His eyes flicker across Darius’s face, leaving Darius with the feeling that he’s taking in more than a few scars and the Guard tattoo.

“This is your March?” A slow, metallic whistle fills the air; Darius cringes in preparation. “I admit I’m not the best judge of humans, Dar, but I can see why you—”

“Professor March,” Darius says, with no small amount of desperation, “this is … the belt. I’m sure you remember my letters.” He gestures at the belt wrapped thrice about his waist, currently playing host to what remains of Darius’s sword—the hilt and a hand’s width of sheared blade, once curved like a kilij yet short enough to blur the line, for most men, between sword and dagger. Efe gave it to him after Laiphu; Darius never commented on the fact that Aysun must have had it forged between their first and second meeting. He carries it from habit and as warning, since his nights on the road taught him that the farmers and traders of Greenstone will stare oddly at a man who dresses like a soldier, flashes gold teeth and doesn’t hide the strange ink on his face. “It has no interest in human designations of name or gender. And it talks.”

He carries a broken sword, he suspects, because then he doesn’t have to bear the real thing.

“So you’re the oft-spoken Professor March!” The belt lets loose the ringing sound, somewhat like a wooden spoon clanging against an iron pot but only insofar as it doesn’t sound like that at all, it makes in lieu of laughter. “Pleased to meet you, Professor. Don’t misunderstand me: I’ve no interest in hanging on your wall. But Dar spoke about you all the time, until he found his Efe, and I’m pleased to say that you, in fact, do live up to expectations.”

How many times did Darius ask the belt if it could see its way into not mentioning certain long-ago facts, along with one or two recent ones, that bear no relevance to his life right now? Five? Ten? Fifty?

March doesn’t so much as blink. “Thank you for the compliment. I’ve never met a talking sword belt, I admit. I share my bedroom with a talking washstand. It checks my teeth and advises me on current hair trends. Rather useful in theory, although somewhat wasted on me. Would you mind, at some point, if I asked how you were made?”

Most people stare for a moment, trying to figure out why the voice they’re hearing comes from Darius’s body but sounds nothing like him. Even Efe reacted to the belt at first, although Efe soon decided that for the price of one man, he got a bodyguard, a magician, a lover and a talking sword belt. Darius used that confusion, though: he, Efe and the belt spent one wet season in Laiphu working as street ventriloquists whilst hiding from the Phoenix Guard. Efe, the belt and Darius performed by day to the crowds whilst hunting down Sahar Ehsan and plotting Golzar’s assassination by night, and the belt complained of the indignity every evening, but they all three survived the Reign of Blood.

Nor would Darius have escaped Mul Dura if the belt hadn’t overheard the name of Darius’s captor, so he just sighs, shifts his feet in the quest to find a position that causes least dizziness and pushes back the feeling that, just this once, the belt might have held back on its unceasing joy in embarrassing Darius.

“You can ask,” the belt says in a light, tinny voice, and Darius almost laughs. Well, if anyone will manage it, March will. “I’d like to meet the washstand, if you’d introduce us…”

It occurs to him that he’s both cold and wet, but no longer needs to be either of these things, so he pulls his hat off his head, followed by his cloak and coat. He looks around for a hook, but March holds out a hand, so Darius just passes them over, yanks his gloves off with his teeth, flexes his flesh fingers and begins unbuckling the belt while March hangs up his dripping clothes on hooks bolted to the pantry door. By now he’s used to being a third wheel in the matter of conversations between the belt and anyone else, but if the belt will chatter away to March, March can be the one holding it.

Unlike the occupants of every inn in Greenstone, March pays the wood hand no mind: his eyes drift down Darius’s neck, chest and torso as though ordinary clothed skin is far more interesting than a rare magical construct.

He places his sword, gloves, knife and purse on the grate to dry, hands over the belt in his flesh hand and wonders what March will see in it, since Darius has studied the belt for fifteen years and come up with nothing perceptively eldritch beyond the fact that a voice speaking fluent Eastern Orthodox emits, in some way, from the space occupied by the belt. He suspects a sapient entity housed in a pocket universe linked to this one via the object the entity inhabits, the belt, which is no more or less correct than anything else he’s read on the subject, not to mention no more or less provable.

“Why do you always have to fuss over finding the answer? The belt talks. Come here and leave it at that, man!”

Darius looks back over his shoulder. Nothing. “Be quiet, you.”

His flesh hand just looks wrinkly and damp, but he takes longer to flex and study the other. The wood hand, a pale ash several shades lighter than his skin—sung wood matches elfish skin tones, of course, but fails to reflect the wide variety of human complexions—is stiffer than it should be, the balls and sockets swollen just enough that the joints grind against each other. He attempts to flex his thumb towards his palm and winces when his thumb moves halfway. Shades. He’ll have to dry it out, restring, and, if the drying doesn’t restore the wood to its proper shape, sand, recarve any priming spells lost by the sanding, and then restring for the second time. Telepathic fabric, wire or resin, though, doesn’t exist—or if it does, the elves didn’t bother telling him.

The wood and harness alike reeks of wet horse, wet leather and human sweat. Darius wrinkles his nose.

“The elves,” he says, still looking at his hand, “said these gloves were waterproof, but three days of rain says otherwise. They also said their varnish would resist water if I didn’t take a bath with my hand on.” Darius sighs and rolls up his sleeve. No point in complaining. He’s the one who decided it better to ride with two hands than to ride with a hand and a hook. “Professor, I don’t suppose you’ve a student with clever hands? I can sand it myself, slowly—I had Evaeril make me a clamp I can attach to my harness—but I can’t string a hand with only one hand. I’ll never get enough tension in the cord.”

March looks up, although his fingers still run over the worn leather strap. It does, Darius knows, feel nice to the touch. He polishes and buffs the belt every week, as per the belt’s exacting instructions. It doesn’t matter that, after fourteen years, he knows as well as the belt does: the belt still lectures Darius in the fine niceties of leather care. “Darius?”

There’s a strange interrogative note in March’s pitched last syllable of his name, but Darius hasn’t the least notion why. He just mimics it right back. “Professor? Isn’t there a student who can help?”

Given that he spent his spare time dogging Professor Osprey’s heels, Darius can’t believe there isn’t a maker-inclined student here who’ll help him for a look at his hand.

“He was talking to the man in his head,” the belt says, its voice slow, soft and dreadful. “His dead lover and ward, Efe Kadri. The elves say he’s ill. Dar says it’s a ghost in the kind of voice humans use when they so very badly want a thing to be true. He spent most of his time with the elves arguing the philosophical difference between ghost and delusion until he finished his hand and ran away. Dar asked me not to tell you, but if I didn’t do everything he asked me not to do, we’d both still be in Mul Dura.”

It punctuates that terrible pronouncement with the tinny whistle it knows drives Darius up the wall and over the roof—and the worst bit, the absolute worst bit, is that the belt is right. The belt’s disregard for Darius’s instructions has, repeatedly, saved his life. The belt also, repeatedly, annoys, harasses and embarrasses Darius, and what reason does it have in this, other than seeing Darius out of a job? He isn’t dangerous to himself or anyone else, and now where is he supposed to go? Malvade?

Death, he thinks, might be better than the mess of everything he’s feeling right now.

Without thinking about anything and in the process of thinking about everything, Darius turns and squelches his way back towards the kitchen door.

“If it helps,” March says, after a moment, “Surandil’s latest assassin made a rather feeble attempt to slit my throat and then left a note in my dressing gown pocket. I think Rand is genuinely worried for you—well, whatever form of condescension passes for worry in the elf mind, but it’s genuine nonetheless.”

Incredulity, that and a touch of dizziness, brings Darius up short. He rests his flesh hand against the tied-back kitchen door. “That’s supposed to help?”

The belt lets out a hissing sigh. “Dar. Come back.”

“If I remember to mention that I got Rand’s note before I sent you the offer of employment, it might.” March, still holding the belt, hooks his ankle under the bench and drags out a second stool. He kicks it before the fire and sits down, and while fifteen years have passed for March as well as Darius, he’s still spry enough. Darius isn’t sure he’d have wanted to take on March when he had two flesh hands, and he’s certain he doesn’t care to try it now.

There’s several good reasons Surandil hasn’t reclaimed the Worldblade, and that March has buried any number of elfish assassins on the property is only one of them. Darius did wonder, on occasion, why the Greensward so values Siya’s amber that the elves admitted, taught and helped a man somewhat infamous for being March’s student. The elves never mentioned Erondil or the circumstances of his arrest in Darius’s presence, but he overheard enough quiet comments to glean that Surandil’s son and supporters found Darius’s presence in the Greensward to be near as vile as the Felling itself.

“Sit, will you? Please.”

“That makes it better? That he wrote you?” Darius shudders. Shades, he wants anything in the world but to think about the contents of said note! “So you lured me here? Send the crazy madman who … talks to the dead here after a job only for you to—”

What? A quiet room somewhere and a doctor of some kind? A letter to Darius’s blood family? A letter to Aysun?

March shakes his head. His movements and words alike are soft, slow, quiet. Darius feels as though March holds out his hand to soothe a frightened colt, and that just makes Darius’s hackles creep higher. “They didn’t help you much in Siya, did they? Clean your wounds, send the king up to the heavens in his chariot of smoke—and then his sister takes the crown and nobody has time or space for the wounded man who couldn’t save his king?”

It’s an abrupt change in subject that has the added punch of being wrong in fact but almost true in spirit, and Darius is too taken aback to do anything more than lean against the door. A month in Siya. A month to recover from the ravages of the desert before Aysun Kadri burnt her brother’s corpse, thanked him before the court in a trembling voice for returning her brother’s body, and handed him the well-intended missive for Surandil begging the elves help Darius in the matter of a sung-wood hand. A month and he never stopped seeing Efe in her beard and her gaze and her words, a month in which he never saw her eyes not rimmed red, a month in which to see her grief unfaded, a month before he took the letter and ran like the coward he is from the woman he betrayed. It would have been easier if she hated him. It would have been easier if she judged him, dismissed him, despaired of him … but she looked at him with sadness and forgiveness and love, even in the depth of her loss, and how was he supposed to endure that?

He packed his things that night, convinced Aysun’s guards to let him pass and caught the first caravan for Khaloun and then a ship to the Greensward.

The next morning, as the hill of Siya faded into a blot on the horizon, Darius heard Efe’s shade whisper for the first time.

“I didn’t stay,” he says at length. “I could have, but I didn’t.”

“It’s been months since we’ve seen Aysun, Liv.”

Darius fists his flesh hand as tight as he can force his fingers, but the pain isn’t near enough to distract him.

“I’m sorry.” March shrugs and taps his fingers against the belt buckle, but his words aren’t as gentle as his voice. “So you go to the Greensward, spend three months developing anaemia and choking on cherry blossoms while you craft a hand and the elves debate ghost or illness as though the distinction has relevancy, and the result of all this is that nobody has helped you in any practical sense.” March threads his fingers together and raises his eyebrows at Darius. “Go on. Scream. Yell. Throw things—please don’t throw my teapot with the periwinkles, but anything else. Storm out into the rain, come back later, break down weeping. Whatever you feel you must, aside from the teapot.”

He doesn’t know what he wants. It was easy, in Mul Dura. Bring Efe’s body home. A difficult task in execution, a task that almost killed him and would have, if not for magic and the belt, but simple in concept. Then he had Aysun’s letter, and why shouldn’t he ask the elves to honour her request? Providence, in the shape of a jam-spotted letter from his old headmaster, came just the elves started more than murmuring about Darius’s health, and if he left the Greensward in stealth and without the gratitude he should have felt for the people who helped him, he once again had somewhere to go.

It’s easy, he realises, to not think when one moves from one job to the next.

He almost reaches for his purse, lying on the grate, but stops just in time. He embroidered the pouch with spells for protection and safe-keeping, common enough that nobody should question it. There’s no reason to think anyone but Darius knows what it contains. Nonetheless, his fingers, flesh and wood alike, itch to pick it up, open it, check to make sure the seedling still lives. Did he take it from anger? Did he take it because of the way the elves talked over him? Or was it just idealism, the memories of the many who don’t have magic and the letter penned by a grieving king?

Shades, what is he supposed to feel? How is he supposed to know? Should he rage? Throw things? Weep? He was easy to tears, once, but Darius hasn’t cried since the day he woke in a cell in Mul Dura and looked on a hand that wasn’t there. Not when the Lord showed him what he did to Siya’s king. Not when he found Efe’s body. Not when he bought Efe home. He should have shed a tear as he watched the smoke spiral up into the clear blue sky: Aysun wept in her wife’s arms, and would have wept in his if he showed any inclination to join his family, but Darius just stood there, watched the shell of Efe Kadri crumble into ash and despised both his own heartlessness and his own spinelessness.

Efe died because Darius loved him too much to say the words Aysun hired him to speak. How dare he weep or scream or rage?

March shakes his head. As always, there’s no exasperation in his voice, but March has never been the kind of man to express frustration—and Darius isn’t sure he even feels it. “We’ll work on that one, then. While you’re standing there, a perfectly permissible action, I’ll tell you that I want a magician with ability in construct work, which your hand more than demonstrates, and a magician who has experience in real-world, messy, skin-of-your-teeth casting. The students, sadly,” and he sighs and smiles in a rueful curve of his lips that makes his brow wrinkle, “think magic is just memorisation and recitation, and when we let them go out into the world believing that, we fail them. No. Magic, real-world magic, is spending three months carving and blocking a wooden hand while a man nobody else hears chatters away. If our students will endure this, that is the normalcy of which we must teach.”

What does that even mean?

Darius shakes his head, runs his wood hand through his hair, jerks, stops. It doesn’t matter here if someone strokes their lips, chews a cord or runs a soft cloth over their face, but it’s the disjunct between sense and memory that brings Darius to a halt. He can feel his fingers sliding through his hair. He doesn’t have the fine control to easily grasp strands, but he can still push his fingers through it, still feel the smooth wood as it brushes over his scalp. It’s all wrong, though, because he can’t feel the hair over his fingers. It even sounds wrong, what with the creak of the joints and the odd echoing timbre of wood gliding over hair and skin. He didn’t know, until this moment, that skin changes the sound, and he didn’t know that something he does so unthinkingly can feel so wrong when half of what he expects to feel isn’t there.

Those little moments are the ones that break his heart, but it seems petty to voice them. He’s a magician. The elves did Darius the honour and privilege of gifting him their time, their song, their assistance and the wood of his hand. He saw beggars in the Great Souk who don’t have magic, don’t have a relationship with the former and current king of Siya, don’t have family or connections or a trade. They lost a limb or their vision or their health, and with that loss the lives they once had, all absent any support in the quest to forge something anew, but Darius lost only sensation and fine movement and time. How can he complain when he’s alive and Efe isn’t?

March’s eyes flicker, and Darius won’t bet that he didn’t notice, but he keeps on talking, apparently content with Darius’s silence. “The Professors Roxleigh and I have been too long out of it, too long safe here—we all know that the assassins scarcely even try, these days! But for you, Darius, this is yesterday. Of course the students will see you addressing something they don’t hear. I rather hope they do.  Should teach them that respect, ability, knowledge and position isn’t contingent on sanity. There’s a few of them that learn to take pride in their divergence but still dismiss someone else’s as less.” He stops, looks directly at Darius and speaks in a voice that isn’t cold but lacks nothing in edge. “I won’t have that. I won’t. I’m sure you’ll conjure any number of creative ways of teaching this. Of course, I’m assuming here that you’ve got the strength of will to walk into the classroom as every inch of the man you are?”

A little over fifteen years ago, he last witnessed a March speech. It has been longer still since he found himself as the subject of such a speech, but as far away and gone as boy-Darius feels so much of the time, he remembers the frightful and uncanny speechlessness March’s flood of words left in their wake.

“Tell me, man. Tell me about them.”

“Stop,” Darius whispers. “Just stop.”

He doesn’t know what to think or feel. He doesn’t know if he speaks to Efe or March. He just stands there, his flesh hand resting on the tied-back door, and Darius can’t quite decide if the room or his body sways. The light, of course. The salt and meat and tomato aromas of the kitchen. Everything has been harder, since Mul Dura. More headaches, more nausea, more seizures. His body never operated on a standard or similar assumption of normal, but he knew its strange ways. Now it objects so quickly, so readily, to sounds and sights that never bothered him at all, or headaches that appear for no reason he can conjure. Stress. It seems to him, though, that the cause is long past, so shouldn’t his body start reacting accordingly? He’s experienced five or six times as many seizures since leaving Siya than he ever had whilst crossing the desert with a belt, a horse and a corpse.

“Would you consider sitting? Would you consider talking to me? The elves know so much, but knowledge that seldom steps out into the world lacks usefulness.” March swings one foot forwards and taps one heel on the bottom rung of the opposite stool. The soft thud judders through Darius’s head, and for a moment he’s surprised he doesn’t lean forwards and retch. “I say it plain: the distinction between ghost and illusion, this moment, counts for nothing. Learning to cope with what is doesn’t require labelling it. Do you sleep, though? Do you eat? Can you look after yourself?”

“If there’s a job to do,” he says after a moment, and for all the world he doesn’t know why he answers honestly or at all, “I can do the job.”

“He doesn’t go to bed until he’s swaying on his feet.” The belt punctuates those words with its frustrating hum. “He eats when I press him. I don’t know if he forgets or if he doesn’t care. He throws himself into doing anything that means he doesn’t have to think or feel. You humans think you’re the only one to feel grief or guilt or pain, but each time, you all do much the same. Downside of owning soldiers, unfortunately. Magicians, it seems, are no different.” It stops, and just when Darius decides to run across the kitchen, snatch up the belt and toss it into the stew pot despite how mad he’ll appear, it speaks again. “I agree with Dar, though. He can do the job asked of him. And I’ll be there to help him.”

It was easier to drag a body across the desert than speak this moment. “Stop it. Just stop. You always—you just—”

His head buzzes like a disturbed wasp’s nest. Darius blinks, sinks down onto the floor and rests his head against his knees just as the rolling starts.

He tried, so many times, to explain this to Efe, but even a magician’s vocabulary isn’t up for the task with any exactitude. He did the best he could with generalities and metaphor. The buzzing becomes a wave crashing through his head and ears and eyes, something ringing and tingling and hammering all at once, but feels nothing like a headache or pain or pins and needles or dizziness or any other ordinary human sensation, but all of those together and everything else besides. It’s as intense and all-encompassing as banging one’s elbow against the wall, but for reasons Darius can’t explain to someone who’s never had their skull become a cradle for an electric tidal wave. The only thing to do is sit, tell himself that this never lasts more than a few moments and wait it out in the manner of a man wrapping his arms around the neck of a galloping horse. Please, he thinks, his hands sliding down to the ground, his shoulders stiffening, his breath coming in harder grunts, while the wave crashes, ebbs and, just when Darius thinks it over, crashes again in another buzzing, whirring peak he feels and hears a mess of jagged white and black lines scattering across his mind. Please stop. Please.

Even after the last wave dashes itself against his skull, it takes a moment for ringing waters to recede, a moment for the colours to still and the buzzing to settle. He still feels strange, as if his skin is too small and too big all at once, as if he’s hearing the crackling fire both close and from a distance, as if the world shifted out of focus in ways Darius can’t accurately explain or articulate. He just sits, trying to hold both his neck and his brain still: even the slightest movement is like to trigger another wave.

March crouches down in front of him. His palms rest on his kneecaps, his brow furrowed. “I was just about to yell for Amelia.” Somehow, he manages to sound as though he’d yell for reasons involving monkeys or misplaced laundry. “If this is going to be a regular occurrence, you may want a card for the students. ‘Having seizure, be quiet and keep working’ or something of the kind. Last I knew you, it wasn’t a common occurrence. Is this coincidental or symptomatic? I’m not going to pretend that I have any real understanding of what you’ve experienced, but anyone can see your scars continue under your hair.”

Darius stares dazedly at March’s chin and ponders what to say. In the Greensward, he avoided windows and mirrors. Bad enough to catch a passing glimpse of his scars; bad enough to be thrown, for a moment, by the unexpected glance of wood where his memory, mental and muscle alike, tells him there’s still flesh. Only the dead know what other people see when they look at him; Darius feels as glad not to.

“It worsened some since I came to know him,” the belt says, of course, because Darius can’t ever be allowed to decide for himself what to divulge, can he? “But now he has a seizure or a dizzy spell every few days. He hid the worst of it from the elves. I don’t think the lack of sleep or eating helps.” It stops, but, just when Darius thinks its hell done, it continues in a whistling sing-song voice that feels like a spear through the ears: “The Lord’s magician wanted to make sure he wouldn’t wake before he was chained, gagged and—”

Irrational to feel as though Darius won’t survive hearing whichever phrase the belt uses to describe the experience of amputating what was believed to be his writing hand, but, by the standards of Aysun, Siyan physicians and the entire Greensward, Darius hasn’t possessed an iota of rationality since Mul Dura. “Belt. Shut up.”

He doesn’t know what exists in his voice that makes the belt do so. Curiosity, however, is far surpassed by the abrupt realisation that doesn’t matter what the belt says or how far it drives Darius down the road to intolerable frustration. How can it? He can’t face Aysun; he’ll never return to Malvade and the demands of House Liviu; nothing but isolation awaits him at the school in Rajad; Siya is a thousand clicks distant; the Lord murdered Efe for the crime of Efe’s idealism. Who’s left for him but the belt?

He sits with his back against the door, his arms wrapped around his legs, his forehead pressed against his kneecaps, but he still can’t cry. He sits and knows that March picks up his flesh hand, entwines the belt though his fingers, drapes several thick rugs over his shoulders, but those small things happen to his skin, and Darius isn’t his body but a terrible flood of isolation that has no physical expression. Shades, if only he could cry! Anything but this keen, too-oft-suppressed sense of loneliness, violent enough to slice his soul to shreds, trapped inside his own skin!

A boy and a belt. What’s the point of the last fourteen years if he ends up precisely where he was? Less than what he was? The boy Darius was in Rajad, traipsing through the Great Souk in search of a sword, had two hands, all his teeth, no scars, a body that had its own quirks not experienced by similar people but manageable just the same. Better to have loved and lost, Oma Petronella used to say with such painful regularity Darius can still remember her grating tone of voice twenty-four years gone from Malvade, but how can it be when the losing has taken more than just Efe?

Please, he begs of silent ancestors, let me cry.

Even this pain doesn’t last forever, although Darius can’t point to any reason why it should end. Circumstances haven’t changed, so why should the zenith? Nonetheless, the small intrusions of the world creep back into his awareness: the crackle of the fire, the thick meaty smell of the bubbling stew, the faint clack of something hard come to rest on tile. He raises his head and looks at a bowl resting just before his feet and, just behind it, March’s trouser-clad, flour-dusted knees. The floor is spotless but his clothes aren’t, and if that isn’t March, Darius doesn’t know what is.

“Darius. Stay as long as you like. Teach. Make. Do nothing. Choose now, choose later. The choice is yours. I think, though, that you’re needed—no, I know the students need a maker of your ability—and we both know that the job isn’t simple.” March pauses. His lips twitch as though he’s trying to keep from smiling. “Some of us are the kind of people that find purpose in others. We both know that everyone who steps through those doors is in search of something. What do you think?”

He thinks of a life spent travelling around the Eastern Confederacy, trailing after a dreamer king.

He thinks of the elves and the outcry when they discover one missing seedling.

He thinks that if the elves haven’t succeeded in killing March, he’s like to be safe here, even though Darius spent three months in the Greensward witnessing first-hand the elfish reverence for life. A sword, even the Worldblade, is a mere insult. A seedling is something else, and they will notice.

He thinks that a truly awful reason to say yes.

Nonetheless, it is a reason, and maybe that’s all that matters.

“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” Darius says, and that’s true enough, too. More than true. “I think it’s easier when I have something to do.”

March inclines his head. “Good enough. I’ve a new student in this week. I caught hir in the library this morning sewing up the hem on the drapes. Ze did a nice job of it, too. If ze does all the mending, the cost of hir food and board will be well worth getting the Professors off my back.” March grins and shrugs; Darius just shakes his head. “I’ll send hir around to you tomorrow. You’ll have Osprey’s old bedroom and classroom. There’s a box of pencils somewhere in her desk—at least, I remember seeing them when I looked to see if she left behind her orb collection. Watch out for the dust devils. Damn things bit me five times. Anyway, give those to Tes and I suspect ze’ll help you with anything. I don’t have to tell you not to abuse that, do I?”

The belt, clenched in Darius’s fingers, starts a long, ringing chain of metallic chortling.

The abrupt change in tone and topic has his head spinning, but this, at least, isn’t complicated or difficult. For the first time, Darius wonders how March felt about a student mooning after him. Yes, Darius tutored March’s junior classes when Darius was a senior student educated enough to graduate but a few years too young to leave the College, but if any junior student felt that way about Darius, he didn’t see it. He rather doubts that March wasn’t perceptive enough to notice, and yet he did nothing—nothing to call attention to it, nothing to crush Darius. He didn’t encourage it, but he didn’t take advantage of it.

He wonders what might have happened if March had, but the notion seems so absurd Darius almost laughs. “No. What happened to Professor Osprey?”

“Retired. She’s now breeding bats.” March rolls his shoulders backwards, flings his arms out in front of him and wiggles his fingers. “I don’t understand it myself, but the bats make her happy. Happier than teaching made her, in the end. Can’t ask more than that. Would you consider doing me the favour of picking up that bowl and attempting to eat?”

The belt warms under his fingers, a reaction Darius considers downright subtle for an entity that says whatever it thinks regardless of its reception.

He doesn’t have the words to give voice to the well of fear provoked by that simple question. The best Darius can manage is an awkward, throaty murmur that sounds more like a plea: “Are you going to … watch over me?”

The elves watched. Watched with concern and panic and the quiet pressure applied by people who need Darius to stop being broken. They didn’t wring their hands, but they came as close as they might, and in the last few weeks Darius felt less a guest and more an eldritch experiment gone wrong.

That, not Efe, made him feel truly, unreasonably mad.

March doesn’t hesitate. He just looks across at Darius, his brown eyes steady and entirely unapologetic. “Yes. I watch over everyone. That’s my job. You come through my doors battered and lost and alone, and I watch over you. This is an inarguable condition of your employment here. I don’t require you to talk about what happened, unless you wish it. I don’t require you to call what you see as ghost by any other name. I don’t require you, or wish you, to pretend sanity. I do require you to accept that I will watch and care, and I do require that you care, as much as you are able, for the students you teach. I do require you to accept that if you are going to care for your students in any meaningful way, you must relearn how to care for yourself. I don’t require some subjective definition of success in this; I just require the attempt. If you can’t agree to this, you have a bed for as long as you wish, but I’ll find someone else. Please eat.”

Never has Darius heard a challenge spoken in such mild tones, but challenge it is, as though the world hinges on whether he has the willingness to grasp a spoon.

He doesn’t argue. It doesn’t matter what Darius thinks or believes. The situation hasn’t changed any, because Darius doesn’t know where he’ll go or what he’ll do. He either runs, again, or he acknowledges that this, frightening and confronting and dangerous, is as best an opportunity as he’s like to find. He doesn’t have to hide, conceal or pretend. That should be good, shouldn’t it? Better than the Greensward?

“Why do you always have to fold your clothes, Liv? Can’t you leave them on the floor just this once?”

Darius turns his head despite the door pressing into his shoulder blades, sighs, leans forwards. “I’m not looking to be saved.” He grabs the lip of the bowl in his flesh fingers and drags it closer. Stew. Three months since he ate meat, long enough that even fresh-killed desert rat should have some appeal, and this is meat he doesn’t even have to skin and prepare himself. It’s even cooked. He should be tearing into the bowl, by any ordinary evaluation of his experiences in Mul Dura and the Greensward, but his stomach knots. “I’m not some … problem, some project. I’m not here so you rescue me from myself.”

March raises both bushy black eyebrows. “Since every student and teacher here, Darius, inevitably finds themselves caught in chaos far greater—and more dangerous—than that they left behind, the very idea that I rescue people is, frankly, absurd.”

His lips, though, creep upwards.

Darius sighs, spoons a chunk of meat to his lips and forces himself to chew.