The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Shadows

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 accountrements 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.

Cover credits: OpenClipart-Vectors (stock images) and VAGDesign (typeface).

Aren’t human lives the shadows of the stories we share?

“I really need more material,” Tes says around the pins between hir lips, looking over the mess scattered across two beds and most of the floor. Half the mess belongs to Holly and exists as a matter of permanency; the rest belongs to Tes and Iris, formed of their wardrobes. Ze looks again, just in case there’s any chance of a workable solution. It isn’t so hard to rip Iris’s old wool and linen petticoats, sew the fabric so the new panels rest at the back and cartridge pleat the new skirt to a waistband made by cutting up one of Iris’s old aprons: it isn’t even difficult to run a few rows of decorative chain stitch along the hem to conceal the absence of lace trim long enough to fit the new petticoat. If ze wants to remake hir dress to fit Holly, though, it’s going to be a patchwork mess, and Iris’s old dresses are far too small and made from differing fabrics and prints. Tes might remake the blue calico into a skirt for hirself, but the kind of skirt that makes Holly’s eyes light up—yards of swishing fabric over the hoopskirts pictured in a plate from a ladies’ fashion book Iris brought from Malvade, albeit paired with a piped high collar and draping sleeves of a kind Tes has never seen before—doesn’t exist here. “I’m sorry, Holly.”

Holly stands with her back to the room, her face turned to the cracked mirror hanging above the washstand. Soap covers most of her face and her fingers cradle a razor. Watching her every morning leaves Tes somewhere torn between envious and grateful: Tes only deals with straggling red hairs on hir upper lip and chin, easily shaved away when ze cares to bother with it. It would have been nice, though, to grow a proper moustache, and ze tries not to sigh as Holly stops for long enough to sign, apparently assuming Iris can watch her in the mirror. What kind of absurd god, ze thinks, gives people things they can’t bear to live with when others yearn for those exact same traits?

That same absurd god, though, had hir born into a family where hir kin couldn’t bear to live with hir, so looking for sense in the proceedings of the natural world seems, to Tes, to be illogical at best.

“She says,” Iris says from the doorway, where he sits, working on the hem of the second petticoat they cobbled together, “that she appreciates you making proper pockets and new petticoats.” He shrugs at Tes. “I could write my people, I suppose. Say I’ve grown. Would they send me the money so I could buy dressgoods for new clothes?” His lips twist, which ze takes to mean bitterness, although Tes can’t decide if his expression relates to clothing, his people or growing. “I don’t think there’s anything in the College a stitch witch like you couldn’t make over, unless there’s something weird hidden in Osprey’s classroom.”

In the washroom, Holly giggles despite sliding a sharp blade over her chin.

Tes looks down at hir hands, afraid ze’s going to cry. “This isn’t magic.”

Ze has enough range of vision to see Iris draw himself up. “Ah, Tes, remember: magic isn’t magic to a magician!”

While his high voice sounds nothing like March’s quieter tones, Tes smiles despite hirself. They warned hir, hir first day of classes, but Tes didn’t believe them until March strolled into his classroom and demanded his students turn out their pockets and bags—he confiscated two dictionaries and a word-list—before leaning against the blackboard, running a hand through his curls and asking the class: “What is the nature of magic?”

The class answered in the booming, unenthusiastic chorus of a group who has answered this time and time again: “Magic isn’t magic to a magician.” March then went on to have the class practice composing spells that change the colours of cauliflower florets, leaving Tes baffled as to why he asked at all or made such a ceremony of the habit, but ze soon distracted hirself by thinking up “cornflower” and “cerise”.

By the end of the class “celadon” and “cerulean” joined the list of words crammed onto the very bottom of hir slate, words ze needs to copy out on the wall beside hir bed.

“Does anyone know what that even means?”

Iris shakes his head. “You know what he’s like! You can’t ask him a question like that!” He sighs and ties off his thread. He won’t come into the room when it’s this messy; he sits just inside the doorway and hands the finished petticoat over towards Tes, who tosses it onto Holly’s bed. “Hey, Holly, you know there’s still blue cauliflower in your hair?”

Holly shrieks, drops the razor and starts poking at her hair.

“Just above your left ear.” Iris grins and tilts his head towards Tes. “You sure you don’t want to come, old thing?”

The College, Iris told hir that morning en route to the Professors’ lab, gathers in the hall on Friday evenings for optional entertainments, some professional, some involving teachers or students. Musicians, singers, actors and puppeteers, if they happen to be passing through Greenstone and don’t fear the notion of performing for student magicians, but more like to be the College Choral Society or Lady Plumeria’s Association for the Pursuit of Amateur Dramatics performing a selection of scenes from one of the classics. Tonight, Lady Plumeria’s violinist cousin will perform pieces from something called The Lavaliere. This, Tes learnt, after detouring via the library on the way to lunch in search of a pocket encyclopaedia, is a famous Astreuch opera. Ze took the book with hir into the dining hall and discovered, whilst enjoying a kind of stew liberally spiced with something Holly calls “chilli”, that a lavaliere is a pendant necklace and opera itself is a form of music unimaginable to the villagers of Flay’s End.

Ze shakes hir head. Tes wants to see this Lady Plumeria, since everybody talks about her with a strange hush, often in sentences also involving words like “basilisks”, “I looked like an Ashadi victory statue”, “I was blowing granite out of my nose for a week after!” and “never again”. She’s a wealthy and eccentric neighbour, Iris said, one of March’s old friends, and one rumoured to be romantically engaged with Doctor March if Tes asks anybody but Doctor March. Too much mystery there not to poke at, but ze’s sure ze’ll meet her sooner or later, and this is more important. “Too noisy. I’ll sew here.”

Iris and Holly both accept this without argument, just as they did earlier that day, and Tes shakes hir head before prising the pins from hir lips. From the way they talk, there’ll be the chance to hear opera some other time, even if Tes suspects ze’ll listen for five minutes before fleeing, but since Iris has been chattering all day about it, Tes thinks it the perfect opportunity to risk the Left Tower. Everybody will be in the ballroom—ze still can’t quite believe ze lives in a house where one utters the word “ballroom”—which means there’s nobody to stop Tes from poking about. If ze does find some unused drapes ze can remake into a dress, they’ll be a surprise.

The smile on Holly’s face, ze thinks, will be worth the quest.

Ze kept an eye out as Holly and Iris took hir all over the school, and ze crept out to explore on hir own in the early mornings whilst Holly slept. As near as Tes can tell, any fabric is either tattered, worn or in use, and just the thought of stealing the curtains from a classroom window has hir stomach knotting. One thing to swap a book no one uses or appreciates; another thing to take something, no matter how neglected, that does have a use. The teachers deserve better than that. No, better to try the Left Tower, shut up for so long that nobody will be bothered by a few windows missing drapes, and ze’s better to do that when there’s nobody around. Ze’s seen the Professors Roxleigh scold students often enough to know that ze doesn’t wish to be caught by either, and while March and Faiza are like to be kind, their gentleness is far worse than a good scolding.

Ze spent that morning, after investigating the kitchens and daring the stables, mending as many motheaten drapes as ze can find. There’s nothing ze can give back save for hir work, but the kindnesses the teachers, staff and students have offered hir means ze owes them something for that alone, never mind for the things Tes has taken to prepare for hir quest or the rules ze will break. Ze isn’t a thief. Even if that means ze spends every morning sewing drapes and tablecloths to make up for it.

A trio of students, all three of them clad in dresses—although one wears a suit jacket over their skirts—skip down the hallway, hands waving in discussion.

Holly, plucking tiny fragments of cauliflower from her hair, stops to sign in front of the mirror.

“She says if there’s cream puffs we’ll bring you some.” Iris flips his braid over his shoulder and runs his fingers through the end. He dressed up for the evening in dark blue trousers, almost long enough to reach his sandals, and a dark red shirt with a yellow scarf threaded underneath the collar and knotted at the throat. “I hope there’s those little finger buns with the sultanas—Tes, you have to try them. Do you like sultanas? Or what if we just bring you back a plate with a little bit of everything?” He leaps to his feet, scowling at the washroom. “Hurry up, Holly! Wings and their mates will take up the whole front row, and you know I can’t see over Galya’s head!”

Holly’s middle finger needs no translating, but she shakes her hair one final time, wipes away the last of the soap and grabs a tiny pot of colour from the shelf beside the washstand.

It’s also strange, Tes thinks, grabbing one of Iris’s stockings and unpicking the attempt he made at darning the toe, to sit there and watch Holly get ready as though this is normal. Ze didn’t go places with people not hir own blood kin. Ze seldom went anywhere with hir own kin! Nobody asked hir to come as though they wished for hir company; nobody promised to bring hir back cake. Ze never had anyone to talk to, back in Flay’s End, yet even though ze has been at the College for four days and even though ze only knows a mere handful of spells, Holly and Iris treat hir as though ze belongs to them. The other students treat hir as another curious addition to the College, but none of them question hir right to be here. The senior students ignore hir, but most of the junior students introduced themselves to hir in class. Celeste and Heiko, hir companions at the beginner’s table in the Professors’ language class, even asked Tes if ze wants to meet up with them twice a week to practice!

Maybe, ze thinks, it’s just because ze sews. That must be a good reason to put up with hir, yet Iris and Holly don’t talk to hir like they merely endure hir.

“The plate would be nice.” Tes looks down at the stocking in hir lap, afraid of what might show on hir face. “Thank—thank you.”

Iris, bouncing on his toes in the doorway, merely waves a hand.

Holly sweeps out of the washroom, beaming. Her best dress is a worn silk russet frock with narrow skirts, a tight bodice, long sleeves containing hanging pockets that drape almost to the hem of her skirts and a high collar: Tes added the lace trim from one of Iris’s petticoats, took in the bust darts and added slit pockets to the skirt, the white apron fabric almost hidden by more lace. The bold colour suits her, although Tes wishes for black trim to match her dark hair. Her bright cheeks and the touch of carmine on her lips make Tes think of a fashion plate. “Iris.” Her hands surge into a series of signs too rapid for Tes to follow as she skips over the mess of clothes, books, shoes and Tes’s sewing kit, but since Iris sighs, pokes his tongue out at her and steps out of the doorway, she might be calling him a parrot again.

“Finally! Have fun, Tes.” Iris takes Holly’s left arm and tugs her out into the hall. “Last time I had to sit on five pillows just to see anything, and I’m not doing that again…”

Tes grins down at hir stocking. More students surge past, but ze watches out of the corner of hir eye for the teachers. First Doctor March, in a prim green gown minus her usual apron; she pays Tes’s open door no mind at all. The Professors follow a few moments later, clad in their customary plain robes, their hands clasped together. Tes rummages through Iris’s sewing box until ze finds wool close enough to match and threads a darning needle, ignoring another cluster of students in robes and suits and a glittering tunic, but the soft clomp-clomp sound of Master Faiza’s boots see hir look up. For Master Faiza, dressing up appears to mean a cloth-of-gold headcloth trimmed with layers of red and gold beads, and Tes wonders how they bear the gentle rattle every time they move their head or shoulders.

It might be because it’s a sound they make: ze’s always preferred the sound of hir own boots to the sound of another person’s steps, a difference ze has never been able to explain to Ma or anyone else.

“Can I do anything for you, Tes?”

Ze shakes hir head. Ze no longer cries when Faiza asks hir questions, but hir throat tightens and it’s hard to speak. “I don’t want the noise, I think.”

“Of course.” They just nod. Their brown eyes don’t rest on Tes’s face, but they don’t flicker off towards the wall: they somehow manage to look without staring. “I’ll be standing at the back of the ballroom. If you need me for anything, please, don’t hesitate to get me.”

Tes swallows and nods.

“Ordinarily, I’d say you’re welcome to help yourself to anything in the kitchen, but … March…” Faiza frowns. Deep, gentle creases frame their eyes. “Tonight isn’t a good night to interrupt March in the kitchen. Do you wish me to fetch you anything?”

Confused, and a little curious since March seemed to encourage students venturing into the kitchen at any hour, Tes jerks hir elbow towards the plate on hir bedside table. Ze grabbed rolls, cheese and fruit at lunch so ze wouldn’t have to risk being spotted or waylaid by a curious teacher. “I have food. I’m going to sit here and fix Iris’s stockings. I won’t go to the kitchen.” If March is doing something mysterious in the kitchen, though, that leaves Susan the only staff member unaccounted for, so ze decides to take this oddity as a stroke of luck. “Thank you? Sir?”

Ma would have pressed, but Faiza waves a hand. “I’ll save you some cream puffs.”

Tes shakes hir head as they turn and clomp down the hallway, although ze can’t help but wonder as to the nature of the cream puffs. Ze starts darning, listening to the rain patter against the windowpane, and only when it has been a good half hour since the last student passed does ze place the stocking atop hir quilt and pull hir pack out from underneath the bed. The pocket encyclopaedia didn’t give hir much of a description on the matter of flesh-eating gnomes as opposed to an overview on the many subspecies thereof; it certainly had no information on the matter of how to deal with them should ze run into them. That doesn’t mean ze’ll wade in unprepared. In addition to the encyclopaedia and the Treatise in hir pack, ze added two joints of lamb, a pile of bacon rashers and half a bone of ham, taken from the kitchen that morning while March snored in his cot bed by the ovens. Why can’t Tes throw them flesh in the same way one might distract a dog?

This isn’t theft: March said ze can get food whenever ze likes, so why not this?

Much of the rest of it, ze knows, is theft, even if ze means to return everything as soon as ze can. Hir stomach knots, but what else can ze do? Ze can’t just walk into somewhere dangerous without equipment, so ze palmed a short, rusting dagger from the Professors’ collection when Swan distracted the class by knocking over three beakers. Rope, ze took from the stables that morning, when Susan was leading the three school horses out to their paddock for the day’s grazing. Rags, at least, come from hir own hoard; a sturdy stick with the end wrapped in cotton and dipped in kerosene was salvaged from scraps Tes thinks nobody will miss. The pencil and scraps of paper, in case ze needs to write something down, were given to hir by the teachers and must be hirs by right. Someone experienced in the matters of exploration might think of more things, and Tes supposes ze’ll know what ze should have brought a few hours from now. Ze can’t think of anything else, however, so there’s nothing more to do than to bundle hir spare clothes on hir bed and pull hir quilt and pillow over the lump.

It doesn’t look much like a human shape to hir. It looks like a pile of clothes pretending to be human.

Tes sighs, blows out the lamp and patters out into the hallway.

By now, after three days of near-torrential rain, ze’s used to the gloominess of the College’s hallways when sun doesn’t shine in through the glass panelling in the foyer. Tes still can’t hold back a shudder as ze heads toward the student landing. Blue gaslights provide light enough to see the shapes of things, but not enough to dissuade the mind from imagining ghosts and ghouls looming out of the shadows. Yet if this scares hir, ze thinks as ze rubs hir hands over hir arms, then ze can’t very well manage the tower, can ze? Tes keeps walking, but the part of hir that didn’t run away to be a hermit in a cave wonders if there’s another way to find material for Holly’s dress. The idea of Ma providing such a thing is laughable at best, but who else can Tes ask? Not the teachers, not when the motheaten state of most furnishings tells Tes that March might be rich in possessions but lacks the money to maintain them. The monkeys, Susan and Myra Plum—a girl about Tes’s age who assists students in the classroom—are the only staff members that aren’t teachers. While no house in Flay’s End ever neared the College for extravagance, even the mayor kept a servant to cook and tidy, but ze’s seen nothing but the monkeys ferrying dishes from the kitchen to the dining room. Some of the other students possess money, judging by their dress, but Tes doesn’t know them well enough to ask something as impertinent as a request for fabric, even for Holly, who seems well-liked by all.

It occurs to hir to wonder why, if March takes his students without asking payment in return for his generosity, he doesn’t ask said students to help with the maintenance of the house. Ze can sew. Holly and Iris are learning. Other students must have other skills. Are the students here so ungrateful they won’t want to help if they have any ability to do so?

No, the best places to look are places unused, since March seems careless enough to not bother with taking up carpets and tablecloths and drapes before locking up a room. Since the rhubarb rooms held nothing usable, save for Tes learning Holly’s tapping spell, the next best place to look is the Left Tower.

It’s a little brighter in the common area, thanks to the glittering, dust-leaden chandelier, and ze passes the rows of tables and cat-inhabited armchairs. They’re sensible enough to avoid downstairs, ze thinks as ze stops to scratch the chin of a half-grown tortoiseshell cat perched on the headrest of the armchair by the stairs. If only the school cats didn’t have the annoying tendency of appearing to go out of their way to trip up humans, ze wouldn’t mind them at all: cats don’t make too much noise, they’re soft to touch, they smell nice and, like all animals, possess nothing of the complications inherent in forming a relationship. They’re not interested in sex, romance or conversation. They’re simple.

“I don’t think anything’s changed—well, except for whatever you’ve got growing through the roof.” The strange voice is soft and monotone, but they speak in a drawling accent that appears to be dragging vowels out to their longest possible length. “Is that rhubarb?”

Two pairs of footsteps, almost drowned out by the hammer of rain on the roof above, draw higher and closer.

Ze doesn’t think: Tes just darts backwards until ze finds two armchairs set side by side about a foot away from the wall. There’s no reason for hir not to be here—ze can say ze’s enjoying the quiet in the company of several cats—but how can ze explain the pack? What if March thinks ze’s planning to run away when, for the first time, Tes feels as though this might become a place where ze too belongs? Worse, what if someone guesses what ze means to do? What if someone rages at hir for taking the dagger? Heart pounding, ze wriggles hirself behind the armchairs and hopes that the smell of damp, dust and cat deadens the reek of kerosene and meat.

“It appears to enjoy the environment here.” A short laugh follows March’s quiet words. “It means there’s always dessert on hand. One can be forgiven for thinking the stalks too tough to eat, at that size, but they’re as tender as their normal-sized kin. Magic.”

He rambles, Tes thinks, and that sees hir shift hir head until ze can peer through the tiny crack between both armchairs.

March looks much as he always does, clad in another black suit, this one dusted with flour. Perhaps because of the dip in temperature that accompanied the rain, he wears black stockings, the left with a hole in the toe. His hair stands up, out and forwards in a flurry of black and grey curls, also perhaps due to the humidity, but today they’re tied off his face with a purple ribbon. A cloak, brown and reeking of wet wool, hangs over one arm.

His companion—

Tes frowns, shocked.

They stand easily a hand’s width shorter than March, and that whilst wearing riding boots with block heels. Their height isn’t what makes Tes stare, though: it’s the way their copper skin appears to be drawn in tight over bone and muscle forming a tiny frame, one not hidden at all by the clinging, saturated folds of a wide-sleeved shirt. Ze can span their neck, surely, with one hand! Worse, once ze marks the stick-like build of legs and arms, once ze has an instant to marvel at it and accept it, ze notices everything else strange about them. A thick white scar slices across their right cheek only to meet a reddish scar twisting the skin a finger’s width from their eye, both vanishing underneath soft black hair that falls into loose ringlets. A small red tattoo—something that looks like a bird soaring above fire—marks their left cheekbone, resting under their eye and beside their crooked, perhaps once-broken, nose. For some reason at which Tes cannot begin to guess, the pale, red-inked flesh of their left hand fails to match the bronze-brown right. They’re a warrior of a sorts, if the sword and knives they bear at their belt mean anything, but they look as though a light breeze will knock them over.

“I don’t think I like rhubarb.” They sigh and speak with a rapidity that makes Tes think they’re seeking to change the subject. There isn’t enough light for their gold right incisor and two gold molars to shine, but the unexpected colour draws the eye nonetheless. “Are Mitzie and Johannes in? Or are they travelling again? It’s been so long since I’ve seen them.”

March comes to a dead halt halfway through the maze of chairs.

“Sir?”

March’s face rests so unwontedly still Tes feels sick just watching him. It never occurred to hir to think before now what stillness might mean in him, a man with such generosity of movement, but now ze sees it ze can’t think it anything but terror. The awfulness of his immobility makes hir want to creep out from behind hir chair and bolt for hir room, but seething curiosity mingled with the shame of having to intrude on the moment keeps hir tapping hir hands against hir skirt-covered knees and listening as intently as ze can. “You—oh, gods, you don’t know. You don’t know.” He pauses, his hands hanging limp by his sides, his chest rising and falling in deep, measured movements. “Mitzie and Johan are dead, Darius.”

This is Darius, the man Iris—and Iris’s books—claimed to be a hero magician who protected a king? A tiny, gaunt, battered doll of a figure? He shouldn’t be teaching; he should be confined to a bed somewhere!

Darius’s lips part, frame words absent all sound, press closed. He breathes, his brown eyes wide and flickering, before he reattempts speech. “Mitzie—Mitzie is—” He reaches up with his brown hand and tugs what looks to be a beaded pendant from his shirt collar, running his fingers over the beads. “Dead? How?” His voice rises and cracks, but a moment later he reaches out and rests the pale, tattooed hand on March’s elbow. “I’m so sorry. Sir … I’m so sorry.”

Mitzie? Did Iris mention that name at all in any of his monologues on College history? Perhaps, but he mentioned so many names at least half of them have vanished right out of hir head. He might have also mentioned Mitzie without naming them. Mitzie, Tes whispers to hirself, because Iris might know, or at least know enough to tell Tes where to begin to look.

Ma’s voice flutters at the back of hir mind, but ze leans closer to the slit between the chairs.

“Five years gone.” March’s voice rasps like a file over wood. It’s such a strange, harsh sound to hear from him that Tes can only gape. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear while you were a guest of the Greensward.”

Darius’s hand drops. “Erondil? Is that who—” He jerks and sags backwards onto the armrest of the closest armchair, startling a once-slumbering black and white cat. The cat hisses, jumps off the chair and streaks under the closest table, but neither man appears to notice. “Erondil killed Mitzie? His—his—”

Erondil. Ze’s sure Iris said that name! But who is he?

“Erondil killed Mitzie and Johan.” March’s words are even, if thick, but his face is too still. Deathly still. The only movements he makes are to speak and breathe. Tes shivers. “He would have killed Tresha. But Surandil holds him in custody and I imagine he’ll die there, so we need not concern ourselves with his situation—or his politics. I don’t need or wish revenge, Darius.” Even to Tes, those last words smack more of bravado than reality, and Darius’s gaping stare suggests that March told him to pretend the sun doesn’t exist. It feels akin to how ze suspects her face looks when Ma tells hir to stop flapping hir hands. “Since we are on this dreadful subject, I should mention that a letter arrived this morning from the Greensward.”

Darius’s eyelids flutter and he quickens the speed of his finger over the wooden beads, but he doesn’t speak.

“Rand assures me that despite the rudeness of your departure, something he attributes to the furious letter you left in the guest rooms, he doesn’t believe you to be associated with the damage. Nonetheless, he wanted me to know that the night you left, someone broke into the nursery and destroyed a year’s worth of seedlings—or so Rand thinks, but the damage is severe enough they don’t yet know if it is anything more than destruction.” March’s brown eyes rest on the chair behind Darius. It is nonetheless, Tes thinks, a stare. “A magic worker is behind this, doubtlessly, for the perpetrator left no trace of their actions. Their magic, however, indicates that you went nowhere near the nursery.”

Darius’s fingers slow. “I see.” His other hand rests on his kneecap, his fingertips digging into his jodhpurs—and Tes knows from experience that a grip of that purpose and intensity will hurt both his knee and his fingers.

Ze also knows that, sometimes, the pain of it is the point of so doing.

“Of course, we both know that Osprey knew how to make simulacra and shrouds that trick conventional tracking spells.” March sighs and shrugs, but his eyes come to rest on Darius’s pale hand. “Despite that, I can’t imagine a reason why you’d do such a thing. Tell me, when were you claimed?”

Darius’s head jerks: not up, but from side to side. His eyes flicker about the cats and the chairs without ever landing on March. His voice surges up and down as he speaks, the higher notes rendering his drawl near intelligible. Both hands abandon their previous occupation to wave at his side. Tes can’t tell if he’s angry, offended or frightened, but whichever he feels, ze thinks, it’s plain that March spoke no idle question. “Ashad! Ashad. Ier Jalin. A month after I met … Efe. Years ago.” He folds both arms over his chest, tucking his hands into his armpits. It almost hides the frantic heave of his ribcage. “Killing Kian didn’t go as planned. We were both made and arrested. I got Efe out and … helped him, but I paid in blood to do it. Efe took me to the closest temple, after.” He pauses only to drag in a gulping breath. “I woke up with the mark on my shoulder. I assume the Sojourner made hir claim while I was unconscious. Amala’s dedicates were offended, to say the least. Even allowing for their regard for Kian’s end.” He exhales, his lips moving again as though he speaks without enunciating the words, but when his words are audible, they sound almost calm. “Shades, Oma Petronella was claimed while attending her sister’s funeral in an Astreuch church! Most of Malvade belongs to the Sojourner: we are hir children in spirit. It isn’t significant.”

A loud purr sounds close to hir hand: Tes jerks, jumps, shudders at the quiet thud of hir boots as they brush the wall and looks down to find a black cat rubbing its head against hir knee.

Darius frowns and looks around, his nostrils flaring.

March, for some wondrous reason, doesn’t appear to have heard. He just holds out both hands towards Darius: palms forwards, fingers tilted backwards. It seems strange to see him ply that gesture on someone else. “Forgive me, Darius, but I had to ask. You can understand, I think, the … the resonance, here?”

Tes doesn’t have the least idea what they’re talking about, but Darius’s shoulders soften and his hands slow. “Resonance, maybe, but don’t all stories cast shadows of themselves? Aren’t human lives the shadows of the stories we share? Why should it be more than that?” He shakes his head, winces. “I’m not a dreamer. That was Efe, not me. I just followed him from death to death until…”

He presses his lips together as though about to weep, but his eyes remain dry and clear.

The cat flops over Tes’s knees, rubs its head against hir hand and purrs louder still.

“If the balance shifts, a shadow might be all that’s needed.” March shrugs, but his crooked smile is nowhere near so casual. “I don’t take students who aren’t dreamers, Darius. Magic has no mind for those who aren’t. Come. You look as though you’re about to collapse.”

Darius nods and stands, although his lips are twisted in such a way that Tes wonders if his acquiescence is more to do with an unwillingness to argue than it is agreement. He follows March, swaying with each step, and Tes freezes as they pass hir row of chairs. Please. Please just keep on walking—

“Why does the landing smell of kerosene?” Darius wrinkles his nose and looks about him, but his eyes glide over Tes’s armchairs and he doesn’t stop walking.

“Does it?” March shrugs. “Maybe a student knocked over a lamp. Or it could be the Professors again. They’re apparently on a quest to develop a new kind of adhesive. Last week they spent a day walking everywhere hand in hand before they told Amelia that they’d glued their hands together…”

Neither man looks in hir direction as they walk down the hallway. Ze exhales and pushes away the cat when both vanish into the gloom, but the moment ze can no longer hear footsteps ze creeps out of hir hiding place and crawls to the entranceway. Two sets of spines—one clad in a dust-smeared suit jacket, one in an oversized damp shirt—become nothing more than shadows as they move towards the stairs at the other end of the hall; only when they turn towards the third floor does Tes scramble to hir feet and walk, as calmly as ze can, down the staircase to the foyer.

Hir heart pounds and hir hands shake, making the stairs more difficult than usual. Tes grips the smooth railing and tries to both slow hir feet and think at the same time. Too much information? Not enough context? All Tes knows is hir confusion! There’s too much here to unpack, too much that requires knowledge ze doesn’t have in order to make sense of it—and too much, ze realises, that assumes a comfortable, natural knowledge of a world Tes is only beginning to glimpse. Simulacra and elves and mentions of foreign countries, all spoken as though the other knows and understands, but ze hails from a small village in the middle of the Wold where books are few and seldom valued at that. Yes, the people of the Wold take pride in being able to read and write and figure, but they don’t hold knowledge close to their chest. They don’t talk like March and Darius.

Ze hates the way even Iris and Holly make hir feel small, even as Tes appreciates their willingness to share and explain. Ze wants to learn. Ze means to. But now, right now, ze doesn’t know enough, and that cuts hir in ways even Tes doesn’t understand. Knowing that someday ze might take someone new into the attics to see a dusty, rusting sword with mythological provenance doesn’t help right now.

More than anything, ze wants to know.

Tears drip down hir face as Tes crosses the foyer and turns into the right-hand hallway, glad to hear the rattling plink of raindrops quieten the further ze walks down the shadowy passage. Ze grimaces and drags hir sleeve across hir face with force enough to hurt. When will ze stop crying? No … no. Ze draws a gulping breath. Think about something else, anything else, before ze breaks down. Ze has a mystery and ze wants to solve it. Iris should be able to help hir, if ze can phrase hir questions in a way that doesn’t sound as though ze eavesdropped on two teachers having a private conversation … although given his fascination for Darius, Tes suspects he won’t care if it means ze can give him any snippets about his hero. Nor is ze wholly ignorant after four days at the College, although ze suspects that knowing a little only makes everything even harder to comprehend. Breathe. What does ze know? March mentioned Wings, so ze isn’t too far wrong to assume that the dead and mysterious Mitzie and Johannes are their parents. Iris must be able to confirm that, at least!

If March is Wings’s grandfather, one of the pair is March’s child.

He doesn’t look old enough, ze thinks, to have a grown child and grandchild. Fifty, maybe sixty at the outside? It’s possible, ze decides, but only if both March and his child adopted or gave birth young. It might be more likely, though, to think March older than he looks, and why shouldn’t such a thing be possible with magic? If anything, Tes shouldn’t make assumptions at all! So. March had a child, either Mitzie or Johannes, and they had a child, Wings, but an elf, Erondil, killed their parents. An elf. Tes raises a hand to hir shirt button as ze scurries past the Professors’ lab, nowhere near distracted enough to keep from shuddering at the glowing skeletons lining the walls, the sickly green light shining through the glass set into the door and into the dark hallway. Ze doesn’t know if the Professors enjoy scaring students or they truly enjoy the dark witchy ambiance, but the lab, after dark, is the stuff of waking nightmares.

Wings isn’t quite human; anybody can see that, although Tes never heard anyone to remark on it. Either the parent who isn’t March’s child was elfish, or March’s lover was elfish, but Darius said his in a way that implied connection and horror, and Wings looks more human than elf. Is ze too far wrong to think that March’s lover was an elf, related to this Erondil? Who then murdered his half-human relative?

Why didn’t Iris tell hir this when he talked about March and the Greensward, though?

Surandil, High King of the Greensward and the true owner of the Worldblade, keeps this Erondil in custody, and so much so that March dismissed him as a concern. Why should that be, though, if March stole the sword? Iris said Surandil and March were enemies, and that March’s mysterious power is the only reason the Worldblade lies safe in the College’s attic. If that’s the case, why hasn’t Surandil unleashed this Erondil on the College to get back the Worldblade and everything else March stole? If this Erondil was powerful enough to kill March’s child and their partner, surely they’re powerful enough to get back the sword?

No assassins, no elves, no dictionaries, read the sign on the fence, but March has connections to the elves that aren’t just stealing valuables from the Greensward, including his own grandchild.

Iris, ze decides. Either he’ll know more or he won’t know … and if he doesn’t know, Tes thinks, that might be almost as important as any information he can give hir.

Then there’s Darius, who seems to have come to the College from the Greensward—won’t Iris be desperate to know that? He also knows about Surandil, Erondil and March’s descendants. Darius, connected to something about destroying seedlings that means nothing to Tes, save that ze can’t help but think March implied Darius was behind whatever it was, something Darius never denied. The rest of it, though—claiming and the Sojourner and resonance—means nothing to hir, although it meant something to Darius. Iris, again, might know; based on the books in his room, if there’s anything he doesn’t know about Darius, nobody else knows it, either.

Ze slows as ze reaches the end of the hallway. A corkscrew flight of stairs leads up to the second floor, where Doctor March, Master Faiza and March himself have their classrooms, but an empty landing, bearing nothing but a few dangling cobwebs and a floor in need of sweeping, leads to a studded, braced hardwood door locked and bolted shut. Behind that, Tes knows, lies the Left Tower, gnomes, and, ze hopes, curtains or tablecloths or other salvageable fabric. Should ze, though? Or should ze head to the library and start researching names? Or should ze wait to first pump Iris—who is Wings’s roommate and must know something about their family—and then head for the books? Yet Holly needs an everyday dress that isn’t that shapeless brown frock, and Tes can’t help but think ze owes her something for her kindness. She deserves to look and feel pretty. It isn’t as though there’s any need to discover, at least right away, the meaning behind March and Darius’s inexplicable conversation.

Ma’s voice whispers again, louder now in the chill quiet of the passageway. Stop it. Don’t interfere. It’s none of your business. People would like you better if you didn’t mess about in their business!

It is nothing to do with hir, after all. Nor has Tes ever met anybody who tolerated Tes poking about in their personal affairs. It might well be half the reason Tailor Rona wanted nothing to do with hir. That ze had no intent of overhearing a private conversation doesn’t matter: pretending ze never heard is the right thing to do. Better, as Ma used to sigh, to never eavesdrop at all. Ma never understood that now ze knows ze can’t just sit with the knowledge: how can ze let curiosity go? How does ze ignore a mystery as large as this one? Especially when ze knows Iris well enough to suspect he’ll be as intrigued as ze?

Ze understands, then, in one bright moment of inspiration, that ze can give Iris this in thanks for his kindness: a mystery involving his heroes. Ze owes him as much as ze owes Holly, after all, and what does it matter if ze narrates a conversation ze shouldn’t have overheard? What can three students do with the information, anyway? Who can it hurt?

Some tiny part of hir wonders if it’s just an attempt to justify hir curiosity, but the rest of hir doesn’t care. The College isn’t the Wold. Different rules apply here. Why shouldn’t ze disregard the one about interfering when March as good as told hir to ignore the rules that constrain hir?

Tes nods, pulls hir pack from hir shoulders and turns towards the heavy, studded door.

Ze’ll tell Iris. Ze’ll ask him and listen to his flood of answers, but that needs to wait until the performance is over.

Holly still needs a dress, and ze can do something about that right now.

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