The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Skin

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).

Skin: Darius survives the gnomes and contemplates the stories told in scars. Amelia tries to make a well-trodden point. March waves a spoon. What do their words matter to Darius, though, when all he hears is the choking, insufferable envelopment of safety?

Chapter count: 10 500 words

Content advisory: Ongoing depiction of depression, grief, suicidal ideation, self-hate and hallucination. The belt being … well, the belt. The ableism in hating one’s self for not appreciating one’s formerly less-disabled body (see below). The word “broken” used frequently, and with a score of edges at that, by a multiply disabled man to describe himself. A little more description of the violence wrecked on Efe Kadri. Discussions on self-care edging around the fine line between blood magic and self-harm. The impact of hearing the word “suicide” voiced aloud. References to suicidal ideation. Amelia and March at loggerheads. Amelia’s spoon revenge is meant to be a nasty and horrible act wielded at an obsessive autistic, even though neurotypicals may not understand why this is so cruel.

Note the first: Darius’s self-hating “why didn’t I…” monologue only exists, to such an extent, because of the ableist world in which we live. It’s a construct of ableism. It’s also every part of me that looks back at everything I used to do with my hands, so unthinking, and wonder with grief that isn’t dead after six years why I took it for granted. (Why? Why didn’t I write then when it’s so hard for me to write now?) While it can be argued that, like Darius, I’ve been disabled from birth (autism), I’ve also become disabled in an entirely different direction as an adult (chronic pain) and I know the sheer gut-wrenching grief of having ability unexpectedly stolen from you, especially an ability that ties deeply into the person you were. I know, too, like Darius will realise, what it means to stare into that pain and knowingly do as much of it as you can anyway, because anything else is unthinkable. That can be difficult and dangerous for ourselves and/or the people around us. But to do otherwise is unthinkable.

Note the second: Oh, this chapter. This chapter. Ten drafts. I wish that were in any way hyperbole; I’d like to be exaggerating about the amount of times I’ve tangoed with this wretched thing. If I had more spoons available to me (read: weren’t trying to blog and write with unmanaged chronic pain) it wouldn’t have been such a problem, but since I have a chronic spoon shortage, it was.

Understanding isn’t the same thing as forgiveness, but it is, sometimes, enough.

“And this,” March says, sweeping his left arm through the doorway as he pushes the door open with his right, “is your room. Osprey left many things behind.”

Mitzie, too, swept hir arm like that. Mitzie and Johannes. Dead. Darius can’t picture them. He knows Mitzie smiles—smiled—but he can’t remember how widely hir lips parted or the set of hir teeth, just that they were white and crooked. He knows Johannes’s calloused hands and her steady stride, but he can’t see them in his mind. Never will see them again.

Now Darius knows why Erondil rots in a cell in the Greensward, why the elves never mentioned the reason for this, why Surandil allowed him to learn from elfish makers, why he heard the murmurs and mutterings about admitting a human magician who trained at the College—even why, perhaps, Surandil had his physicians hound Darius so, and why he sent a letter and placed it in March’s dressing gown pocket.

Dead, even though Mitzie had no part in her father’s games.

Dead, for March’s bravado and a sword rusting in the attic.

He can still see shards of bone glinting in the pulped meat ruin of a face. He can’t see Efe’s bearded smile. He can’t see two women he cared about, two women dead and gone—travelling on, Darius corrects himself, even though the words ring hollow. Humans stay a time and travel on; it is the natural way of all living things. Only the elves and Alië sought to defy divine edict by seeking immortality, for which the Sojourner sent in answer a human and a sword.

“Darius?” March’s murmur makes his arms goosepimple under his damp shirt. “You can stand in the doorway if you like, but perhaps you’ll consider entering?”

Darius blinks. He stands in the doorway, his flesh fingers digging into the frame with force enough to hurt, his eyes staring across the room. What did March say? Something about Osprey and things, but—

When the chaos before him registers, Darius stares, stunned. He’s stayed in worse places: flea-infested inns, jail cells, a particularly mouldy dungeon in Laiphu—quite an accomplishment for a nation on the eastern side of the Straits during the dry season. This … he blinks again, shakes his head, hunts for anything that doesn’t sound offensive and decides himself far too tired and overwhelmed for polite pretence. “Many. Many. Now Orthodox for ‘everything’?”

March’s light laughter is, Darius thinks, a particularly wicked understatement.

Compared to the student rooms, the room once owned by Professor Osprey seems a paradise, at least in terms of theoretical space. Compared to the Summer Palace in Siya, however, he looks upon a dingy, cluttered chamber poorly maintained by the last occupant. The wallpaper hangs in strips and the ceiling bears a wild maze of cracks and splits. A double-size four-poster bed rests against one wall, though, with moth-eaten red drapes tied back at the corners. A chest of drawers with a piece of wood jammed under the front right leg to make its lean somewhat less precarious hugs the side wall beside the washroom door. A desk and chair, both covered with piles of books and papers that resemble student essays, occupy the wall opposite. The rear-facing window gives him a good glance out into the grounds, or will when the rain stops and the sun rises, and a small, round table and two rickety chairs rest before the warped sill. Hooks hang from the walls, probably meant for clothing but bearing tangles of string and yarn, and all manner of things lie on the floor against the walls: baskets of wool roving, jars of buttons, a box containing an assortment of saws and carving knives that make him shudder, an umbrella stand stuffed with peacock feathers, bolts of fabric.

What does Osprey’s classroom look like?

“Perhaps unclench your hands, Darius?”

He nods, dizzy. There’s a clear path to the bed, at least, and Susan placed his saddlebags beside it on one of the few sections of floor clear of things. Sitting seems the obvious thing to do, so Darius perches on the edge and starts unbuckling with stiff fingers: knife, broken sword and belt. The box frame creaks under his weight but the mattress doesn’t sag. It might not be too uncomfortable. He drops the blades on the pile of bags and follows them up with the belt, dislodging a grey-brown huntsman spider easily the size of his palm. Everything is still sodden and there’s nowhere to dry his gear until he moves the contents of the hooks somewhere else, so what does it matter where he puts anything?

He makes himself drop the pouch, too, even though every wooden phalange screams for cautious placement. No. Drop it like it’s nothing: it’s bad enough that March spoke as he did, but he can only guess, assume and ponder. There’s a world of difference between speaking and knowing. March doesn’t know.

The pouch slithers down the pile and lands tucked between the saddlebags, almost hidden from Darius’s sight, likely hidden from March’s. Thank the dead for small mercies, he thinks—no, don’t do that! He stops, draws a breath, holds, exhales. No. The dead don’t mean anything. It isn’t resonance. March makes all manner of story from fancy words, as he always has, but there’s no reason to think this string of vague coincidence meaningful. None. Darius is no great magic worker or warrior, bears no great weapon. Don’t think. There’s nothing to think about—

“Why do you think so much, man? Wouldn’t everything be easier if you just stopped thinking?”

He almost laughs. Efe, voice, spirit or madness, a construct within if not of Darius’s mind, thinks he thinks too much! Almost, but he’s mad enough, and after a moment even that bitter levity fades, leaving nothing more than exhaustion. Too tired to sleep, not tired enough to stop thinking. Like always. It doesn’t matter, though: if Darius knows that bone weariness has seldom helped him sleep in the past, he’s too tired right now to care. Lie down, before March asks any more difficult questions, and pray to any listening deity that he falls asleep before Efe says anything more. Everything else can wait for a moment that isn’t now. It must.

“I don’t understand, man, how you walk barefoot outside but tiptoe over a dusty floor inside.”

Darius jerks, stops himself from turning all the way to the wall, exhales, reminds himself that this doesn’t reek of floral perfumes like the entirety of the Greensward, and surveys the room once again in search of a distraction, his flesh fingers digging into his palm. Look at the drapes, the peeling yellow-faded wallpaper. Look at the floor, which is swept clean, and while sheets of grey shroud some boxes and baskets, someone gave the tables and the chest of drawers at least a cursory dusting. Everything smells musty, disused and damp, but not of mould or anything like to worsen his pounding headache. It can be worse, a great deal worse. Shouldn’t he know that?

“Are you—” March leans against the door, his left fingertips tracing the beds of his right-hand fingernails. His lips curve upwards. Amusement? “The usual questions don’t work. They can’t work. You’re not well. You’re not fine. Are you safe?”

Darius can’t decide if the emotion rising through his chest and constructing his throat is bewilderment, frustration or annoyance. He jerks his head and signs: “From what?” He doesn’t have a clue how one might sign “rhubarb”—it never came up in his conversations with Sahar Ehsan—and fingerspelling is far too complicated, so he strings together the closest words he knows. “Vegetable trees? Rain? Voices?

For the best part of six years, he thinks, Darius wasn’t “safe”. Odd to think that, once he recovered enough in Siya that Aysun stopped fearing his death from maiming and illness, he’s been safe ever since. No enemy, no soldiers, no target, no politics, no magicians seeking the bounty on the heads of the wandering king of Siya and his companion. Just doctors, physicians, sundry magic workers and the elves of the Greensward. He killed the Lord, leaving nothing and no one to threaten Darius’s life, and the thought that Efe died to buy him a safety Darius never wished for hits him so hard he leans over, elbows on knees, unsure if he’s going to faint, vomit or merely suffer. Safe.

He is safe, and he can’t breathe because of it.

March’s eyes rest on the window, the rain streaming down the pane and pooling on the twisted sill before splashing onto the table underneath. “You. Safe from you—”

A sudden ringing noise, high-pitched and dreadful, makes Darius leap off the mattress into the air. Without even thinking, he lands on his feet, turning his head to keep from seeing the flashing blue, green and red opal pendant. Strange, to think that ringing belongs to the long ago, a sound that disrupted classes and echoed down the hallways, a sound that should be as alien as the boy Darius became … yet he knows already what that sound means. Habit didn’t die in Mul Dura. “Where is it?”

March’s feet pound against the carpet like a steeplechaser headed for the last fence.

Darius turns his head, stares at the empty doorframe, blinks. He has every reason in the world to throw himself on the bed, close his eyes and try to wish away the belt, the rain, Osprey’s belongings, his headache, Efe, March’s words on resonance. Every reason, but he sprints out the bedroom door and down the hallway. He hasn’t run like this since returning to Siya. Safety hasn’t given him reason. No adventure, no chaos, no danger—well, danger in the sense of dying from drag and blood loss, danger in the art of attempted secret-keeping, danger in being branded a madman, danger in a man swinging his legs over the balcony wall and staring at the garden below, danger in calculating the odds of death versus injury. Nothing like the life he took for granted, nothing like the safety he never wanted. His head spins and momentum carries him even as Darius feels certain he’s going to faint, but he catches up to March, gasping, at the top of the stairs. “What is it?”

“A student entered the Left Tower.” March, despite speaking, runs even faster down the stairs.

Darius, in pursuit with his flesh hand on the railing, waits until they make the landing before speaking, and, even then, he struggles to run, breathe, remain upright and talk all at once. “Your rooms? What? Why?”

March never spent much time there. Quarters were good for bodyguards, privacy and giving the assassins somewhere harmless to focus their attacks; every student knows March sleeps best close to a pantry. So why the alarm?

March’s stocking feet slap against the carpet, near drowning out the rain, the drumming quieter now there’s another floor above their heads. For all that, he breathes with envious effortlessness. “We have a parasite problem. Tick gnomes—”

He doesn’t finish speaking. He doesn’t have to. Darius pounds after him, everything forgotten in the face of two dreadful words. No. Tick gnomes. Here, even though Greenstone lies a containment and a body of water away from Laiphu? Yes, he knows that, one day, the gnomes will devour Khaloun and then cross the Shearing Straits, stowing away on ship-boarded rat, cat or human. One day sooner than anyone likes, given the rapacity with which they spread across Laiphu and into Ashad. If they’re here already, what happened to Siya in the months since Darius fled Aysun? The Eastern Confederacy spent a generation of magic workers and treasure on trying to solve Golzar’s legacy. They can’t have failed so utterly! Not yet!

Does the Greensward know? Was Surandil keeping this, too, from him?

Did they judge Darius too broken and mad to know about gnomes?

Tick gnomes? There’s tick gnomes …  in the tower? And a student—shades, a student can … enter?” Darius looks down and ducks to the side just in time: water pools in a puddle on a floor by a door chalked “Swan”, sheeting down the mahogany panelling above. “Tick gnomes? Here?”

“They’re contained!” March sends fifteen cats scurrying for safety under chairs and tables as he tears across the landing and down the last flight of steps. He stops to give the three-note whistle every student has tried at least once and failed to accomplish, giving time for Darius to stagger on after him; by the time Darius makes it to the ground level of the tiled foyer, the room dominated by the now-pounding rhythm of rain on glass overhead, a pair of monkeys flutters down out of the shadows to hover front of March. Two females, beating gossamer wings rendered dull and almost grey-looking in the dim light, both surveying the scene with calm eyes as though they have no interest in human disasters. Musk smells only as a faint top note above the damp. “Monkeys! Tell Amelia it’s gnomes. Help her, but have the staff remain with the students. Keep it quiet! The fewer students that know, the better.”

Darius leans down, rests his elbows against his knees, counts as he breathes.

The pair shifts their tiny, delicate hands into the sign for “yes”, almost in synchronicity, before zooming down the hallway towards the dining room.

March veers left.

“Contained?” Darius struggles after him. It doesn’t matter that he can scarcely breathe: if March has a way of containing tick gnomes, he must know! Aysun must know, even if Darius then must face the horror of the letter she’ll send in return. She must give that information to Sahar. “Contained how? And a student … got in … anyway?”

March doesn’t answer; he doesn’t even slow until they pass the Professors’ lab, their usual, glowing Dark Lord skull décor looking quite ominous given the dark and damp of the evening.

Broken face. Shards of bone. The light doing nothing to conceal those horrid glimpses of white in the pulped-meat mess of a human head.

“Contained how?”

March ignores Darius in favour of whispering under his breath and waving his hands. Darius, coming to a staggering halt and slumping against the wall, makes out a few signs and several words in Old Astreuch: show and reveal.

Shades, how did March conceal such breadth of blocking?

Yes, the door frames are marked, just like every classroom doorway he just passed, but those are spells for spill containment, cleanliness, alert lines. The standard, everyday spells he expects to see, given that many of them are blocked by students as class exercises. Not this. Not the tangle of whitewashed lines and Astreuch blocking, surrounding the floor, door and wall, partitioning off the section of the hallway. Not this ward, perhaps the most complex ward he has ever seen outside the Greensward and the Grey Tower, spreading up the walls and under the floor to form a perimeter around the entire tower, one that must have cost to block and cast—one that costs to maintain, for March can never afford to let this spell degrade.

Darius leans against the wall, draws a breath, holds it, releases, repeats. His head spins and his heaving chest fights his attempts to control his breathing, but the disappointment hits worst. The blocking of the ward before him demonstrates a mastery of language Darius can never hope to match, but it’s still only a ward. Still subject to the same failings as every ward worked in Laiphu by any construct-able magic worker, because describing a flawless containment within the limitations of spell-functional language isn’t possible. Darius exhales again, shakes his head. March doesn’t have an answer. If March, who learnt script magic from Surandil, can’t block a true containment, who can? There’ll be cracks in the writing even March might not yet see, cracks where the perimeter isn’t fully defined or cracks that emerge as the earth and the structures of the house shift away from matching the precise definition set in text. Does March know that the gnomes find those cracks? That they’re intelligent enough to create them? That Hamide Golzar, one of the greatest magic workers Darius has ever seen, couldn’t contain them?

It’s just a ward, like any other ward, flawed and fallible: for while storybooks speak of enchanters and sorcerers who can block and script impassable boundaries, human magicians, mages and witches have never evidenced such mythological ability.

Some things cannot be communicated by language.

There are other ways, of course, temporary ways that rely on affinity and connection instead of communication and definition. Ways that cost in blood and strength alike. It’s part of the reason why Darius didn’t argue when the Master and the belt pushed him towards study with Eren Adalet. Someone must have held a cast wall while March wrote and blocked the ward. Faiza, perhaps? No—Osprey! Surely it was Osprey?

None of that explains why March hasn’t destroyed them.

“That—that isn’t—”

“They unlocked the door.” March draws a breath, steps over the parallel lines running between the tower door and the flanking storeroom, and rests his hands on the door. “Latched it behind them. Clever. Darius.” He turns his head, his brown eyes angled down to bore into Darius’s own. “Darius. You’re with me, yes? Can you handle the finial?”

He doesn’t realise how much the letter in a dressing gown pocket eats at him until he hears those last five words. He’s here because others think him in need of watching, because they think him mad and broken and unsafe, and while March might talk otherwise, Darius isn’t a proper teacher, not one who earnt the job. He’s a failure. He’s a magician. Magician enough to survive Eren; magician enough to bring down Mul Dura; magician enough to craft a hand; magician enough to finish a spell. It counts. Doesn’t it?

“Why do you believe that we all think less of you, Liv?”

“Because you do,” Darius whispers, but he nods, opens his mouth—and stops.

March’s face is wrong.

For someone else, perhaps, it’s correct, even ordinary in worlds where masculinity comes hand in hand with presumed emotional control. Wrong for March. Darius shudders, feeling ill in ways that make no sense: he’s seen worse, endured worse, so why does this make him want to hide?

His wood fingers itch, but there’s no skin to scratch.

March moves, he always moves: the sun rises in the east and March speaks with his lips, eyebrows, feet and hands. He tells stories with his skin as much as his words, and, in doing so, allows his students to do the same. Motion lends him humanity; it makes him, with all his odd pronouncements, a little more real and a little less frightening … something Darius didn’t see, fifteen years ago, when he was a child looking at a hero.

Now he sees a mask, not a face. Still lips pressed together, eyes shifting back to the door, palms pressed against the wood, torso and legs tilted as far away as possible as though March draws on unholy courage to stand even that close, ribs surging up and down with a rapidity that matches Darius’s own ragged breaths. It’s a mask ill-fitted over memory and horror—the direct opposite of everything March preached to Darius in the kitchen. Does March see the hypocrisy of hiding his fear after telling Darius to stand in front of students and be mad? Or does he just not care, in the face of something so terrible to him? Something that reminds Darius of the Lord and Hamide Golzar and that nightmare of consciousness when he looked, for the first time, on blood-soaked rags and space?

March, in this at least, is broken.

Darius laughs. What do tick gnomes matter to him? March knows enough of what Darius brought with him to the College. He hasn’t even asked why. Doesn’t that mean something?

“What are you trying to prove, Liv? That you’re man enough to come in here all glassy-eyed and work a construct? Think you just did that, so what’s left?”

“Everything.” Darius shudders, leans down, fishes in the top of his right boot for a stick of oilskin-wrapped chalk and pushes it, wrapped, into March’s left hand. This is right. It’s madness, but it’s right. “I don’t dream of gnomes, sir. Please.”

He can cast a barrier. It’ll cost him in blood and strength, but he can. There’s a student in there, and who knows how far up they have gotten—no. The tick gnomes will take blood and strength, too, but they’ll do so slowly, far more slowly than the drain. If he doesn’t panic and doesn’t idle, he’ll be fine. He’s better to enter as is, endure, find and grab the student, and only then, if they swarm too quickly, blast or wall the gnomes. First lesson of a blood witch, after all: don’t waste magic, blood or breath. Never assume one has the chance to recover between workings. Never extend. Never show off. Never work without first ensuring one’s own survival, and the sound of his breath tells a story even Darius can read.

He paid in blood to create his hand, and now he suffers the consequences.

March draws a breath. Only his lips, set into an otherwise still face, move. “Do you know, Darius, that this is the first time you’ve looked alive?” He steps backwards and tosses aside the oilskin. “It’s a simple metal catch.”

Nor does he need magic for that. Darius doesn’t know what to say, so he reaches into the top of his left boot and grasps the length of wire tucked into the pocket sewn into the lining. “Why do you have tick gnomes contained behind a door any student can unlock?” He leans against the door and straightens the wire, aware that he asks only to keep March from elaborating on that horrifying question. Nonetheless, his own isn’t unreasonable. “Have you seen Laiphu?”

The crack between the door and the frame sits wide enough—likely on purpose—for Darius to slide the wire between door and frame, work it upwards until it meets the catch and then push the catch up until the hook flicks free from the keeper. He shudders. Even with the door shut, he can smell the gnomes, that salt-sour-sweet reek that smells disconcertingly like too many humans packed into too small a space—one that has much the same cause. Shades, how many? Has March managed, through luck or skill, to keep them inside the tower, only for the colony to breed, grow and wait, testing the ward all the while? If there’s this many … Darius drops the wire and considers, again, walling himself. He’ll survive that, perhaps, but he might not get the student out, requiring someone else to venture after him. No. He still hasn’t recovered from the priming spells, and it’s far less dangerous to admit that as fact. He must find the student, soon, and if that means being a walking feast, so be it.

“No student has died yet.” March crouches down on the floor, scribbling furiously. The chalk squeaks against the slate tiles. His voice, though, unhurried and monotone, sounds close to normal—too normal. “It’s my job to provide you adventures and escapades.”

Those quiet words, a line he heard any number of times as a student, shatter the strange rightness of venturing behind that door. Once, those words sounded powerful and grand, the promise of preparation for wonderful exploits in the world. Once, they made a student think what he felt was love, although he didn’t know, then, why he loved the unattainable or that love might have a hundred thousand meanings, not all relevant to him. Once. They’re words that appeal to the students’ curiosity, words that give students confidence and dreams alike … words that provide a veneer of justification and validation to a dangerous lapse that has no reason to exist.

Roaring sounds from the other side of the door.

Darius exhales and yanks the door open. “Hammer. Nails. Wood. You nail the door shut.” He stops, wracked by a coughing fit and the billowing of heat and smoke—both of which disperse as March’s suppressant wards, another magical miracle beyond Darius’s ability to script, blocked long before Darius graduated, flare into action. Is the student burning the gnomes? “Student! Don’t burn me! It won’t help!”

If one knows nothing of tick gnomes, it might be a sensible action.

So why hasn’t March taught his students that much, at least? Why has he let this be despite his fear showing that he understands something of how dangerous the gnomes are?

Darius draws a breath and walks into the dark.

***

The supernaturally-warm strip of leather coiled about his right arm comes as a relief, albeit a problematic one: if the belt puts this much magic into keeping him alive, Darius’s heart beats. If the belt puts this much magic into keeping him alive, however, he’s done something the belt won’t let him forget. He draws a breath, panic surging. No. Hold, exhale. Breathe, hold, exhale. First things first: where is he? He lies still, listening. Realising that he can only hear his own breaths against a quiet holding the uncanny depth of night comes in twain with a chorus of misery: streaming nose, stinging eyes, a dull itch crawling over his skin. Not as bad as the itch in his fingers, at least, but thinking of it makes that, too, flare to life. His eyes prickle as though there’s a sharpened eyelash poking into the ball. He groans and raises his right hand, shocked by the effort needed to do so, towards his face. That small movement just sets a thousand pinprick bites to flare in pain, quite distinct from the itch, as fabric and leather shift over his skin.

Bites. Gnomes, of course. Gnomes, because he ventured into a tower room after a student. Gnomes, because March, for some inexplicable reason, houses swarms.

Swarms.

Darius draws another breath He can still smell the bathwater, as though the oils have seeped into his skin like dye into fabric: eucalyptus, cajuput, tea-tree and pyrethrum. Sharp, stinging, clean fragrances overlaid by pyrethrum’s slightly-greasy bite. Obnoxious to him; lethal to gnomes. Even the newer, woody odours of chamomile and lavender—a salve meant to ease the itch, he supposes—don’t drown out that lingering awfulness.

For a moment he just lies there, his nose dripping onto his upper lip, too exhausted to do anything about it. Not in the sense of waking unrested, something almost normal by now; tired in the sense of having climbed a mountain for days on end without food. Tired in the sense of having no energy left to him, not enough to move his head up off his left shoulder or finish raising his hand to his nose or eyes. Too tired to even think about sitting. Too tired to scratch his itching stump.

The belt’s magic keeps his heart beating and his lungs pumping, even when they should do no such thing—yet if the belt doesn’t wish him to move, he won’t. If the belt thinks he needs to stay in bed to recover, the belt will make him tired enough that he has no choice but to stay. Some mysterious, long-dead maker—so Darius assumes, given that the belt answers no questions on its origin or inception—crafted a belt designed to be a soldier’s boon companion, capable of magically supporting the processes of the human body and capable of independently deciding what it thinks best in the matter of keeping its humans alive.

Magic always comes at a price. Always.

He’s alive, weary, itchy, sore. What next? Location. Bed, based on the mattress under his body and the pillow under his head. He can’t smell dust, so this can’t be—oh, shades, it’s the infirmary, isn’t it? He inhales again: yes, soap and magic form the base of the olfactory cacophony. That explains the quiet: dampening spells. Darius bites his lip and wriggles his toes and fingers. Every limb attached to him yesterday appears to remain so, minus his wood hand and harness, although that much movement hurts—it’s not just the rubbing, he realises. His skin feels stiff and stretched, like a tanned hide pulled taut over a frame. He works his way up his body, testing lips, running his tongue over teeth, forcing eyelids to rise from their sticky rest over his weeping eyes, grimacing as his lower lip splits. The oils and herbs that kill tick gnomes won’t kill him—at least, not in those amounts—but that doesn’t mean his body appreciates the experience. Dry, cracking skin. Bites. Itching. Running nose. Well, he knew all that, just like anyone who has survived Laiphu, and better to be miserable now than to let even one gnome breach March’s wards.

Someone needs to go in, walled, and flood the tower.

Someone needs to do it, because the gnomes won’t kill a healthy, cautious adult, but they’ll devour children, the elderly, infants, stock animals, wild animals—anyone or anything who cannot exercise deliberate alertness and easily remove any clinging gnomes. Darius has seen pastures empty of cattle, stables empty of horses, villages mourning the oldest and youngest inhabitants. Generations gone in days. How do people live when there’s no mules or oxen to pull carts, no milk to drink, no fish to eat, no birds and bats to manage insect populations, no elderly to teach, no children to learn? He doesn’t know, and neither does Laiphu, but Golzar’s creations have brought a nation to its knees and defied the Grey Mages’ best efforts.

Darius doesn’t know which to be the worst crime: that Erondil brought this hell down on the College or that March has allowed it to remain accessible. Yet both have, and given what happened to Mitzie and Johannes, it’s easy to believe that Erondil wrought this evil without a thought for the collateral deaths of youths and young adults, even Greenstone, even the continent entire. The world outside the shielded Greensward can burn, be it revenge for an act hundreds of years gone or from the loss of a blade. If Laiphu stands as testimony for the truth Hamide Golzar brought the world, that some things are too dark to touch, only a few in the Greensward seem to realise it.

None of this explains March.

Yesterday, he sat on a bed and felt adrift in a world that had become too safe.

His skin itches and stings, his eyes run, his lip bleeds and he’s sure he cannot sit up to drink or piss, but Darius smiles nonetheless.

It takes him a few blinks and several swipes with his right hand to clear his eyes of gunk and fallen eyelashes. The belt falls into loose, slithering coils around his elbow, and Darius lets his hand drop to the pillow, already too weary to return it to the mattress. For a while, he just lies there, eyes burning, occasionally shifting his head to wipe his jaw and lips on the pillowcase. The sun spilling through the window beside him, looking out onto the meadow running down towards the dam, has that weak, fragile quality of early morning. His bed rests in the corner, partitioned on one side by a canvas screen, looking across at an empty bed opposite. It’s almost peaceful.

The infirmary, too, has only changed in detail, not substance. He knows the bear shape in the corner of the ceiling, knows the spiral of dots that looks too deliberate to be accidental. He doesn’t know the patch in the centre that looks as though it has been replastered and whitewashed, but everything else feels far too familiar. He once spent several weeks in this same bed coming to a rather intimate acquaintance of its cracks and chips, all thanks to an enthusiastic water serpent who didn’t realise flinging itself at a seven-year-old boy already on the short side would have disastrous consequences when said boy hit the boatshed wall. There is, he supposes, a dreadful symmetry in finding himself lying under this whitewashed ceiling once again, since he’d scarcely begun at the College before coming to know well the infirmary.

This time, he didn’t even make it one night.

Better to laugh at that, a rough, croaking rasp, given his other options.

“Dar?”

“Awake.” He coughs, winces. No, he isn’t going to sit up. He’s going to do the right thing and ask, and try not to think on the fact that he only learnt this skill after Efe’s death. Only learnt it after coming close enough to death himself. “Water.”

“You’re a porcupine, Liv. Prickly.”

The belt warms. It might be assent; it might be approval; it might be something else entirely. It does yell in a cheerful, booming voice that makes Darius wince: “Doctor March, my Dar is awake and needs your help!”

There’s nothing to do but wait, so he lies still, digging his fingernails into the pillow. The College being the College, the infirmary doesn’t just sear the eyeballs with whitewash and overwhelm with cleanliness: the curtain screen that frames the bed is made from white-faded-to-grey canvas and repaired with scraps of red-faded-to-pink check calico. The quilt folded over his grey sheet is patchwork, not in the style of art but in the style of making enough usable fabric to cover a body with the least amount of sewing. A bedside table holds his clothes, harness and small personal belongings—handkerchief, a few coins, pencils, paper, boot knives. There’s enough spells painted on or caved into every single surface that one can spend some time engrossed in reading: sound-dampening spells, purification spells, wards, spells to relax and calm. Across the room, the wooden frame and legs of the empty bed bears more eldritch constructs and less-eldritch graffiti proclaiming that Olin loves Kumiko. Above the bed and pinned to the wall hang several yellowing pages from Amelia’s long-running list of rules, written large in her sprawling hand: Students confined to the infirmary are not allowed to practice handball through the window. Students confined to the infirmary are not allowed to create hammocks from the bedsheets. Teachers confined to the infirmary are not allowed to grade student essays. Students confined to the infirmary are not allowed to ask friends to bring them frogspawn and serpent eggs. Teachers confined to the infirmary are not allowed to go on a quest to an active volcano to destroy dark-atmospheric jewellery.

“Doctor March—”

“I can’t snap my fingers and appear!” Amelia rounds the screen, hips swaying, skirts swishing over the tops of her boots, feet slamming against the grey slate tiles. She holds a rattling tray close to her body. “If it isn’t a bloody emergency, call once and wait!” She jerks her head, red tendrils of hair flickering about her scalp, and turns her brown eyes on Darius—not staring, but shifting from spot to spot, leaving Darius feeling as though he’s a puzzle she pieces together. “Darius? Can you follow me?”

Amelia. He hoped, before last night, that he might manage to avoid her inevitable interference in everything others think wrong with Darius for a few days, but even with the immense distractions of gnomes and trying to avoid passing out on the storeroom floor, he didn’t miss her glances. Strange, given that now he’s too tired—or the belt and her spells repress his ability to feel that anxiety—to worry about where she might begin. He can’t trust her, any more than he can trust any other doctor or physician, but he’s too weary to care—and he liked her, once, before he had to worry about madness, before he owned a broken body that the physicians can’t let be. Before. How did it happen that his life splits into everything that happened before and after Mul Dura?

“Following. Metaphorically speaking.” One day, he thinks, he’s going to wake up in a world where nobody asks that question. One day. “Tired.”

Amelia slides the tray onto the bedside table. She, at least, does so with a minimum of clattering, and Darius can’t look away as she balances the tray on the edge of the table, brushes away the clothing with her left hand and pushes the tray across with her right. “Can you sit up? Can you hold a mug?”

Nothing in her expression or posture changes, nothing to show any understanding of the miracle she just wrought. Once, he did the same; once, he didn’t understand, didn’t value simple movements and actions, didn’t picture a world where he can’t yet balance a tray in one hand and move an object with the other. It has never been a thoughtless action with him; he doesn’t have enough control over his body for it to be thoughtless. Possible, though. Possible, and even that one can take for granted. He did.

He can’t speak. How can he ever make people understand that he lost more than just a hand? So many little things stolen from him, grief seeping from a thousand cuts left by blades from directions he never thought to look. Trays, the ease of pushing away quilts and the too-long nails on his right hand. Why would it cross his mind to think on the little things he might lose should the unimaginable happen, when he can see that no one else does? Why would it cross his mind to cherish the ease with which he could braid his own hair, trim his fingernails, grasp a towel, fasten buttons, hold a piece of wood in one hand and shape it with the other? Why would it cross his mind to value all the things that were simple with two flesh hands and why, why didn’t it? Shades, why didn’t he cherish cutting meat and sewing and beading and the shape of his fingertips and touching Efe’s bearded jaw with his left hand? Why did he take it all for granted? Why didn’t he take the time to craft and make? Why did he never stop to celebrate the ease and the beauty and the human perfection of possessing two hands made from flesh and blood and bone?

Why does the grief take him like this when there’s nothing he can do about it?

“Darius?”

He draws a breath. His eyes water but he can’t cry, and all he can think is that Amelia did him no kindness by unbuckling his hand. “No. Maybe.”

Amelia crooks her head. She wears another plain green dress under an apron so starched it doesn’t require a person to wear it to remain upright. It strikes him as a little unfair that an apron can stand on its own hem while he feels half about to pass out just lying down, but very little in Darius’s life corresponds to any childish considerations of fair. “Maybe you aren’t as senseless as I thought you.”

He can’t keep his words from sounding bitter. “Talk to the Greensward.”

She laughs. Laughs, as though he isn’t falling apart, as though she has no idea what he sees in her casual movements. “The bloody elves? Truly?” Her words, spoken in her flat Greenstone accent, ring far too gently for Darius’s comfort. He knows that gentleness, softness used as a weapon: they’re quiet, they’re kind, they’re doing their best to avoid provoking the defensiveness and anxiety of a broken man—they are, as Efe always said, doing their best not to make him prickle. Like March in the kitchen, the careful handling of a shattered soul. Don’t they know he hears it? That their words sing of what they see in Darius, that nothing else makes him feel more diminished? Yes, he needs her to help him sit up; he needs her to arrange pillows so he can lean against them, upright enough to swallow, not so upright he’s going to pass out. He needs … he doesn’t know what he needs, but everyone thinks they know and are set on deciding for him, whether he wants it or not. Eat, talk, drink, reveal, as if those things make a difference!

He can’t answer, can’t speak. He just grips the handle of the mug as Amelia presses it into his hand, takes a wary sniff of the warm water—not hot enough to steam—and raises the tea to his lips. Chamomile, honey, salt. While the salt is in theory barely strong enough to taste, that’s too already too much, and he can’t abide the strange mingling of savoury and sweet. Honey-glazed ham and mint sauce on lamb sickens him as much as salt in honey water, save that it has even less cause—why does anyone think it a good idea to use a dessert flavour on meat?

His stomach knots, but drinking gives him reason to avoid a conversation, so Darius sips the half mug as slowly as possible, ignoring both the warming belt coiled around his elbow and Amelia, dragging a stool beside the bed and perching on it like a hooded falcon awaiting flight, Darius’s blue handkerchief rolled between her fingers.

Today her hair—a scarlet red, as though she dyed her greying hair the most unnatural colour possible—sits coiled in a rough knot, corkscrew tendrils spilling out in all directions and vibrating as she jerks her head and hands. Fifteen years rest more heavily on her than they do March, lining her eyes, dappling her skin and creasing her jaw, but she looks as vibrant, if not as young, as she did when she told him what to expect in his travels across the Shearing Straits. Her brown hands are dry and calloused, the sleeves of her linen dress rolled up to her elbows baring forearms marked by the odd paler scar and more muscles than Darius owned even in Rajad. She smells of nothing more than soap: she never did have time for perfumes and paints and everything else she deemed “frippery”. Why, then, her hair?

Her eyes flicker, shamelessly, from face to neck to stump, but she too doesn’t speak, not until Darius holds an empty mug to his lips and wonders what next to do.

“You’ve spent fourteen years with the belt? You must have the patience of a—” Amelia stops, frowns, tosses the handkerchief onto his lap. “Teacher. You’ll be able to do the job, I think. But you need a little help.”

One moment his hand, the next a blow from another direction entirely, until Darius feels like a weather vane never given the grace of a calm day. What to say that, now he knows he’s here because Surandil’s agent placed a message in a dressing gown pocket? He isn’t a teacher! March can make words dance into any meaning he wishes to convey, and even recognising that doesn’t matter when Darius has nowhere else to be or go. He can walk into a tower and rescue a student, but since he’s here in the infirmary with the belt wrapped around his arm, breathing and alert only due to magic, is that any kind of accomplishment? Or is it just another terrible decision in a long line of them because Darius only makes mistakes?

“It’s been too long, man, since we’ve seen Aysun.”

No. There’s a whitewashed wall, pillows and a headboard behind him. Not Efe. Darius doesn’t mean to say the words that spill from his lips in his hoarse voice; he doesn’t particularly care that he does say them. “You think you’re the first to tell me my head isn’t right? You think you’re the first to talk at me? There’s I don’t know how many different physicians and magic workers in front of you—and we both know I’m here because of that, Osprey an excuse! Unless you’ve something new to say, don’t!”

For a moment, Amelia just stands and looks at him, her lips pressed flat, her fingers picking at the plain hem of her apron.

He sits there, trapped by sheets and the belt and his own frail bones, his fingers wrapped around the handle, the mug in front of his chin. Once the mug hid trembling lips and tears, but now there’s nothing to hide and no tears to fall.

He drops the mug onto his lap, clenches the handkerchief in his fingers, stares down at his stump and waits for the inevitable.

“Oh, Kit!” Amelia rolls her eyes and plonks herself on the foot of the bed, her feet resting on the stool so that her boot heels hang over the edge of the seat. She doesn’t touch him; she threads her fingers together and holds them in her lap. “Kit is a—” She scowls and jerks her right knee. “I don’t know! Insufferably thoughtless—except he does think, about everything, but he thinks in the wrong way! All, all—I swear, a little less abstract verbosity, a few more practical kicks in the rear. You know it; don’t act like you don’t. You’re a witch. You didn’t survive Eren without pragmatism, even if you’re too busy being a bloody dehydrated celery stick to remember it.”

Everything about that, Darius thinks, is new.

The belt breaks into a hearty ringing whistle.

Amelia and the belt spoke. Never mind the catalogue of horrors March might have told Amelia—no, the belt is far more dangerous a conversational partner because it believes it behaves in Darius’s best interest, doesn’t understand why humans don’t tell the intimate details of their lives to other humans and has spent fourteen years in Darius’s company. What March might suspect, the belt knows. Worse, the belt might tell Amelia about that night in Siya or Darius and Efe’s preferences in bed and think nothing of either. Yet … of all the things with which he feared Amelia might begin, his apprenticeship with the Sanguarian isn’t one of them.

There’s no question in her speech, just a string of statements: Darius sits and waits.

“Which means you were good at affinity then.” Amelia jerks her head in a nod in the way people do when uttering something they think a self-evident truth—although if her words are a self-evident truth, why do they need a confirmative nod? How did this become a behaviour even they unthinkingly mirror? “And you’ve spent however long dancing on the knife’s edge since.” She tilts her chin towards his stump—or, more accurately, the encircling lines of scar tissue marking what remains of his forearm. “Still doing it, although perhaps less well.”

Darius sighs. “I danced on the street in Laiphu. In boots.”

“I know you damn well know I was being metaphorical.”

Again, a statement, so Darius blows his nose and glances at his fingernails. He’s too used to illness, injury and catastrophe to care about the oversized shift or even the lack of clothes, but there’s nothing to grab or hold but his own body, the shift, the handkerchief and the bed covers. This, not clothing, leaves him feeling naked. No beaded necklace to roll, no buttons to pick at, nothing but his hair—and even now, more than twenty years after he’s spent any real time in Malvade, he has too many vivid memories of Oma Petronella scolding him for twisting or biting his own hair. Too many memories of trudging along, doing his best not to weep, while his siblings and cousins ran ahead, untroubled by the sound and scent of the city streets, never needing the fidgeting that allowed him to survive.

He draws a breath and counts instead: fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty-five…

Amelia sighs. “Oh, goddess. This is going to be—” She stops, as if realising that it may be kind to halt that sentence, and looks toward the window. “We both know that the ability to do a thing doesn’t mean you can show someone else how to do the thing, but understanding the thing helps, and since when do we not talk about what we know? Does it matter what Kit says when that is the truth?”

Ten, five, zero, four, eight, twelve, sixteen…

Sometimes the physicians gave up and left at this point. Sometimes they kept on talking, and over time, this became the point where language took on edges: words like “difficult” or “recalcitrant”. Always spoken in quiet, melodic voices; always accompanied by intent stares that Darius decided were intended to convey compassion; always followed by pushing questions trying to find the thing wrong in him that made him too stubborn to manage. Doesn’t he want to become well? Why won’t he try talking? He heard all their stories about tormented souls who started talking and attained recovery thereafter. He endured the pointed questions when the physicians came to the inevitable conclusion that Mul Dura didn’t break him, because Darius was already damaged, too strange to be treatable. By the end, they stopped hunting for polite phrases, as though direct words on the nature of Darius’s sundry personality flaws might shock him into action—which, he supposes, they did, if a ruined nursery accounts for anything.

He’s so broken he destroyed a generation but one of the most valuable possessions in the Greensward, as thank you for a hand, teaching and the assistance he needed to create.

One more mistake in a long line of them.

He isn’t sure he regrets it.

He wipes his eyes, blows his nose again, balls the damp handkerchief in his fist.

“Darius.” Amelia threads her fingers together and rests her chin on the backs of her steepled hands. “Bloody goddess! Well, then. What about this? If you were with Eren, you know better—and that witch might have taken over a country and provoked a bloody uprising, but she never lacked in sense when it came to magic.” She flicks the fingers of her right hand and sighs, but her rate of speech quickens. “We both know that most of the reason she lives still is because she doesn’t do what you’re apparently set on doing.” She stops, blinks. Her lips curl upwards, although Darius doesn’t think there’s enough curve of her mouth for anyone to class her expression a smile. “Tell me: would Eren have put your ashes in the scrapheap if you didn’t learn control and self-care enough to suit her?”

Yes, but since Amelia knows this—somehow—as well as he does, he doesn’t see the point in answering. Darius didn’t know, when the Master gave him an address on a slip of paper and told him to tell his fellow students that he was getting remedial sword instruction, that Eren was both a failed tyrant in exile and a blood witch so devoted to her craft she’ll sooner kill her own students than allow a danger into the world. He learnt the first, listening to her croaking voice recite the long list of ills the people of Khaloun wrecked against her government, while he practiced in the sweltering rooms backing onto her great oven, not even the evening cool lessening the heat baked into the mud brick walls. He learnt the second six years later, a parting gift when Eren, without warning, dragged him to see the Master to announce that she was done with his education before slapping the knife into his palm, telling him he was one of the lucky ones and stalking off into the evening.

The Master didn’t hold it against Darius when he snatched their favourite pot from their desk and threw it at their head; they just ducked, held their sleeve to the cut seeping down their face and offered Darius his first job—as a mercenary magician with a selective skillset—for which this client and many others were willing to overlook his sword skills and pay him double. It took three jobs, involving scorn and mockery from his fellow mercenaries and even sometimes his employers, not to mention the occupational hazards of people thinking to take advantage of a young-looking divergent man, before he understood what Eren had given him and why she and the Master risked his life to do so.

Understanding isn’t the same thing as forgiveness, but it is, sometimes, enough.

Darius exhales and looks down at his hand, clasped around the handkerchief so tight his knuckles almost burst from the skin—or not so tight, rather. Not tight at all. His skin has split in places, cracking around the scabbing bites peppering his limbs like a cook gone liberal with the saffron shaker. His knuckles are rough and dry, his fingers cold. Bites and splits and calluses sprinkled with the occasional pink mark left by accidental injury; higher up, making wrist and forearm, lie rings of scars, most of them bearing none of the irregularity owned by the usual wounds of a mercenary fighter. Many are old and pink-faded, only making the rawness of the new cuts more evident. Skin and flesh tells a story anyone can read through touch or sight—even Darius.

More scars, more scars Efe hated, but what does it matter now?

It wasn’t vanity with Efe: he hated scars like he hated Darius’s teeth, because Efe never looked at Darius and stopped seeing himself as the cause for every imperfection. Aysun never felt that guilt; she took the scars as part of Darius, like his eyes, hair and accent. It was a relief, sometimes, to be with her, knowing there was no spectre of remorse between his skin and hers—before Efe died in Mul Dura and Darius couldn’t stop seeing her grief.

“You know what this is, man. You know.”

He stares at drawn skin and protruding bone. He knows. The doctors and the physicians and the worried care-givers think he doesn’t, and therein lies his madness, but avoiding mirrors only conceals a book in the way darkness keeps the eye from reading. The story still exists, the title to be gleaned from raised lettering on cover and spine. Refusing to open the cover doesn’t make him ignorant as to the content of the book.

He can understand, he supposes, why they speak as they do.

“Darius? Are you able to talk with me?”

He doesn’t know if he’s angry or overwhelmed or something else. He does know that he doesn’t much care which emotion belongs to this unpleasant surge of feeling. He does know that he’s tired of it, so tired, because even Amelia isn’t enough different. Same words, different voice. That’s all this is. He’s here, at the College, with nowhere else to go, but they’re speaking the same words. He’s broken, even when he’s no longer the strange divergent man in a world never made or meant for him. He’s always broken.

“You think I don’t know, you, the Greensward, Siya! You think I don’t know what I am, how I look, what I feel. You seem to think I’m ignorant, unaware, that … that I am now, all unknowing, and that unknowing is my illness, my madness, realisation the medicine. Like it makes some miraculous difference to know—I already know! It’s nothing! What does knowing what should be, how to be, matter? I knew, then, but the knowing matters nothing now! I can drink, a little, but I can’t bear anything else. I can’t. So what does knowing…”

He drives too-long fingernails into his left stump and scratches knowing that his missing fingers and palm itch the most, that scratching the stump won’t change anything, that he can’t not try for the umpteenth time.

Desperation, too, is a kind of madness.

“Dari—”

“Amelia!” The low voice, so low as to be almost deep, accompanies quick, pattering steps. March rounds the curtains, holding a dessert spoon in his right hand, the left waving about as though he means to take flight. His hair surrounds his face in a halo of grey with two red ribbons dangling from the curls, his shirt hangs untucked with one buttonhole open, and a stocking spills out of his jacket pocket. The opal pendant hangs face-in, showing the silver backing, the cord twisted almost to March’s throat. He glares at Amelia as though she’s the only person in the world and as if Darius didn’t speak—of course, the dampening spells giving each bed a measure of privacy. “Spoons. Spoons.

Amelia folds her arms across her apron. “Is something the matter, Kit?”

March’s left hand moves even faster; he shifts the right to grip the spoon by the bowl, baring the stem and handle—both of which are wrapped in brightly-coloured embroidery silks layered with a length of black knotting running the length of the spoon. A ward against summoning spells, a tricky little construct designed to break down the affinity inherent in sympathetic magic—and useful only if Amelia warded every single spoon. It isn’t a spell for which Darius has had much use; he can’t block it without references. “You. My spoons!”

“Your spoons are still in the kitchen, Kit. You might have observed that we’re busy? Go back to the kitchen, stir your beef stock with a spatula and send a monkey to me with a bowl. Two bowls. Don’t add bacon.” Amelia’s lips curve upward, but there’s nothing soft or gentle about her expression. “If you want to find your spoons, I hear that nailing a door shut has magical spoon-summoning powers.”

March throws the spoon onto the floor with a loud clang. “I told you! I told you why! Yet you go on and on as though this is senseless and you took my spoons! My spoons! I can’t change it, Amelia!”

He rocks on his heels, his face scrunched, his hands fluttering at his sides in movements that seem less purposeful and more the frantic motions of a man who doesn’t know what to do with his body. His chest heaves and his eyes dance across the room, skittering from object to object. It all sings a lie of his expressions and words the night before, and Darius watches, speechless. Yes, he knows how cruel a punishment Amelia wrought, and he knows that Amelia knows, for she will react similarly if anyone touches her surgery. He’s endured her ire for much less than the purposeful and deliberate act of warding and hiding spoons. He also knows that a man who can break down over clothing can face soldiers without batting an eye, because Darius is that kind of man himself—but to see it in March, who can discuss Erondil and the murder of his own child and daughter-in-law with such guilting calm, rattles Darius more than is right.

“Do you remember,” the belt murmurs, its voice almost inaudible, “what you said to me, the day you met your Efe?”

He remembers tossing the belt into the hallway and frustrated conversations on the usual topic of sex and relationships, but Darius has known the belt too long not to know when there’s a trap waiting to swallow him.

He scratches scabs free from his bites and says nothing.

Amelia surges to her feet like a striking snake, her teeth bared, her eyes fixed on March’s face. “No, you didn’t! You say you can’t and you expect me to trust your wisdom on the matter without explanation—did you look, Kit? Did you look at Tes when you walked past hir bed? Did you look at Darius? What, what—what justifies this? What is it?” She slams her boots into the floor as she walks, jerking her thumb towards Darius. “Look, Kit! Look at him! You know what he is and you let him—oh, you can’t expect a suicidal magician to have a thought for his own breath, but you? You should! That’s your job and you’re failing to do it! So what reason is there? What justifies this?

That word isn’t for him, even if it refers to him.

It still feels like a sudden deluge of ice water to hear it spoken. The belt, of course. Worse, there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to go, nothing to say, no escape. Silence is the only weapon he has here—a blunted blade at best. He’s safe, by ordinary definition, but since he knows what to do when faced with tick gnomes or dark lords, how unsafe is danger, really? How is it more unsafe than this room, this bed, this conversation? In conflict, Darius has history, experience, possibility. He knows the spells he can use, the magic he can cast, the knives on his person, the kicks and punches to bring down a bigger and stronger person who makes the mistake of allowing Darius within reach. He knows people assume less of him, and that’s another knife secreted away to draw when needed. In any given circumstance, he has a choice of blades he can bring out for the opponent at hand, and knowing that has always given him something he lost, not with his hand but with his staggering return to Siya—control.

He sags back against the pillows. Ninety, eighty-seven, eighty-four, eighty-one, seventy-eight, seventy-five…

“You know what!” March stares back at Amelia, a fixed, ungentle glare softened only by trembling lips and watering eyes. “It’s the same thing, Amelia, it’s always the same thing, and I can’t do anything else! You know why and what! You never want to admit it—you want to scream and yell, as if that makes a difference, but you know!”

Fifty-seven, fifty-four, fifty-one…

How does a broken man recreate control?

“Get out.” Everything about Amelia rings flat: words, tone, lips. She stares now at the floor, but her words need no punctuating glance. “Get out, Kit. I’m busy fixing your mess.”

March doesn’t speak or mutter. He just turns and walks past the screen, kicking the spoon with his bare right foot as he goes. It clatters across the floor and lands against the base of the canvas screen, bowl facing upwards and rocking twice before falling still. He might have calm words to say about a murderer, might be headmaster and a magician with few living equals, but, here and now, March is no more in control of anything than Darius.

He doesn’t know if that should make him feel better or worse.

Amelia recovers first: she draws a breath and tucks her hands underneath her armpits. “You. I am finished with this—”

“Amelia!” The pattering sound of running feet precedes March as he skids back round the screen. The stocking slides from his pocket and lands on the slate tiles underfoot, but he doesn’t appear to notice. He just plucks a pencil from his sleeve and starts scribbling on the back of his hand. “Ze’s gone. Tes is gone!”

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