The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Interlude – Resonance

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).

Interlude – Resonance: Kit lives by the rule of the crow and the rule of story, but neither, despite a life of guardianship, quite prepare him for the fate suggested by a coil of worn, brown leather.

Chapter count: 6, 100 words.

Content advisory: The fine art of making myriad references that come with partial or no explanation. An elfish king referring to a disabled, autistic, black, trans man as a “pet”, which is meant to say a great deal about the Greensward and its privilege. (It’s hinted here, but it doesn’t go unchallenged in the story.) References to Mitzie’s death, to Efe’s death, to the Lord’s death, to Darius’s slow approach to suicide, to the backdrop of the problem of violence/vengeance versus pacifism. Amelia very much calling March out on his manipulative bullshit, be it how he orates, how he misrepresents situations and how he uses the people around him.

Note the first: I’ve got a rotator cuff injury caused by computer mouse use that is spending months stopping me from doing just about anything computer-use-wise but type. On the positive side, I drafted a few chapters, but on the negative side, I’m incredibly slow at editing, formatting and posting. You know how slow I usually am because chronic pain? I’m operating on about thirty percent of that capacity. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m nowhere close to healed.

Note the second: As a person once working in a warehouse, a person with splints on both hands, a person known by more than a hundred people as “Kim the WorkCover employee”, I would have sold my soul for the chance to hide my injury/disability. When you’re seen as nothing more than the splints, when your disability becomes the only thing the people around you ask you about, when you feel the other aspects of your person (including the abilities and interests for which you were once known) slipping away in the minds of those around you … you either hide it, if you can, or engage in defiant cripple-punk as a raised middle-finger to abled society. I say this because I think one of March’s secrets may seem absurd to an abled viewpoint, the hiding pointless—or too-easily viewed as an act of shame. It isn’t. Being defined by your visible disability by those around you, instead of being defined by your other attributes, is one of the many cruelties of ableism. And while the College is better on acceptance on other fronts, as someone who endures a shocking amount of unthinking ableism for my physical disabilities by well-meaning-but-ignorant people in autistic and mental illness spaces, I can’t believe that March wouldn’t be defined this way. Darius’s chapters, as he starts to navigate students, show just how much he deals with this kind of ableism … because ableism is so pervasive even disability doesn’t negate it.

I’ll also add that March himself, the perpetrator of so much unthinking ableism (and hypocrisy), is still as guilty of this as anyone else. The College isn’t meant to be an example of a wondrous world of acceptance as much as a metaphor for the experiences of the multiply disabled … where we find acceptance and community and meet access needs on one axis but suffer the pain of ableism in spaces that should be better on another. I don’t know what a space that is entirely non-ableist looks like, and I can’t imagine it. I just know that I think of a space with sound-proofing, access to subtitles, soft fabrics and plenty of food choices, among other access needs I have, and suffer the pain of everyone thinking I can just pick up a pen and paper whilst I never think about the problem of stairs. And I suspect most disabled people are more like me, in forgetting about the access needs of someone else, than we are ever willing to admit.

His best talents are those of being less than real.

Has he, Kit wonders as he walks beside a seething woman into the hallway, ever made a mess of Amelia’s surgery? Has he taken her knives? Ruined her order? Treated her rooms with such flagrant disrespect? No, he hasn’t, so why can’t she realise that right now he has enough to manage without Amelia’s enmity? The fact that he’s going to have to tear the kitchen apart to find all his spoons, and who knows how long that will take, doesn’t hit him near as much as her lack of trust. While Amelia’s trust has always tended to the grudging, not without some reason, it’s been non-existent since…

Since, Kit thinks, his very reluctance telling him he’s correct, Mitzie.

By now that pain is a familiar weight. Not a comfortable one, and the thought of it becoming so is a horror he doesn’t care to consider, but familiar. It’s as much part of his body as wood and skin and eyes that struggle to make sense of faded ink, as reluctantly natural to him as to the strength and breadth of magic stolen by age. The weight hasn’t ebbed or weakened. He rises, each day, to do the job he vowed all those years ago, and now he rises with that weight a part of him, one among many.

He isn’t Erondil, he tells himself, pushing aside the disconcerting thought that a man who lies as readily as Kit does can so easily lie about that.

No. He isn’t Erondil. Can’t be Erondil.

If he wants reasoning or justification, it lies behind him. Darius destroyed the Lord. It might have freed him, Kit supposes, from the need to contemplate vengeance. It might have freed Darius from the need to rise each morning and wonder the rightness of the Lord’s ongoing breaths, might have freed him from the need to weigh the souls of the living against those of the dead. Nonetheless, he isn’t free. It must be better to be a man who rises and wonders who dies because Erondil breathes, knowing that the underground prisons of the Greensward are secure by no human reckoning, than it is to be a man who struggles to rise at all, a man set on shortcutting death … surely? Darius’s hand might be an act of creation, and it might be the bulk of a suicide wrought by a thousand cuts, a lie told so well even Darius might believe it.

Does he lie? The boy Darius once was couldn’t have lied any more than the sun rise from a direction other than that they arbitrarily call “east”. The man can tell untruths, Kit decides, but when speaker and listener both know them for falsehood, it’s scarcely a lie.

He sighs and wonders how long it will take for Amelia to choose her words, but they walk in silence, and silence gives Kit’s mind far too much space to wonder.

He isn’t Erondil.

If Erondil dies, innocent lives breathe unthreatened, and Kit thinks that, too, every time he pushes his creaking body out from under the bedcovers. Innocent lives breathe unthreatened, at least until the moment Surandil decides to seek revenge for the son he doesn’t trust but can’t disdain. If a way exists so that the consequences rest solely on Kit’s shoulders, though, if he relinquishes the sword and the scabbard and the College, won’t it work? What if this deliberation isn’t thoughtfulness, then, but cowardice? What if he is only leaving the bloody task to someone else? Isn’t that, after all, the reason two men ended up in Mul Dura, because everyone dithered and dallied, because everyone left it up to someone else, because there was no system in place to handle a tyrant with magic? Because everyone else seeks to walk the high road, or answer the problem with the deaths of people donning the uniform for bread, beer and brass? Or because, and Kit suspects this last to be the best truth, everyone saw those same two men accept the blood and guilt for Hamide Golzar, making it easy to conclude that they can bear more of the same?

Someone must draw a line. Someone must forgive. Someone must let go. Someone must act.

You don’t know what you are, do you? You come with your magician’s tricks and bravado, my pet, your delusion that you are going to shake the world, but you’re nothing. All your talk covers the nothing inside, because you don’t have the courage or will to take up the blade yourself. It’s not yours, will never be yours, and that’s why I give it to you. Guard, pet. Guard.

For forty years those words have eaten away at his soul. Truth and lies, all at once, but true enough in ways that wound—and true enough that Kit knows, in the dark of the night when sleep dances just out of reach, why he does nothing. He can dress it up all he likes, because words are his gift and his curse, but in Surandil’s words lurk the reason for Kit’s immobility.

Amelia, who left her life and duty behind for Kit and Mitzie, who sacrificed herself without the comfort of the title, also knows it.

“Kit!” She comes to a halt in the hallway, opposite one of the portraits—a scowling, fist-clenched woman in a high-necked dress. The artist couldn’t or wouldn’t hide the feeling that the subject’s sitting for the portrait might be a form of unnatural torture. “I don’t—”

She stops and wheels away from Kit, her shoulders shaking.

He exhales, trying to slow his breaths. When they’re both tired and upset, their conversations are more than a disaster. He can be calm now. Must be. What to say, though? Amelia knows why the door must remain open, why he accepts the risk, why he took the weapon Erondil sent him and made from it a shield. There’s no point in explaining, again, why Kit does what he does. She knows. She just doesn’t agree. Amelia may not realise or intend it, but how isn’t this punishment for Mitzie, punishment for Tes and Darius, punishment for the disaster that has resulted from the agreement a younger, naïve Kit made to an ageless elfish king?

Everything comes back to that day in Surandil’s chambers: a child quickened, a sheathed blade on Surandil’s knees, a deal made between two men. The day Kit, always the crow, became the thief of swords, for the Greensward still cannot know that its king handed its second-greatest treasure to the keeping of a divergent magician—a man chosen for his bravado and dishonesty. So simple in thought and so complex in execution, that lie weighs heaviest of all—the keeping of a sword and its scabbard, his duty to guard. All for a spell that didn’t specify “elf”, all for a child sired by a king and used by him, all for a chain of events that has ended in death and disaster no matter how well Kit spins his lies. Amelia punishes him because she can’t punish the Greensward, and he can’t blame her—even as the thought of trying to find those spoons, all his spoons, has him shaking.

What to say? What to do? He can’t abandon his duty and return to the Greensward with the sword and scabbard in hand, giving up because he struggles to maintain this charade. Nor can he take up a hammer and nails and seal the door shut—not after the letter Surandil’s assassin left in his dressing gown pocket. Not when Aysun Kadri, a king known only to Kit by reputation and the five-page letter she sent concerning Darius, destroyed what precarious balance Kit has wrought since Erondil’s arrest by sending Darius to the Greensward. How Crow must laugh! The one monarch in all the world that has the power to negotiate with the elves, the one monarch who can make such a request … and she sends Darius, a boy who went looking for a sword, a boy who became a mercenary, a boy famous in Siya and Rajad as one of Kit March’s magicians. How can Amelia think it, after that, safe to nail shut the tower door and render its secret inaccessible? How can she think it when Surandil demanded to know what Kit thought he was doing in sending his protégé to the nursery?

The door stays unsealed.

“Kit.” Amelia draws a shuddering breath and turns to stare down at him. While he’s sure that there’s a sensible outlier somewhere in their family tree, March scions tend to master either the stare or words. Either. Grandmother mastered both, and while none ever said that a crow stole Grandmother’s fire, Kit doesn’t recall her being a particularly comfortable person. Then again, he’s overheard enough students to know they think the same of Amelia and him. “I—I don’t appreciate your using a—a young, new student in your schemes! I don’t appreciate being a bloody party to it!”

Kit leans against the wall, swinging both hands back and forth, seeking and finding no comfort in the feel of the panelling against his back and shoulders. Tes? Tes Alden is, at least comparatively, nobody’s problem. Ze hasn’t had time to go far, and those cuts marking Darius’s forearms suggest he’s more than up to the task of tracking hir—although that’s another problem Kit didn’t expect, another conversation to have before he allows Darius anywhere near a classroom. Kit sighs, reaches into his inner coat pocket and pulls out his journal, scribbling “the blood witch discussion” under a long list ending with “borrow money from Plummy” and “go through letters again”.

The list covers two pages, and Kit shuts the journal in a hurry: just looking makes his head pound.

“Ze’ll be fine. Darius will find hir. Ze’s a capable soul with a … a penchant for words, say, so even if he doesn’t, ze’ll be fine until we find hir. But he will. He needs it. A conversation in the pantry doesn’t ring. But a quest—well, a trek? Story. Or at least a footnote.”

Amelia doesn’t laugh, even though Kit thought that quite witty. She stands there, grinding her teeth; that she reverts to a habit she’s spent many years trying to stop says everything about her mood. “Story.” Her tone, hard by Amelia’s tendency to the gruff, continues giving the impression that she considers Kit’s judgement to be worse than worthless. “Is this what this is to you? You’re using a student—a distressed student—as bait, a student I had to ignore this morning, and you bloody well just stand there and justify this as a swiving story?”

Kit exhales. Amelia’s evening was exhausting and unpleasant at best, but Kit’s was no easier—and he didn’t waste magic on hiding spoons. That a witch who studied with the Sanguarian knows better speaks volumes about her need to punish him, for they both must be tired enough that a seagull can steal their fire and peck off their noses at the same time. “If you know anything about people, Amelia, you’ll know that it’s often a great deal easier to save yourself for the sake of someone else than it is to save yourself for you. I’m just using the opportunity Tes gave us to speed up the process, because we don’t have time. He’s in want of someone to defend; he can ward Tes with my blessing. You think he won’t help hir? He will. And that’s a world more than anything we can say to him.”

Amelia’s lips tremble, but she doesn’t speak. She just stands, fists clenched, and heaves in a gulping breath. Her eyes—hard, watering, flickering brown eyes—jerk away from his face, even as the tears roll down her cheeks, and only once before in his life has Kit ever felt so judged and found wanting.

“What did I say?”

If,” she snarls, her voice so choked she stumbles over the syllables, “I know anything about p-people…” She stops, breathes. “I’m not you! Not you with the easy words and the speeches, not just quirky and odd—I’m not you, but I’m not ignorant! I think about things! I swiving think about the consequences, Kit! I don’t justify things with a pretty turn of phrase! Disagreeing with you doesn’t make me ignorant!”

She turns and strides down the hallway, stumbling as she goes.

He didn’t mean to speak that way. It’s just frustration: he’s tired, tired of missing spoons, tired of the same old arguments, tired of a situation he can’t unravel, tired of her unwillingness to let Mitzie stay dead. But he spoke to her like a student, he thinks, and for that, Kit can’t cut her deeper. He knows Amelia struggles with people, that she for too long endured others seeing her bluntness, brutal honesty and discomfort with the nuances of conversation as reason for disregard and isolation—that what Surandil saw in Kit everyone sees in Amelia. He can parrot, well enough, and he’s always known it to be an advantage despite the fact his words have gotten him into more trouble than he can count. Amelia’s gifts aren’t in what she says, but in a world where people see kindness as soft words and a quiet smile, few bother to dig beneath.

To phrase it as though he’s another similar person condescending to explain is insulting and unforgiveable.

Kit tears after her. Last night he ran down the stairs to find a disaster before him and a disaster following on his heels; today he runs in the wake of too many disasters to count. He’s downing, he thinks, in disaster. His feet slide on the slate tile as he runs, one bare foot with the grip of skin and one covered by an embroidered stocking, grip earnt via a spell Osprey blocked for him. Today, and he almost laughs to think it, the foot that started everything will send him tumbling into the deep. “I’m sorry, Amelia. I won’t say that again. I won’t.”

She turns her head but doesn’t slow; she just steps out into the glittering foyer. “You’re always sorry, Kit. Sorry. Stop being sorry and start doing. Start stopping this bloody mess! You and your words—your swiving schemes! You just say things like they’re nothing! Leave doors open like it’s nothing! Do nothing—yes, you do nothing, you do nothing so bloody well you let a swiving celery stick go after your student! Him, not you, and you think that’s well? Worse, for a student you all but lured in there, the way you talk! Sorry! Be sorry after they’re dead—no, that isn’t enough for you, is it? Sorry! What does that even bloody mean with you?”

So many words flood his tongue that Kit just slumps against the doorframe and waves his hands—one free, one clutching the journal. She’s angry, but she won’t speak until he finds the words, just as he didn’t speak until she was ready to begin. In this, at least, arguing with Amelia is a good deal easier than arguing with Grandmother—they know and respect what it means to be silenced by one’s feelings.

She didn’t say the word, but Amelia doesn’t have to. He’s craven. Kit knows it because he rises each morning and decides to let Erondil breathe. Kit knows it because his nightmares are made of tiny biting creatures sucking the blood from his corpse until he stops knowing or caring. To let those scores of creatures be, contained behind every line of words his tired mind can conjure, instead of destroying the tower, instead of erasing danger from the school and his nightmares—using Erondil’s gift takes all the courage Kit has. Hiding the number of bottles to make the way to the top of the tower, hiding his collapse in the hallway after, hiding the weeks his skin crawled and the months he needed to stop panicking at the slightest brush of hair or clothing for fear of gnomes—hiding takes all the courage he has, because he’s never had enough of it to show those horrors to others. He crouches under a parasol of lies and preaches the virtues of honesty, knowing all the while that he’s craven, that he cannot do what Darius did so easily last night—or everything Kit asked of Darius in the kitchen.

Craven and hypocritical, but how does a liar stop lying?

That Kit knows it’s easy to be courageous when one doesn’t value one’s own breath doesn’t make enough of a difference. How can it when it’s another mark of Kit’s failure? He had the teaching of a boy for nine years, and Kit made of him a magician capable of wonders and a man ill-prepared to survive the horrors that lay ahead of him. Failure writ in scars, in the gaunt spectre entering the kitchen, in weariness and distrust even though the College, for every divergent magician Kit once sheltered here, is home.

Kit didn’t dream of gnomes when he finally succumbed to sleep: he dreamt of a boy moving with slumped shoulders, a boy wearing hanging clothes, a boy speaking in a voice too slow and too careful—a boy with the rings of a blood witch on his forearms and the twisted scars of old injuries. He dreamt, and even in the dream Kit wondered how a young man has aged so much while an old man bears those same years more lightly. He dreamt, and on waking he tried to remember the boy with curling dark hair, copper-brown skin, only one scar—the boy who tagged behind Osprey with fabric or wood in his hands, but Kit can only now see an inch’s growth in height, too many scars, the wasting of muscle, a trembling unsteadiness.

Even in dreams, the boy is dead, failed by a teacher who taught magic but not survival.

He’s drowning in words, in thoughts, in guilt. Mitzie, Johan, Darius, Osprey, Amelia, Tresha, Tes.

Kit reaches up and runs his hands through his hair, the beginnings of sentences sliding away from his mind, until he blurts out the only thing that lingers long enough to speak: “Did you talk to him? This morning? Darius, I mean. Did you talk to him and did he answer you?”

Amelia stops, turns and walks back towards him. Shadows of green and blue touch the side of her skirt, giving the plain cloth a momentary elegance. She looks at the wall above Kit’s shoulder, not seeming to notice the glory of the foyer in the morning, and her words are hard—perhaps accusing, perhaps just Amelia. “I asked him. He didn’t answer.”

“That’s why.” Kit draws a breath, trying to find the right words from the flood of memories forty years gone. Darius wasn’t yet born, but it’s a blink of the eye for the Greensward, the real reason Surandil used Mitzie for his gambit. For while Kit will die with the short years of any human, Mitzie should have been elfish enough to remain, to remember, to guard. Chained to duty before hir very birth, Mitzie should have outlived hir brother. “He’s just come from the Greensward, Amelia, and we don’t exist there, the divergent and the mad. You shou—you know what is to not exist, but it’s worse there. It’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” He stops, waits; the relief that comes at Amelia’s slow nod sets his head to spinning. Crow took his fire today, but he still has a few words left to him. A few words and a few tricks, and how he wants to say that he’s faced worse with less to his name! “Aysun Kadri said he wasn’t much given to trust before; he won’t be quick to it after. Can’t be. Trust me on this. Please.”

He doesn’t need to ask why a man who came to the Greensward lost temper, patience or sanity and wrought aggression on the rows of seedlings the elves nurse with a devotion beyond the religious—no, Kit will wager a sword and the scabbard it rests in that somewhere in Darius’s gear lies a seedling or two, survivors of the ruined nursery to be planted on human soil and raised in the hope that, one day, no human need ever endure the Greensward for the chance of a limb. Strange, that the idea never occurred to Kit: it should have, and he can’t help the thought that lack speaks something ugly about his character. It is wrong, by any thinking measure of morality, to hoard a gift that can help—it must be sacrilegious to deem something so sacred it cannot be shared with people in need, and in that both Crow and the invaders’ Sojourner are aligned, even if the latter isn’t usually prone to preach theft. Why, then, did Kit not see it?

It’s still the worst possible thing Darius could have done, and even Surandil might not be able to keep the Greensward from responding. His destruction and theft must disrupt the careful balance of story, lie and concession Kit has spent four decades building, bringing more danger down on innocent, ignorant students. It’s foolhardy, thoughtless and dangerous.

The story thrums in Kit’s ears, but more than resonance alone decides him.

Amelia stares down at him, her lips flat. “Why should I trust you on this?”

Because you don’t know, he thinks. Kit meets her gaze, raises his left foot and, because no words can speak as loudly as gesture on this point, angles his sock-covered foot so motionless toes point towards the ground. She can’t see anything but bare toes, illusion, but she won’t miss the point. He wasn’t a maker or a blood witch bearing a letter from the one human monarch who matters to the Greensward. One ankle joint and a foot-shaped block carved into the scrap wood Surandil deigned suitable for a mere human, neither holding anything of the delicacy or craft Darius poured into fingers. Darius’s hand isn’t real, but it’s art, and art might perhaps make acceptable the lie of elfish wood, the flash of wrong colour viewed from the corner of his eye, the reminder of how much this pathetic simulacrum cost in years and blood. Perhaps, and perhaps Darius thinks differently. Perhaps no amount of craft makes it tolerable. Kit paints his art, nonetheless, in ink on the sock rolled over wood, ink worked in spells to tell the eye it looks at brown skin and moving toes.

Hiding is his conceit, and even Kit knows it has become his biggest failure, but when one has spent a lifetime pretending, how does one break the masquerade?

His best talents are those of being less than real.

Amelia sighs and slumps against the wall as though she is suddenly too weary to stand. “You’re using Tes. Using hir. Why? Why isn’t there enough time? We both know the students will get on without a maker! And what happens when Darius figures it out—he bloody will, Kit! He thinks he’s here so you can patch him together, teaching some bloody excuse you conjured to watch over him, because you couldn’t keep your swiving lips shut in the kitchen! He doesn’t know about Osprey, Kit! Are you going to tell him that? And how worse will it be when he learns you’re doing this on top? Will he forgive you? He shouldn’t!” She stops, hands fisted, tears dripping onto her apron. “Using, using—what’s the difference, Kit, between you and Surandil? I suppose I should be grateful that you barely remember Tresha exists, otherwise you’d use them, too!”

A cut in exchange for a cut, Kit thinks. An eye for an eye, just revenge for the unjust cruelty he wrought, but he slides to the floor before he even knows his knees are about to give away.

There’s a difference. Letting Tes suffer for a little while knowing that someone will follow hir and bring hir home, taking advantage of a situation ze wrought all in the hope of giving a man reason to breathe—a little pain in the cause of a higher good, surely? It isn’t that simple, though, can’t be simple, not when Darius Liviu walked into Kit’s house a disaster of a human being, returning home from the Greensward with a magical hand, a seedling and the belt wrapped around his bony hips.

Thank Crow, thank Magpie, thank Gull and Eagle and every spirit that ever lived, that Tes decided to venture into the tower! How long might it have taken Kit to realise, he doesn’t know, but because of Tes, Darius showed them the belt—and that makes all the difference in the world. Must make a difference!

“I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry, Kit. You’re becoming him. Using people. I’m not sorry!

Kit draws a breath. “Did you, this morning, talk with the belt?”

“It’s…” Amelia stops, shakes her head and yanks a handkerchief free from her sleeve. “I don’t know that I know what it is, but…” She blows her nose, a loud snuffling snort that echoes through the empty foyer: it’s too early on a Sunday for most students to be up and about, and those that do rise early are already outside. “It’s wrong. It’s pouring magic into him—do you know where that energy comes from? It isn’t from Darius—it can’t be! He hasn’t got it to spend! So where is it—what is it? And why are you changing the subject?”

They’re the right questions, of course, and he misjudges her to think she won’t ask them. They go some way to explaining, though, why Amelia spent the night wrapping spells around spoons. Revenge and punishment, truth enough, but also something to do in those dark, quiet hours when something so confounding and damning makes sleep impossible. The belt, an object Darius didn’t explain in letters or in the kitchen beyond references to its existence, an object that goes some way to rationalise Aysun Kadri’s description of the dying—but not dead—man who brought a corpse back to Siya. An object Darius requested as though it’s nothing more than a convenient, every-day magic that doesn’t violate every rule Kit knows about eldritch, esoteric and unnatural physics.

He rests his fingers against the panelling, but there’s no answering thrum, no indication that anything in the College has changed with the arrival of another dangerous eldritch artefact. He just feels the familiar quiet watchfulness, the tangle of ward spells, the monkeys watching Tresha, the heart lying quiescent behind scores and scores of tiny, waiting gnomes. The students don’t question the sentient College and its monkey-shaped appendages—something else violating those same rules—any more than Darius seems to have questioned the belt, and Kit taps his fingers, faced with the troubling idea that if he is correct, one day those walls will become mere wood, nails and dust. Return to being mere wood, nails and dust.

“You bloody know!”

Kit shrugs and struggles to his feet. He still holds the journal, he realises, and he opens his coat to tuck the book back in the inner pocket. “Amelia … what are the two things a human most needs to render a sword a useful object?”

Amelia stares down at him, one arm raised and halted as though she’s stopping herself from belting him across the face. “Hands? Don’t pull this speech rubbish with me. Say what you mean or shut your swiving mouth.”

He never thought about hands, Kit realises, and that says everything about the difference between he and Amelia. He grins, and if it doesn’t feel a natural expression, well, a man who smiles all the time can hide a lot behind one when his audience expects to see it. “Accessories, then. Two accessories a human most needs.”

“Put up or go choke on a bacon sandwich!”

He sighs. It has been a long while since breakfast, come to think of it; he can go for something fried and greasy. Bacon, sausages, tomatoes, eggs, onion … with any luck Darius won’t take too long to get up, and then Kit can return to doing important things. Like elevenses. “To be able to use, or wear, a sword with any practicality, a human needs a scabbard and a sword belt. Probably anything humanoid and sapient, or just sapient, in truth, but as a general thesis—”

“Kit.”

The only movements Amelia makes are the rise and fall of her ribcage, the slight flaring of nostrils, the pulsing at her throat. Yet that one syllable, rough and deep, sounds more like a plea than an exhalation.

“I don’t know. I need to send some letters, ask a few questions. See if I can inquire of Rand and the Greys without making anyone suspicious—although the Greys must be, already, so why haven’t they stuffed Darius and the belt in an alcove?” He stops, because Amelia nods, one swift jerk of chin. She studied in Siya: she knows the Grey Mages don’t bestir themselves for kings, but they came for Aysun Kadri. “But I think … I think. If Ron decides that Darius stole a seedling for my sake, and if Ron realises—even if we’re wrong about it—that Darius has the belt and what it is, we have no time.” He draws a breath, exhales. “Or not just Ron. Rand might give two, but would he give three? Again, we don’t have to be right. He just has to think the belt is the third. And there’s reason.”

Osprey, at least, isn’t here, and Kit never imagined he’d have reason to be so grateful for her absence.

Does Surandil suspect, canny enough to keep his suspicions from Kit? Or did Darius and the belt hide that aspect of the belt’s nature despite their months spent in the Greensward? How much does Darius know, anyway? Is their relationship anything like—no, no more pointless meandering. There’s a thousand questions to ask and no way of answering them this moment, so why waste breath and energy on the worry? Kit exhales and taps his fingers against the panelling. He’ll go upstairs, he’ll write the requisite notes, he’ll work his way through rereading every letter Darius sent since the belt found him in Rajad—and then Kit will try and find the way to ask that doesn’t just earn him a basket of untruths.

What if Darius knows about the belt, and has returned to the College after Kit’s invitation for reasons of his own? Reasons, perhaps, that include retrieving a sword and a scabbard for Aysun Kadri, the one human monarch who has any sway over the Greensward?

Kit has no time, but this conversation cannot be rushed.

The wall offers no warmth, no reverberation, no indication that the College cares about his words or conclusion—just the strange lack of echo made by his tapping fingers. If it does care, why should it tell Kit? Why should it mark the belated recognition of the humans inside those soul-possessed walls when it must have known long ago something Kit only considered last night?

If it knows, in any case, Kit isn’t the person to tell. This resonance isn’t for him to hear. The title to this building and its associated properties are an invader’s conceit, not his truth, not a crow’s truth. He can’t own artefacts any more than he can own the land under his feet or the air in his lungs: he is and has always been the caretaker, and a caretaker doesn’t get to make demands as to what is given him.

Amelia sags against the wall, her fingers threaded together, staring down at her shoes—clean leather shoes, as plain as her dress and apron, as simple and as sturdy. “You are using a student entrusted to you.” Her words are slow and flat—too even. She makes Kit think of the washstand, the belt, of similar folk who believe themselves to be rational because they can express emotion, or its lack, in all the ways and circumstances deemed acceptable. “And you are manipulating a former student—and if you don’t realise that Aysun Kadri trusted Darius to you, Kit … you know nothing of people.”

Kit smiles and almost means it. “I know it.”

“I don’t like this. It isn’t right.” Amelia heaves a deep sigh and wedges her handkerchief back up her sleeve. What thought process makes her move from despair of him to dark-of-night truth, he doesn’t know. Doesn’t wish to know. “Kit … you’re as bloody and broken, but you won’t, maybe can’t, admit it. I won’t … you need someone who sees you for what you are and what you do. I don’t trust you. I can’t. You don’t deserve it. But … but if you think…” She exhales, her brow creasing, and, in that moment, she looks like an old woman, one worn down by the labours of a life—or the grief of lives unlived. She turns and sweeps out into the foyer with the pace of a girl and she still looks like a crone ready to lie down for the final sleep. “I’m with you. If only because I’m afraid of what will happen to the people you use if I’m not. But I won’t stop questioning. Not ever.”

“I understand, Amelia.” Kit inclines his head and follows, trying his hardest to keep his movements small and collected, because this isn’t a speech, this isn’t a time for grand gesture. They walk on a tightrope, with few allies about whom Kit feels sure, and Amelia can help or hinder that walking. “Thank you.”

He isn’t sure about much, but this he knows: he can’t alienate her again.

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