The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Maker

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).

Maker: Darius chose Tes’s presence over his health, a gift for which books, stones and homewares are no just recompense. How can ze repay a magician when ze isn’t sure, despite his words, that ze still belongs at the College?

Chapter count: 10, 415 words.

Content advisory: Darius uses the word “cripple” to describe himself in a way that’s more self-hatred than reclamation and “crippling” to describe the loss of his hand. Tes thinks hirself wrong for being aro-ace, which is debunked in non-subtle references to the stereotype of autistics being perceived as incapable of love by allistics. Both use “broken” to refer to themselves. There are also discussions of blood magic, sacrifice and the gnomes used as weapons/torture devices. It’s implied over several paragraphs that the Lord mutilated Darius as a means of imprisoning a multi-disciplined magic worker via limiting his ability to pay for magic. Tes’s statement about Darius no longer being a soldier is also cruel and ableist to say to a disabled man, but ze doesn’t realise this. Also, I reference sexual assault, ableism and allosexism in my first note.

Note the first: These days, I’m ace. Pan aro-ace. I suspect I feel aesthetic attraction, miscategorised as sexual because that’s what society says you’re supposed to feel. Unfortunately, being a-spec, autistic and otherwise disabled is an uncomfortable thing with activists using the words “desexualisation” and “dehumanisation” to deny me representation and the visibility/knowledge it gives. If I’d known I was aro-ace, I wouldn’t have found myself trying to perform the cisheteronormative and amatonormative relationships that put me—an autistic who struggles to communicate no in ways allistics hear and respect—in violating situations. It matters to me that Tes gets words sooner rather than later, and it matters to me to be able to show a journey through Darius that isn’t immediate recognition of one’s aromanticism, a belated recognition coloured by an autistic’s position in navigating social norms.

Note the second: Yes, the words “asexual” and “aromantic” don’t fit the linguistic approach used for other terms in narrative. (Although there is a point in the construct of “same” (cis) and “similar” (allistic) as used by trans autistics, namely that autism and gender for us are inseparable; I haven’t yet had the space to show how this language is seldom used by allistic trans people.) I find there is some awareness of “autism” and “trans” (for all that we autistics know the dangers of awareness) when I speak them to others, but “asexual” was only recently added to the dictionary. Hence, I decided to use the real words, representation over consistency, as they’re too seldom spoken even when we do exist as characters. (Although “autism” as a word does exist in Amelia’s medical texts, and should my shoulder let me work on Conception, you’ll find out why Amelia and Kit don’t use it.) In the rewrite, I probably won’t use fantastic terms at all: if a horse is called a horse in fantasy, and a sword a sword, a trans person can be called a trans person. It says something about being trans (internalised cissexism) that I did feel, on starting to write this, that it is too modern a word to work, but why should it be?

Maybe you’ll know, one day, that memory names.

The problem with the infirmary is the same thing that makes hir glad to be confined within: the lack of people. Although the signs on the wall imply that many have spent time here, nobody else this weekend has gotten themselves into the kind of trouble that concludes in occupying a bed. Isolation comes as a relief, since the thought of having to talk to anyone about what happened has hir on the brink of tears, and staying here means ze doesn’t have to put to language the tower, gnomes and everything afterwards. How can ze tell Holly and Iris? What can ze tell Holly and Iris? What if Iris asks questions? Do they know ze went to the tower? Do they know ze tried to run away? Will they hate hir for that?

The boredom, on the other hand, gives hir little to do but think the same tangle of questions and fears over and over, to the point where ze longs for someone as a distraction. Someone who won’t ask questions, but who? Tes sighs and knots hir thread, wondering how many quilts ze’ll mend before something happens that isn’t Amelia March stomping in with a cluttered tray and a surveying eye.

Ze agreed last night to stay, but ze doesn’t deserve to remain, and so ze sits and sews from the fear that Darius will follow if ze leaves. He followed hir into the tower when he didn’t know hir. He followed hir into the bush when he wasn’t well enough to leave his bed. He promised, but his actions speak louder than his promise: for some incomprehensible reason, Darius is determined that Tes stay here despite the increasing feeling that ze doesn’t belong … for if ze did belong here, ze wouldn’t have run.

Once, Tes found an escape if not a peace in sewing. It gave hir something to do around family and guests that absolved hir of the need to participate in conversations, but stitching has its own patterns and rhythms. Sometimes, ze let go of hir feelings and retreated into the movement of hir needle. Now, hir work feels empty, the craft of a person who didn’t know ze can make creatures burn, the craft of a person who decided that ze couldn’t bear remaining with more people ze betrayed, the craft of a person who no longer knows hirself.

Tes Alden of Flay’s End traded rocks and milk pans for books, but ze still needed Ma to write the letter and walk with hir to this sprawling, dying manor house. Tes Alden of Flay’s End couldn’t venture anywhere unknown for someone else’s clothing and couldn’t pack up and flee a life ze hated. Tes Alden of Flay’s End didn’t fail people who deserved better from hir and doesn’t sit here now, having promised near-strangers to stay. Tes Alden of Flay’s End didn’t like hir world, but ze accepted its workings.

Ze bites hir lip, struggling to swallow the scream threatening to hurtle from hir throat, and then drops hir needle onto the quilt nestled in hir skirts and digs hir fingernails into hir forearms.

The quilts are fair, even if ze suspects Amelia only handed them over as a distraction, given the College’s lackadaisical approach to the maintenance of linens and furnishings. Ze earnt hir keep at Flay’s End and ze can and should earn it here. Work won’t erase the mess ze made, but it’s a polished river stone left in place of a taken book, as close as Tes can get to repatriation.

Ze wrote that word on the slate under hir bed and wrote it again on the back of the door. Hir door still, ze supposes, even as ze wonders how many chalked words survived hir frantic placement of the slate in hir bundle. Repatriation. Tes breathes it, lets it roll around hir tongue. Ze likes the flow of syllables, likes that there’s a word with rhythm for something that is the right song of the universe: a gift for a book, curtains for food and training, quilts for the bathwater and hir bed in the infirmary. Not all words feel good in the mouth or the head, but this word, in a way that possesses no logic or rationality, sounds right for its meaning.

Repatriation. The paying of what ze owes to make up for hir mistakes.

In Flay’s End, everything seemed simple. The exchange of items they needed for items ze needed, object for object. What, though, can ze give for words, for a journey into a tower and into the bush, for magic and exhaustion and that horrible blood-seeping cut on Darius’s forearm? What does ze own that a magician like Darius can ever want? What can ze do that a magician can’t? Ze must be more than a difficulty, somehow, but all the things of which ze can think are small and pathetic.

Ze sighs, picks up the needle, tucks in the new hem and whipstitches the pocket of cloth shut.

The tedium of the seam does nothing to quiet hir mind.

“My … partner, lover, he used to take my boots when I slept. Became a joke. This is … I don’t know, the beginning of talking?”

Hir heart surges into hir mouth as ze jerks and looks up. The warding spells that make private pockets of every curtain-enclosed bed give hir a rare moment of peace from sound not made by hir, but it means ze doesn’t hear approaching feet.

Darius steps forwards and leans against the canvas divider, his right hand gripping the wooden frame, his left arm tucked behind his back in the way of a person resting his hand on his rear. He wears yesterday’s clothes—or Friday’s clothes—in the way of someone putting the minimum effort into dressing: untucked shirt, open collar, open vest, unbuttoned sleeves, everything hanging off his bony body. Dishabille doesn’t become him, Tes thinks: it just draws the eye to his throat and jaw, and if the bites don’t stand out, the lack of flesh does.

Tes stops in hir work to scratch. Hir nose has stopped running, hir skin only prickles, hir bite marks are less red than yesterday. Hir knee aches, but ze deserves that. As for the rest, ze isn’t sick, isn’t sore, isn’t tired. Ze’s here, in truth, because ze’s too afraid to ask to leave. Yet ze trudged beside Darius’s bay pony, yesterday, while Darius conversed in a decaying series of grunts and waved hands translated by the belt before he flopped over his mount’s neck and mumbled into her mane. March, Amelia and a score of monkeys met them at the creek just as Tes began to panic on the matter of crossing—magician and witch standing on a wooden raft that hadn’t existed on either side of the creek when Tes stripped hir clothing to wade across. Amelia shepherded Tes back to hir bed, swept away hir muddy things and offered up the stack of quilts and a very dusty box stashed with an odd mix of needles, rags and brushes; Darius slurred something incomprehensible, collapsed on his bed and slept for nine hours before—Tes already on hir fourth quilt and daring to approach Amelia’s desk in want of more thread—waking enough to wash, drink, eat and fall right back to sleep.

Ze doesn’t think he was bitten more than ze was, for all that the gnomes considered him a more interesting meal when offered the choice between Darius and Tes.

“Uh. You have my boots?”

Ze looks at the pile beside hir quilts. His boots still smell of the awful oils Amelia used for the baths, now overlaid with beeswax, and ze draped both stockings—the right freshly darned—over the tops. Tes doesn’t enjoy cleaning, but disliking a job won’t keep hir from doing it well, and ze understands leather. The balance in the right amount of dubbin on a rag, the circles made by the cloth as ze works the wax over the leather—ze just follows the rules the same way each time.

Besides, exploring Darius’s boots was worth the work. The lining houses a host of tiny pockets, many of them long and thin, yet tucked into the boot in such a way that they didn’t bulge. Pencils, wire, cord, a razor, a tiny butterfly knife, a hoof pick, several sewing needles. Even the laces threaded through a score of tiny brass eyelets—an odd addition to riding boots—speak more of expense than practicality, especially for a man with one hand, but Tes has already seen enough to realise a working magician might appreciate access to a leather cord. A magician’s tools, and ze shuddered as ze returned everything to their pockets and took up the boot brush from Amelia’s box, because how can ze forget the ease at which Darius took that small knife to his own skin?

Do they learn that here? That careless, unthinking violence?

Yet, somehow, he found hir, even though Tes felt sure ze left nothing behind. What kind of magic lets a magician track somebody without hair, blood or name?

“This isn’t … is it?” Darius angles his head, just as Tes realises that he might expect a response even though his first question bewilders hir and the second’s answer sits beside hir. His left hand reaches up to run over his scalp, and Tes gets a glance of reddish-brown marks engraved in a light wood, the strangeness of shadowed edges marking the ends of joints where no shadows should exist, before his fingers vanish into his dark hair, a hanging tangle of curls in want of a brush. It seems odd now that ze didn’t immediately realise his hand: the colour and the marks draw the eye to the wondrous feat of moving, wooden fingers. Not with the fluidity of his right hand, no—his left fingers move the way Darius speaks, slow and deliberate. Moving nonetheless.

Ze wants to ask, so much, but March’s words keep a flood of questions behind hir lips. “I don’t know, sir, what you’re saying.”

“Shades.” Darius stops, breathes, his lips framing words but making no sound. “Why? Why the boots?”

“They were dirty.” Tes frowns: his question hasn’t made anything clearer. “You should wax them more often, sir. Good leather should be looked after. Do you clean your horse’s saddle but not your own boots?”

Darius’s wide, unblinking eyes only highlight the hollows in his cheeks. “I … yes, but that’s not…” He stops, inhales and releases in a too-long, shuddering exhale. “I mean … do you mean anything by this?” He jerks his elbow at the boots. “How do I … shades, well, when Efe decided that he was going to do more than just flirt out of habit, he thought it was … romantic? I suppose? To remove my boots. I’d sleep off the drag and there they’d be, by the bed, but I never took them off. And—and … this isn’t like that, is it?”

“Anise picked flowers and had me embroider a handkerchief.” Boots? One signals romance by cleaning boots? Odd, but it seems more useful than sentencing flowers to an early death, and if ze ends up with someone, as unlikely as Tes thinks it, won’t ze want to be with someone who can clean boots? “For her wife. This seems more useful. Doesn’t kill plants, after all. They need the flowers to pollinate; bees need the flowers to feed. But…” Ze stops: Darius’s lips press together in a wobbling line just as it occurs to Tes that there must be a reason a teacher has broached the absurd subject of indicating romantic interest. “Oh! You mean—” Ze doesn’t think; ze just flings boots and stockings both in Darius’s direction. “No, no, no, I don’t—I don’t do that, I wouldn’t, not with you, not ever—I mean, not with anyone, not just you, but—you’re a teacher and old and—not with anyone, no, no, no.” That doesn’t sound any better: did ze just blurt out that ze is too strange and broken to have normal human feelings? “Oh, I … I mean, not quite like that, but…”

A faint cackling noise, reminiscent of an idle chicken, sounds from Darius’s right sleeve.

Tes looks down at hir lap and searches in vain for the words to fix hir horrific mess.

Darius slides down onto the floor, his legs sticking out before him, both hands braced on the tile. “Belt, shut up. Tes, I’m sorry. It’s just … let’s just say I would’ve polished boots for March to notice me.” He grabs the closest stocking in his right hand, apparently unconcerned that Tes launched everything at him. “Old. I’d be more insulted if I felt less hauled.”

“You—Professor March? But he’s March. And old, old.” Tes takes up the quilt from the desperate want of something in hir hands. March? Yes, ze overheard him talk enough to realise he has a child, grandchild and some sort of familial connection to the elves—something ze still must ask Iris about, if ze stays. March, though? “I think he’s older than he looks, but he’s still old. Did I—I’m sorry, sir, you’re not supposed to say old people are old. Even though they are.”

Tes long failed to master the bewildering social entanglement of age—in large part due to its contradictions. Children take offense if ze mistakes them for younger than their years. Older adults take offense if ze mistakes them for older than their years. And adults in their middle years, when they might be old or young, take offense no matter which way Tes goes, for some of them wish to be older than they look and some younger, and unless someone is very young or very old, ze has little ability in determining age. Why are people so bound up in assigning meaning and validation to an arbitrary, changing number?

Darius leans back against the screen, resting his head against the canvas. “And I was younger than you are now. It’s easy to think you want the attentions of someone inappropriate, because if you know deep down they’ll never do anything about it, you never face the problem of considering that you don’t … that this isn’t love, just the lie you tell yourself to feel like everyone else.” He exhales for far longer than is natural. “Took me a while to figure out that I didn’t feel that way, didn’t want to.” He leans forwards and rolls the stocking up one calf before returning his head and shoulders to their braced position against the screen. “And when you call someone old, it says more about the speaker than the speaker’s subject.”

Tes bites the end of the thread free, threads the needle through the hem of hir skirt for holding and folds the finished quilt. The second part makes little sense to hir, because Darius must understand the nonsensical way in which people fear saying the plain truth. The first, though … the first makes hir feel as though ze can’t breathe. Never has ze heard someone say that they don’t want love; never before has ze heard something so akin to the feelings that leave hir on the edges of everyone else’s lives. “Can … can I … ask? Sir, please? It’s, it’s the sort of thing I’m not supposed to ask, but…”

Over the years, ze’s seen a great many smiles. Most of them are lies: the tight, chin-pulled smile Ma wears when she has given up on trying to explain something everyone else understands, or the broad, laughing smiles the students wore when Tes did something wrong. March smiles at too many things for Tes to be sure what he means by all of them, but Holly’s smiles are warm, uncomplicated, honest. Darius’s smile doesn’t touch his eyes: his lips creep upwards, left side lower than the right, for just a moment, and only then does Tes realise his lips come to rest downwards. His smile lies; ze doesn’t know why. “Ask, Tes.”

“You don’t love people? But you just said you had a lover? Uh, sir?”

Darius leans forwards to don the second stocking; this time he follows it with the boot, laces tucked under the tongue, before resting. “You don’t have that interest in people, I think?”

A question for a question, just like March, but the answer seems simple: ze can nod or shake hir head. How, though? How can ze admit something like that? Tes looks down at hir lap, not sure how the quilt fell from hir hands or when ze started digging hir nails into hir skin. Even here, listening to Iris and Holly talk about who they find cute, which pair of students Amelia caught in the bushes and what the Professors Roxleigh do in their tower come nightfall, ze still feels as though something important to being human doesn’t touch hir. Here, where ze should belong, ze doesn’t.

Ze saw it in Flay’s End, people searching out partners, building futures and creating a tangle of threads both romantic and familial to bind one person to another. It’s a pull Tes can’t feel, this considering of someone else such that it changes lives and occupations, and ze has read books enough to know what it means to possess a quiescent heart. Nothing binds hir. Happiness comes when heroes engage in acts of courage to save the lover they wed on the last page of the book, but the villain, who loses because they have no beloved and cannot love, doesn’t survive to the end of the story.

Darius’s wood hand, marked by chains of separate characters or glyphs no longer than a grain of uncooked rice, holds out a crumpled square of cotton pinched between thumb and pointer finger. “Take.”

Ze grasps the handkerchief, trying hir hardest not to brush those strange fingers, before blowing hir nose. Crying again, and ze can hear Ma’s sigh, because all Tes does these last few days is cry, get hirself into trouble, make others suffer for hir mistakes, and cry. Ma took hir here because ze isn’t useful, but here Tes still causes problems. Why couldn’t Darius just let hir go? Why did he have to follow hir? Why can’t ze leave this place where Tes ruined everything good? Why can’t ze stop crying like a baby?

“When I say lover, I mean … I love, loved him. Love him.” Darius leans forwards to don the last boot and tuck in the untied laces. “He’s family, my friend, my mate. There isn’t really a word in Orthodox for all that, the sense of someone being aromantically yours, so I use a word that means something else. To others, anyway, but why should a word for someone you love describe only the romantic feeling? Why do we prize that above all else as though my love isn’t worthy of the word?”

Ze never thought to ponder it; it is just one of the many things Tes doesn’t feel.

He stops for a moment, inhaling, holding, exhaling. It seems too practiced a sequence not to be deliberate. “I love Efe; he’s my lover. Same with Aysun and Miu. They’re family. Still love. Still devastating, in its own way. No less so.” Darius kicks out with his left leg, shaking the trouser leg back down until the hem covers his boot, his hands resting on his lap—the overgrown nail of his right pointer finger tracing the impressed character strings over his wooden fingers. “With Aysun and Efe, bed is involved, although that’s complicated for me. With Miu, it isn’t. They’re my family, the people at my back. It just isn’t the sort of love that makes it to song. It isn’t romantic.”

Ze’s supposed to say something, but what? People talk about the weather, talk about Teacher Mary and Farmer Odie being seen walking out before dawn, talk about the growing wheat and the tomato plants failing to flower, talk about a grandfather’s declining health—talk about everything that isn’t personal unless it’s the bits and pieces of someone else’s life. Is it because people don’t talk that the villagers of Flay’s End so cherished the gossip? True, few liked hir enough to gift hir with stories, but ze heard Ma chat to others about someone else often enough. Often hir. When they do talk about themselves, it’s about clothes, places one has seen or jobs one most do.

Feelings must be as dangerous as heartnames, a deep secret never revealed save to closest kin.

The difference between hir and the others is that ze can’t push hir feelings down into the darkness of hir mind, can’t keep them concealed where the villagers won’t notice. Ze feels, and the emotion explodes out of hir skin in hir tears, hir moving hands and hir rising voice—explodes as if a living thing separate to Tes, dominating and overwhelming.

Even now, feeling sets hir shoulders quivering, hir chest gasping and hir eyes weeping, and Ma never understood that ze cannot hold it back however much ze tries.

“I don’t know your experience, but there’s a thousand different kinds of love. None are essential. None. Some of us don’t feel sexual or romantic attraction. Some of us don’t feel familial or platonic love. Some of us find alternate ways to connect with others; some of us don’t. It doesn’t matter. Do people, or not, as is honest to you. As long as you live compassionately, love doesn’t matter.” Darius leans back against the screen. “Most of us, here, have been wounded by people who love us but lack compassion towards us. I think that says enough.”

Ma loves hir, that ze knows—or Ma says she loves hir, and for all Tes knows, she believes it. Nonetheless, Tes twists a wet cloth in hir hands three days’ walk away from home, while a near stranger says such strange, wondrous things, and Ma lives in Flay’s End, freed of Tes and hir complications. “People … people don’t talk like that. This. Y-you.”

Darius looks down at his hands. “Live compass—”

“What the bloody hell are you doing?”

Tes jerks, dropping the handkerchief, and looks up. Amelia stands beside the screen, looming down at Tes and Darius in her usual dress and starched apron, her forearms folded across her chest, one polished boot toe tapping against the slate. She walks, moves and stands like a farmer or labourer, like the many folk of Flay’s End working the fields, but even Ma likes Tes to add trim to homespun skirts or pretty an apron, and people who work indoors—shopkeepers and tailors and bankers—dress more finely still. That Amelia is a witch who abstains from anything that might be considered decoration baffles hir: one doesn’t have to care about appearing pretty to enjoy contrasting colours or decorative stitching, yet ze’s had long enough to study the infirmary and Amelia herself only to find nothing more beautiful or decorated than necessity requires. Darius’s clothes are too big and oddly fastened, but someone still put care into embroidering the collars and cuffs.

Her eyes rest, in full glare, on Darius’s face.

His shoulders stiffen as he places his palm flat on the slate tiles. He turns his hips and legs until his feet are tucked beside him and his knees point towards his hand, but his movements are slow, even cautious, and only once he’s settled in his new position does he speak, his eyes resting on the screen: “I was looking for my boots. The floor is freezing.”

Amelia’s eyebrow twitches, just once, before her face stills. “Then why are you sitting on it?”

Darius pauses for a moment, swallowing; Tes wonders if he’s trying not to yawn. “Standing up was too much effort.”

“It would be after you’ve done the ridiculous thing of getting out of bed and getting dressed, you bloody parsnip!”

He reaches up with his right hand and tugs the wooden bead pendant free from under his shirt. “Better than lying there. Again.”

Amelia’s hands fall free from her chest to hang loose at her sides. She draws a breath and speaks in the same tone she gave Tes yesterday evening when she sat on the edge of Tes’s bed and said that she would consider it a kindness if Tes didn’t run off again. It isn’t gentleness. “I suppose you’re fairly well acquainted—even reacquainted—with a mattress at this point.” Her broad lips creep upwards. “You weren’t particularly tolerant of it before. Were you the frog spawn or the sheet hammocks?”

“Either? Both? I don’t remember much.” Darius sighs and tips his head back against the screen. “I was … Siya. It wasn’t … good. I can dress. I can sit up. Let it be, please.”

Amelia stands for a moment, running her left hand over her right sleeve. “Well, Osprey’s classroom…” She looks down at Tes, both eyebrows raised. “Tes, will you keep an eye on Darius for me?”

Hir? How? What is ze supposed to do? How can ze watch over a man who won’t even stay in bed as he should? Yet, at the same time as panic burbles in hir chest, it occurs to hir that ze can’t refuse after the difficulties ze has caused Amelia. Ze owes Darius, but ze also owes Amelia and March, and Amelia is giving Tes another way, a way beyond quilts, to begin that repatriation.

Ze gulps and nods. “Yes, sir.”

“If you sit on a couch or a chair, Darius, and stay there, will you accept the distraction of ordering Tes about to organise Os—your classroom?” Tes can’t decide if Amelia’s curving lips are best described as a smirk or a grin. It’s the kind of smile that makes hir nervous. “It’s worse than upstairs. Kit won’t have said, but you’ll ready for teaching before the classroom is.”

“Shades.” Darius stops, drops the pendant, taps overlong fingernails against the slate floor. “I’ll sit. I promised. Soup. No bacon, no … mushy bits. Just … what’s the word, the kind that’s like tea, just savoury.”

A tea-kettle whistle sounds from his right elbow, but the belt doesn’t speak, and Tes doesn’t have the slightest idea on what it means by such an annoying, non-specific sound.

“I’ll do that, for the moment.” Amelia nods. “I’ll send lunch down to you. Tes, if he doesn’t sit, set his hair on fire—are you still vain about your hair, Darius?”

How can she mention it so casually? The fire ze cast isn’t prideworthy, not after what it cost others. Ze has ability, more than ze imagined on the long walk to the College, but ze doesn’t know enough to use it wisely, something that seems far less wondrous on this side of the tower door—and how can ze set fire to a teacher? This must be a joke, the kind of exaggeration people make when they don’t mean something but are too afraid to use honest words, yet Amelia’s face shows no betraying smile or laugh. How can ze distinguish between reality and mockery when little at the College seems impossible? How can ze stop a magician if he decides he won’t sit and watch hir tidy?

“I still glam the streaks.” Darius pushes himself up onto his knees, hesitates and grabs the hand Amelia offers him with his right. She’s hardly a giant, yet Darius’s fingers are small, skeletal, when held against hers. Small, skeletal, and covered with scabbed bites. “No. Not after the Kara.” He stops, takes a step back to balance himself, rests his wood hand against the screen. His words come faster now, almost normal—but his vowels slide away, crushed between distorted consonants into a mess that Tes struggles to hear. A tangle of perhaps a couple of sentences passes before Darius draws a breath, releases and slows just enough: “…when you’re shift and divergent, or when you’re just a cripple, it isn’t too much different. You don’t go unremarked.”

“No, you don’t.” Amelia folds her arms over her apron, and Tes can’t help the thought that there’s another conversation happening, one wrought in the history of two people who have known each other a long time, one made in the silences between their words. It’s the kind of conversation Ma has with Anise, the kind of conversation that leaves Tes hovering on the edges, never knowing what to say. “Go, Tes. I’ll pack up. Set his hair on fire if he moves off his couch. Excepting the privy, the sirens and if Kit sends a monkey, of course.”

The sirens? What are the sirens? That she states the exceptions leaves Tes thinking that Amelia hasn’t suggested Tes undertake the art of conflagration as meaningless exaggeration. Ze places the quilt on the floor, grabs hir skirts in hir hands and scrambles to hir feet, troubled by the idea that it can’t be so difficult to set Darius’s hair alight. “Do you, sir, want … uh, help?”

Darius releases the screen, turns and walks off into the infirmary.

Tes shivers and scurries after him.

“‘Thaumaturge’ can be an acceptable substitute for ‘magician’ in spoken Orthodox for an F-line—or at least it works for us, divergent magic workers, since many of us have some degree of speech impediment. I’ve never known any abled magician to successfully block it—remember this one when you’re in a drinking competition with similar magic workers. It doesn’t work when written, mind—don’t try it. Don’t ever try it. It isn’t as bad as tick gnomes, but the kickback is disgusting.” He shudders. It isn’t quite the arm-rolling, full-body-movement practiced by March, but it’s far too convulsive for mere show. “‘Fellow’ will work well enough in this context, in the sense of imparting a hint of masculinity and personage of a college. It’s what we call a twice-descriptor, when a word indicates your target in more than one way. Yes, this demonstrates the, uh, arbitrary nature of script magic, but it also demonstrates just why orthography or linguistics have nothing to do with why there’s a need for the communication side-step of alliteration.”

He wavers as he walks, and once he passes through the infirmary door, he rests his right hand on the wall for balance as he heads down the hallway. Neither has Tes staring at his back.

“You’re … you’re … you’re telling me how I should set your hair on fire? Sir?”

“Amelia will kill me if I show you.” Darius doesn’t slow or look behind him, leaving Tes to assume that he just expects hir to follow. “That’s why I’m telling you.”

That isn’t what Tes meant, but ze can’t bring hirself to correct him. Ze just walks past the rows of portraits, baffled. Teachers shouldn’t help their students become dangerous; Teacher Mary never once gave her students any information they could use against her. “So … if you were using S words, you could use ‘sorcerer’? Because a sorcerer is just another word for magician?”

“Yes, no. A sorcerer is a practitioner of a specific school of magic. Incantations, bound demons. Yes, people still bind demons. But because there aren’t a lot of specific synonyms for each school—although slang like ‘wordsmith’ and ‘scribe’ work for magicians—you can get away with using a less-precise title, if you’ve got some other descriptor to tell the line that you mean that magician over there and not the sorcerer three villages over.” Darius pauses for just long enough to shield his eyes with his right hand. “What happened to the wards he used to have? There isn’t a generic term for a magic worker beyond the hypernym, and since there’s many approaches to script magic, and when you’ve got workers proficient in more than the one school … shades, what’s a word mean, anyway? It’s just a signifier. Affinity is much easier for that kind of shortcutting.”

Tes doesn’t understand a great deal, but ze doesn’t much care, not when Darius speaks with enthusiasm. True, he speaks little faster than his wont, but most of the time he sounds as though he talks because it’s his easiest way to convey information. The other teachers don’t seem to much struggle with words—oh, ze doesn’t understand Sarie Roxleigh yet, but the way her hands move suggests she doesn’t lack for them. It was nice to hear Darius—via the belt—labour to put words together yesterday, to know that there are professional magicians who still don’t find this easy. Ze didn’t know that other people can struggle with the ordinary sorts of conversations but talk confidently about things they know and like.

Words ze has never before heard spilled from his lips, and Tes bites hirs, because ze wants that, wants to be that—and doesn’t deserve it. “Hypernym? Affinity? Shortcutting?”

“It’s a superordinate.” Darius grimaces as he steps out into the foyer. It’s obnoxiously bright under the noon sun, and while ze admires the play of colours from the stained glass over the slate tile, the glare explains why nobody dallies in the foyer or on the stairs. “Shades! What did he do to the ward? You’d think he’d train the rhubarb to grow over the glass, at least!” His steps quicken as he crosses the slate towards the left wing, and, while he sways, Tes realises that he moves fast for a small man who shouldn’t be upright.

Tes follows, wincing at the echoing rattle of their boots on the slate, relieved by the absence of students. If the College shares anything with Flay’s End, the students are already gossiping, but ze doesn’t know how much they know or how to explain what ze did. Ze broke the rules, ze isn’t sure ze should stay, ze can’t possibly explain Darius’s chasing after hir—and the fear that Holly and Iris, Iris especially, will regard the gnomes as something exciting has hir stomach knotting.

“Hypernym. Generic term for collecting terms that fall in a single category. ‘Meat’ collects ‘pork’, ‘lamb’, ‘chicken’. ‘Magic worker’ collects ‘magician’, ‘witch’, ‘enchanter’, ‘necromancer’, so on.” Darius doesn’t slow as he heads down the hallway, but now Tes lags behind, nauseated. He won’t make hir look upon that cursed door, adorned with a sign ze read and ignored, will he? “Shortcutting is what it sounds like: a way to block script magic so you don’t spend five days defining the spell’s subject or target. Affinity is a non-structured method of shortcutting, mostly used by makers—slang for craft magicians—blood witches and shamans. It works akin to sympathetic magic on the principle that if you can uniquely identify a subject or target, you don’t need to define it in the same format. It’s non-linguistic eldritch communication, akin to facial expressions that accompany sign or—here.”

He stops at the second door on the front lawn side of the hall and sags against the doorframe. Someone wrote “Professor Osprey” in scrawling chalk over the mahogany wood, and the door shows its age, with dust in cracks on the panelling and splits marking the bottom and frame. Based on the marks, the door has survived a hatchet or hand axe: it might be that the sign at the front of the College exaggerates nothing. If ze stays, ze should ask Iris about the elfish assassins…

Darius reaches for the doorknob, stops and blinks, his right hand hovering by the door. “Shades! I can’t believe I forgot—ishusra.”

The doorknob clicks and turns, the door swinging open without human aid. It makes sense that classroom doors can be opened without touching the handle, for those who can’t reach or don’t wish to touch the handle, but such a thing never occurred to hir. What kind of magic makes a door open itself? Are the doors spelled to respond to a password or did Darius cast a one-word spell?

“I got used,” Darius says, in the kind of tone that implies an apology or explanation, “to ordinary—”

In theory, ze looks upon a classroom: a blackboard and a large desk take up one wall, rows of smaller desks occupy the middle, and large worktables fill the back. It’s even possible to hold a class in the room: walkways between the piles of things crowding the box shelves lining the lawn-facing walls and the tables provide students access to their desks. The worktables, though, are crowded with objects—Tes notes books, bolts of cloth, paper, baskets of wool roving, blacksmith’s tools, several saws, a box of hammers, nails spread over a piece of cowhide and a jar of peacock feathers before ze gives up the count as impossible. The shelves and the floor under the blackboard are just as bad, and while once there might have been space between the worktables and the back wall, now Tes can’t even see the wall for the piles of precariously-stacked objects. Chairs, brooms, chests, books, paper-wrapped canvases, dead eucalypt branches, two rusting crowbars, deflated leather balls…

Iris and Holly weren’t subtle in how they spoke of Professor Osprey, but Tes didn’t expect this. The floor and desks aren’t too dusty, but cobwebs hang from unplastered rafters overhead and the windows are covered in layers of dust, giving the room a gloomy, oppressive feel despite the sunshine attempting to pour in through a row of warped—and two boarded-over—pane windows. Everything smells of dust and must, more like mice than gnomes, but Tes, shuddering, can’t help but think that if the gnomes escape March’s chalked spells, this room will offer them a thousand hiding places.

Darius, standing in front of Tes, makes a breathless gasping noise before he raises his right hand to his mouth and chews on the knuckle of his pointer finger.

Someone squeezed in a couch between the blackboard and the teacher’s desk. It may have been elegant at some point, the kind of low-backed chair Tes imagines at home in a grand sitting room or boudoir, three splintering legs made from mahogany, one a lighter redgum. Faded needlepoint covers trimmed with green silk tassels cover the seat and back, depicting some sort of garden scene obscured by dust and ink-blue blotches. That same someone—Amelia, Tes guesses—piled pillows and blankets on one end. Did she prepare for this?

“Sir?”

Darius doesn’t seem to notice: his eyes skitter from one object to the next. Saliva smears his finger and dribbles down his chin.

“Sir?” Tes reaches forwards and pulls hir hand back as hir knee throbs in warning. No. Don’t touch him. Until yesterday, ze hadn’t seen anything like the way Darius turned the stick onto the tree. It wasn’t strength, since he doesn’t have it to use—just an unconscious knowledge of how to move hir, how to use his own weight and balance, how to control his own limbs. Ze’s seen children and even adults play at fighting with sticks and fists and feet, swinging wildly, but Darius sent Tes falling with one precise kick. “Ma … Ma slapped me when I did that. Chewing. Because babies chew on things and I’m not a baby.” Ze stops, draws a breath. “But people here do things Ma says they shouldn’t, so … this is one of them? The chewing? But if it makes you bleed, that isn’t good for a magician, I think?” Ze stops in hope, but Darius stares at the room. Does he listen? Is he even there? “Sir? I … I don’t … understand. The drag, you’ve all called it. Or why you use blood for magic, how this all fits together. I don’t understand. How does it work?”

“Dar.” The belt’s voice sounds at the same time as a strange, crackling buzz echoes from Darius’s forearm. “Your Tes is talking to you.”

The belt doesn’t possess an accent, in the way that human voices shape words differently depending on where they come from—something that fascinates hir, because why do humans say the same word in so many ways? No, the belt sounds like a scholar, with a clear diction that reminds hir of Teacher Mary and March, but its words have a ringing undertone, something like the noise made when a hammer hits steel. It sounds, Tes thinks, how a book might if it read aloud its own words. Its fewer trailings off and false starts give it an alien, inhuman quality, yet the fact it doesn’t speak perfectly—as though it tries to mimic humans—makes the effect more disconcerting still.

Darius shudders, his hand slipping from his mouth. “As a general thesis, magic is the art of redirecting energy. Amelia will teach you a formula, because you need to learn when a working is about to kill you. It’s more mathematics than some care for, but you get a feel over time. That energy comes from somewhere—a body’s energy stores or component tissues, granted by a spirit or deity in trade for sacrifice, the earth itself, or a bound demon. Most magic workers work via sacrifice in return for energy or using their own body’s energy. Energy can be, like most other things, forcibly taken. Difficult for a magician to do. Easy for a blood witch.” He steps towards the couch, but if he sounds as though he recites from a book, at least Darius talks and moves.

Tes shivers and follows. Taken? Dare ze ask?

“Blood magic is the sacrificial trade: blood for energy forming the worker’s intent. Script magic is the simple redirect: the energy my body has taken from food and drink shaped into that intent defined by your spell. You can work the both together, and you can use blood only for purposes of affinity between spell and target or subject. Drag is the sensation of realising that you’ve spent however much of your stored energy on flaming tick gnomes.” He drops onto the couch, pulls one blanket free and props his head against the rest before flinging the blanket over his body, tugging it tight around his neck with his right hand. “When you’re a small magic worker, you don’t have energy to waste, in terms of proportion, which is why I gambled on going in after you without shrouding. I didn’t expect that many gnomes.” He pauses before adding, quietly, “I didn’t imagine March’s allowing the presence of such a colony. I didn’t imagine anyone not Hamide Golzar would.”

Tes finds a clear space on the floor, close to the couch, away from crooks or crannies that might harbour mice, spiders or gnomes. Ze doesn’t remember feeling so tired after the cauliflower, but they did go directly to lunch after that class … and turning a cauliflower blue might not take a lot of energy. Does March teach them little spells to start and build up to big spells over time? Is magic less about spell complexity and more about knowing how much a spell costs to cast? “So that’s why Professor March has all the food? He doesn’t have money, does he? Or he spends the money he should spend on the house on the table?” Ze crooks hir head as another thought occurs to hir. “Then … you should be eating more than soup, sir.”

Darius draws a deep breath, holds, exhales. “No. Don’t do that.”

The sharpness in his tone bewilders hir. “Why not? You came after me and you cut yourself to find me—how? How did you do that? I know I left nothing behind, because I checked everything while Holly slept, and nobody knows my name! But you bled for it, and you did it again, because … because you’re foolish enough to put someone you don’t even know before your health? Mad enough? But if you’re doing that for me, and you don’t even know me, it is my business! Because you’re—” Too late, some screaming sense of propriety catches up with hir, but what’s appropriate about anything that has happened to hir? Are there any rules left to follow? “Uh, sir…”

His face gives hir nothing: how does a slight movement of his lower lip and eyes fixed on the open door become any meaningful communication of emotion?

“My job is—was—to bleed for others.” His words are flat, quiet. Darius only raises his left hand, wood creaking, to run the fingers through his hair. “Any other soldier or mercenary does the same.”

While some part of hir knows this isn’t fair or reasonable, ze wants to haul him off the couch and shake him. Ze can’t stop seeing the trickle of blood over his scarred forearm and harness, the momentary press of lips. If Darius can hurt himself that way, as though the cut is nothing, what sort of man is he? Doesn’t this make nothing of everything he’s done? Doesn’t this put hir further into his debt, demanding a repatriation Tes can’t make? “You’re not a soldier! You’re a teacher! Sir…”

Darius stares at the wall, silent.

Hir words are wrong. Ze isn’t sure why. Tes swallows and starts counting the pencils crammed into a chipped terracotta pot positioned on the edge of the closest desk. One, two, three. What to say? Ze means what ze said, but Tes has gotten hirself into more trouble through honesty than falsehood. Seven, eight, nine—one pencil is curved into almost a crescent moon, a position that should be impossible without accompanying splintering. Has the pencil lead broken inside the wood shaft or is that curved as well? Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Ma gave hir lessons in words, but none of them tell Tes how best to break the quiet ze made. Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five…

“Leave off the ‘sir’. It’s dishonest.”

Tes jerks, hir knee twinging.

“You want to speak the truth, say it. Own up to your edges. Don’t throw in a title at the end from some similar notion of parroted manners you don’t mean.” Darius addresses the wall, but whether he wishes to look at hir or not, it’s a kindness: Tes can look at the slate tile, away from his still face, without feeling hirself craven. “I found you because we smelt the same, after Amelia’s bath. Other magicians might visualise—I can’t—but for this construct, script magic with blood as the indicator of the subject, smell works to link subject to target. We’re often cursed with sensory awareness, but a good magic worker uses it.”

Tes wraps hir arms around hir chest. He smelt hir? Like a bloodhound? Ze nods, knowing ze should acknowledge his words. Titles indicate respect and are desired by most, something Tes considers a needless burdening of communication. At the same time, Darius’s words don’t seem a lifting of the leash as much as an indictment, but sifting them through hir mind doesn’t get hir closer to understanding. No, there’s easier questions to ask. “So, if I hear noise, all the time … I could hear someone, somehow, to find them?”

“Yes, no.” Darius runs his fingernails over his wood hand. “Maybe you’ll remember how people speak—their tone of voice, their accent and dialect and speech rhythms. Maybe you’ll hear them speak in your head, the way smell for me is memory. Maybe you’ll know, one day, that memory names, but you should also know that no two divergent magicians can use their knowing, and that naming, alike.”

His words sound extraordinary: a world where ze doesn’t make mistakes, a world where ze has mastered magic, a world where ze can work such profound power people who cherish heartnames don’t realise the meaninglessness of their secrecy. A world that isn’t real. “I’m not a magician. I can’t be that kind of magician. Otherwise I wouldn’t have—”

What the next words are, Tes doesn’t know, but from the tears running down hir cheeks, ze suspects that ze can’t survive saying them.

“No dishonesty, Tes.” Darius’s sombre face rests too still for humour, but the upwards curve of his lips holds a momentary lightness; Tes wonders how he might have looked when he was younger, heavier and yet to be devoured by things ze can’t imagine. “You don’t hear it, do you? You … I think you despise me, because I won’t—or can’t—choose what is sensible to you, all the hating ways you think people should be. I know that memory names. I am that kind of magician. And I am broken. Not my hand—here, at least, you see that I made myself unbroken, as if I only matter for what I make.” He pauses, shivering. “No, for the blood, for the cuts, for the food and voices and sleeplessness and despair, for the guilt owed to the man who died because I didn’t say the words. But you? You think you’re a failure because you ran, because you didn’t read a sign? What’s misjudgement got to do with magic? Hamide Golzar made the tick gnomes that razed Laiphu, and she was a thousand times the magician I will ever be.”

He speaks so slowly it hurts Tes to listen, even as ze recognises that Darius is labouring to allow hir comprehension. His speech comes wed, though, to his trembling lips, to his heaving chest, to his fingernails digging into the joints of his wood hand. Terror, surely?

It seems an error of evaluation that revealing feelings should be more frightening than gnomes, but if honesty is as dangerous as uttering a name, how can it be otherwise? What if gnomes and dragons aren’t as dangerous as a simple conversation in a cluttered classroom?

What if ze knows nothing about the world outside Flay’s End?

“Tes, stop. Stop voicing the lies others gave you. You’re broken. So is everybody else. It means nothing. People just use it as an excuse to make others less real.” Darius exhales in a long, quivering rush of air. “The difference between you and Golzar isn’t ability or wholeness. It’s compassion. And it’s hard to be compassionate when your taught self-hate leaves you denying your right to exist here, but it’s more important than ability.”

Ze looks down at hir boots, hir hands fisted inside the folds of hir skirt. Darius compared hir to the maker of the creatures that almost killed hir, creatures so dangerous and needless ze cannot comprehend the mind that makes them. Evil is a vague term, but if it applies to anyone, it must to Hamide Golzar—and ze only knows the gnomes and snippets from Iris’s books, hardly the tale entire. Darius linked hir to that evil, a man who knows the gnomes too well—better than Tes—to draw such a comparison lightly, yet the truth of his knowing leaves hir fighting for a valid contradiction. Even as hir head reels, ze can’t find a word to say to dispute his. Not when ze can’t forget the gnomes, can’t forget Darius’s talking of babies’ bones.

“I’m not—”

Darius pushes himself up into a sitting position. “I wonder why that—I have said it in words, we have said it in actions. Should we paint it on the ceiling? Why do the words of people who matter sound so much less real than the lies?”

He braces his chin in his right hand and stares out the window as if Tes doesn’t exist.

“You do know,” he says at length, “that I don’t have the least clue how you stop doing this. I don’t. Every time I think I’m past it, I’m not.”

For a moment, Tes just stares—and then ze doesn’t know if ze laughs, cries or utters or some maddened union of the two, but ze’s gasping, trembling, sagging against the closest desk while drawing in shuddering breaths. A week ago, the idea of hearing another adult person admit to non-trivial ignorance or incapability seemed impossible. A week ago, no adult person could have confessed to struggle. A week ago, ze knew hir wrongness, undefined by the people of Flay’s End but also untolerated. A week ago, hir life was a desperate attempt to be something other than wrong, and ze had no idea that ze might hate someone else for failing to live up to those rules.

One week, and ze doesn’t know who ze is, where ze stands or what tomorrow will look like.

“How can everything fall apart in just one week…?”

Darius laughs, a short, dry chuckle. “In my first week here, March’s water serpent flung me against the wall. I tried to hug it. Or so they tell me, because I don’t remember anything between arriving here and waking up to find myself in a strange bed with my first scar and half my blood family in the infirmary discussing the legal precedents in litigating for serpent flinging.” Darius raises his right pointer finger and taps the white-faded scar where it fades into his hairline. “Because March sent for my family, Opa had to admit to helping a seven-year-old run away to a school for magic. That made the notaries just an inconvenience. In my first week in Rajad, I corrected a classmate’s grammar once too often and she broke my nose. Immediately followed by my classmates beating me up for being, in their eyes, a clumsy, arrogant snot of a magician who didn’t belong.” He waves his fingers towards his nose. “I pissed blood for too long to condone their violence, but I’ve had years enough to acknowledge the ways in which I gave people who didn’t understand cause for dislike.”

Water serpents? Bullies? Tes stares, not knowing what to say, not knowing if ze should.

“We’re not good with change. I’m not. Everything I had, a partner and a job and lists of things to do—they’re all gone, and I don’t know what’s left of me. You come, and this place is amazing and dangerous, but it’s change. Some students huddle in a ball and don’t leave their rooms for two weeks. Some students cling desperately to what they know, like grammar. Some students—and teachers—throw themselves headlong into the strange and dangerous. March knows that we make a mess in finding our feet.” Darius breathes a long sigh. “I didn’t have the words yesterday. Tes, March isn’t going to throw you out for struggling to cope with the pressure and confusion of a strange new world. Nobody here will think less of you as a magician because you’re not best handling so many alien ideas, people and things. We know, Tes. We don’t expect otherwise.”

Ze feels like ze can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t be.

It seems the wrong way to feel given that Darius is giving hir permission to exist.

“I want to learn magic.” Hir throat tightens and tears spill from eyes that must have cried enough and can’t seem to stop. “I want it! I want … words, and how to make a hand from wood, and to talk … the way you talked, before, because you know things, and how to make things, and knowing things is good. I want to know things. Make things. I just want to know.”

Tes sinks to the floor, arms wrapped around hir knees, and weeps until ze can’t breathe and must stop, gasping, through a nose so congested hir head spins.

Darius slithers down off the couch and sits on the floor opposite hir, his head and shoulders propped against the stained upholstery, the blanket pulled over his front and wedged under his arms. “If you get some paper from that stack, I’ll show you how to make—”

A short cough sounds from the hallway, and Tes follows Darius’s turning head to see March, rubbing his right trouser leg with his left bare foot, standing in the doorway with a battered wooden tray held in both hands. The smell of meat and tomato drifts towards hir, and Tes realises all of a moment that breakfast occurred some time ago.

“I know that’s why Osprey never got around to sorting.” March’s voice is soft and light. “Put a maker in a room of things and what does she do? Make. Or…” His lips curl upwards as he steps into the room, his movements long and flowing, and it seems to Tes that only the weight of the tray keeps him tethered to the floor. “Or she teaches making. Pardon. He teaches making. Will you get around to sorting, Darius?”

Darius runs his fingernails over his wooden hand. “I hear your point, March. Now give over the tray, get out of my classroom and go nail shut a door. I don’t … I don’t teach by games.”

Even though Darius’s words are so unreasonably sharp there’s no way to interpret them but rudeness, March offers his broadest grin yet—a lip-stretching smile that shows most of his teeth. He slides the tray onto the closest desk, nearly dislodging the jar of pencils, and jumps up into the air, hands fluttering. “You know gnomes. Tell me, for what did Hamide Golzar use them?”

Darius looks up and stares March in the face. “Torture, imprisoning magic workers, murder and terror.” He shudders, a long, violent tremble of his shoulders and arms—and only then does Tes realise ze wraps hir arms tightly around hir chest. “She thought it more elegant than wounding or crippling a magic worker to imprison him.” He raises his left hand and fists creaking wooden fingers. “If you were lucky, she did just the one. Most weren’t.”

Ze grabs the top button of hir blouse in shaking hands and works it through the buttonhole. Torture of the sort where one stops feeling and fearing. Torture of the sort where teachers don’t come in to save hir. Torture too easy to imagine, yet Tes doubts hir time in the tower enough to know the horror.

“Odd.” March nods and skips back towards the door. “I would have expected a magician of her ability and perception to look beyond the obvious. Protection, for example. Who would willingly enter a room filled with gnomes, after all? Besides the both of you?”

There’s something fey in how he waves his hands and vanishes into the hallway, and for a moment it’s all Tes can do to breathe. Tick gnomes kept in the tower, kept behind the ward lines ze saw in the hallway, kept even though the thought of escape has Tes break into a cold sweat. Kept, because Tes couldn’t make it past the second floor, because something so dangerous must be a powerful guardian itself. Kept, yet March spoke of them to hir on hir first day as though they’re nothing!

“He, he said … while I’m here, he said…”

“You’ve paid in blood for the right to understand, I think.” Darius shudders again and tucks his hands underneath his crossed forearms. “Others haven’t. Don’t share this.”

Ze nods, grabs hir skirts in hir hands and scrambles upright to get the tray in the hope soup and bread can chase away the skin-crawling memories. There’s something in the tower worth the risk to their lives to keep protected. Something that can’t be sealed behind a wall, meaning that March wants it accessible. Why? Too much has happened, too many people telling bits and pieces of a story into which ze’s fallen, but not enough of each for hir to glean any true sense. If the Worldblade lies in the attic, gathering dust and droppings, what can be so valuable it needs must be protected by something so lethal? Something else told in stories? Something too dangerous for story?

“Do … do you know what it is? The thing?”

Darius shakes his head. “Don’t share. Don’t look.”

In someone else, that non-answer might be a lie. Does Darius lie in words as well as expressions? He doesn’t seem the kind of man who says anything other than what he thinks. Even when he dodged March’s questions, while Tes crouched behind an armchair, ze knew his avoidance for what it was, if not why.

Tes grabs the tray, places it on the couch, settles hirself down on the floor beside Darius and then lifts the tray onto the floor. A bowl of warm broth with a spoon resting against its lip, several bacon sandwiches, a bowl of apple slices and a basket packed with rolls and muffins sit beside a small dish holding a pat of butter. The bread is still oven-fresh, and Tes grabs one and bites into it, sighing at the warm doughiness. Taste is real, simple, uncomplicated—an alien and precious thing in this new, nonsensical world. “I won’t, sir.”

Not for March, the man who lies by talking of danger as though it is nothing. For Darius, the man who sat on the floor, asked about his boots with an awkwardness that makes Tes look adept at the art of conversation and told hir several things about his personal life he didn’t have to tell a stranger. For the man who did more than just enter towers and cross rivers to come find hir. For the man who doesn’t seem to despise hir, even though ze fears ze hates him.

“Thank you. Thank you for … everything. Sir. Are you going to eat your soup?”

Something flickers across Darius’s face, a momentary thinning of lips and flickering of eyelids, gone before Tes can analyse it. He reaches across the tray, grabs the edge of the bowl in his flesh hand and raises it just enough to slide the wood hand underneath before setting the bowl on his lap, steadied with wood fingers, the spoon held in his right hand. His tone, though, holds nothing but his careful drawl: “Do you wish to tell me why you were in the tower?”

Tes waits for Darius to sip from the spoon before speaking. “Curtains. If they weren’t being used, I wanted the fabric to make Holly, my roommate, a dress…”

Darius’s broad, crooked smile bares all three of his gold teeth and creases the skin around his eyes. He doesn’t speak; he just sits and stares at the back wall, holding the spoon halfway from bowl to mouth, grinning all the while.

Tes looks down at hir hands and wonders how ze can ever pay him back.

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