Fletcher Ace Preview: Magic and Mermaids

Magic and Mermaids: An expensive education and a growing eldritch library hasn’t helped Fletcher Ace, local witch, end the drought gripping the town of Shadowdale. The town council may have a better solution than waiting on hir magic, one that involves the selling of romance to people “out there”, but Fletch isn’t prepared for just how it will involve hir…

Word count: 7, 549 words.

Content advisory: Several references to amatonormativity in romance narratives and fairy tales; several descriptions of romantic and sexual behaviours, including kissing, in the context of these tales. No character, though, experiences sexual or romantic attraction. This story also depicts drought, which may bring this too close to home for some of my Aussie readers. There are also death mentions and references to the presumed, entirely-theoretical suicide of those older people who choose not to leave Shadowdale.

Setting: This takes place on the Stormcoast, a region north of Malvade on the Western side of the Straits, a good many years after Kit March. Other than a few place-name references, there is zero crossover with the other Marchverse works. Readers may like to know that Shadowdale follows the Eastern family contention of a child taking a parent’s use/common name as surname. (Fletch’s mother, therefore, is named Ace.) The conceit of Shadowdale is that everybody is aro-ace, but, just like talking corncobs, I don’t plan on explaining the why of this.

Note the first: Due to pain and multi-day migraines caused by my new desk set up, there’s no point in a linkspam post for this week. So I’ll combine everything next week and today post the first section of Fletcher Ace as a preview. Please note that this is not a final draft and I expect to make a few changes between this and the completed novella, but this section does have an ending in its own right.

Note the second: This story came into being because I am an annoyed, petty aro who decides to make a town of aro-ace in response to the common trend of television adaptations erasing the aro (and sometimes the aro-ace as well) from aro-ace characters. If you’d like to know more on my thought process and plans for this story, please check out the Fletcher Ace tag on @aroworlds. I will allow that this story has ended up taking the somewhat absurd concept of selling romance seriously, which may not work for all readers.

Stories preach the same cruel truth: romantic love pounds through artery and vein, as essential to life as air and water.

Only when the thumping sound echoes into hir dreams about orange clouds raining possums does Fletch realise that ze fell asleep at hir desk. Again. Ze groans, closes hir notebook, straightens hir pencil, plucks a strand of loose brown hair from the desk and, only then, rises from hir chair. Ze drops the hair into the second wastepaper basket by the door—one for paper, one for ordinary rubbish and the third for magical disasters—and slides hir chair underneath the desk.

“Fletcher! Fletcher Ace, if you don’t get to the door this minute, I’ll tell Mother!” The holler, loud and hoarse, is followed by another series of thumps. Most people in Shadowdale have a strange and unexamined compulsion to kick at hir poor door. Every few weeks, ze goes out with a sanding block and a tin of varnish, but by now nothing can conceal the scuffs in the wood. “Fletcher! You’re wanted in council! Step smartly!”

Council? Fletch frowns, but since the blank blotting paper on hir desk betrays a lack of work, ze can’t think why ze’s wanted. Ze stops before the mirror, frowning at the crease-lines on hir cheek left by the pages of hir book, but ze can’t do much about that save time, and there’s no other unsightly marks on hir face—just a few dark curls falling from hir bun.

“Fletcher! Do not fix your hair! Get your cloak and your gloves and step smart about it!”

Quill’s voice does boom more than usual, so Fletch decides there must be some urgency to this late-afternoon interruption. Council, though? What can be urgent about hir explaining that, no, ze hasn’t discovered a way to change the weather that won’t require the selling of more souls than the town can offer? Ze pokes the largest of the hanging curls back into hir bun and, sighing, steps out into the narrow hallway. Nothing about hir house is large, a crooked little cottage squeezed between the smithery and the tavern, built as though some long-ago carpenter decided the space too large for wasting and too small for comfort. As Fletch hasn’t any interest in cohabitation, it suits hir well enough, although ze does wish for more space upstairs: ze keeps getting cobwebs in hir hair through having to store books and potion bottles in the rafters.

Ze stops by the hall sideboard. Hir current daily hat—a too-small high hat with a slightly wider-than-fashionable brim and a broad purple ribbon tied about the crown—sits on the shelf beside a pair of green felt gloves, a small glass bowl filled with hat pins, hir shopping list, hir purse and the key to hir front door. Three cloaks—dark grey, black and a midnight purple—hang from pegs opposite the sideboard.

“For this one day, put some fire into your boots!”

Fletch pins hir hat to hir hair over the messy bun, ties purse and key to hir belt, slides hir hands inside hir gloves and stops, considering, before the cloaks. Today hir skirts are a deep emerald green, hir shirt black and hir waistcoat an iron grey, with only the white linen scarf at hir throat to offer a little colour, but ze does have the ribbon about the silk hat and hir belt, like always, is purple. Not black, with the shirt and hat, so ze hesitates, right hand outstretched, between the grey and green cloaks. The throat of the grey cloak will look too much the same against the waistcoat, but the hem of the green will look too much the same against the skirts.

Ze rocks hir head, considering.

Fletcher!”

Each rattling blow against the door makes hir ears ache.

Fletch winces and grabs the grey, carefully fastening the buttons and pulling the hem so it lies evenly over hir full skirts. Ze stops before the door, moving hir hands to touch the required items as ze runs against hir checklist: key, purse, boots, cloak, hat, gloves, pencil and paper in hir cloak pocket. Ze breathes a long, slow sigh, nods and unlocks the front door.

The sere wind tastes of brine, magic and dust. No amount of salt, sand and seaweed blown in from the beach can disguise the dirt drifting into the streets from the barren hills cradling the town. It catches in the cobblestones, collects in the corners, coats the windowpanes and shutters: reddish-brown topsoil, fine and powdery, giving the buildings of Shadowdale a sepia haze. Long gone are the days when weeds poked up through cracks in the road or children came in from the fields with arms full of clover; the only green available, itself dulled by hours spent drying on the line, lies in witched fabric. Years of drought gives even that green a ring of falsehood, a sense of babyish, desperate pretence.

Fletch prefers to be a child than surrender to the brown despair.

Ze avoids white skirts and petticoats, though. Far too difficult to launder, even with magic to help hir.

Quill, wearing her second-best gingham dress under a shawl knitted with rainbow variegated wool, stands with her arms folded, glaring across at Fletch. Her full lips form a stubborn pout and lines crease in the corners of her brown eyes. She didn’t avail herself of the chair Fletch thoughtfully keeps on hir doorstep for any waiting customers: her cheeks flush pink in the cold air and she stamps one booted foot. She looks like most of their kin: tawny skin, sable hair prone to curls and flyaways, long limbs. Her face is a little narrower than Fletch’s own, her hands finer, her limbs more muscled. She prefers brighter colours and her eyes flicker restlessly, but no stranger will miss the kinship between them, even though Fletch is taller and plumper.

Today, she smells of lavender and mint: Fletch changes hir clothes to suit hir mood, but Quill changes her perfume.

“Took you long enough, anyhow!”

Given that Quill knocked on hir door without the courtesy of a prior appointment, Fletch can’t see that ze has any reason to complain. Ze steps out onto the porch and locks the door behind hir, letting the key fall by its ribbon into the folds of hir skirts. “My hair,” ze says, reaching up to touch the trailing curls as the winter wind slices down the street, “isn’t…”

“You’ve beautiful hair up or down. Quickly, now.” Quill reaches for Fletch’s gloved right hand and tugs hir off the porch and down into the street. “Council is waiting.”

“Beautiful?” Fletch stumbles after Quill, turning hir head to double-check the door. “People should appreciate my appearance, I suppose, but you’ve never troubled yourself to mention it.”

“You’re my sibling,” Quill says, as though that’s a meaningful answer. “Quick, Fletch!”

Why they should be running when council meets next door, Fletch doesn’t know, but ze has long learnt that questions like that are best left unasked: the answers are so rarely satisfactory. Ze just follows behind Quill, pattering up the steps past the hitching post and onto the shuttered porch. The doors are closed today against the wind, but Quill holds then open until they’ve both stepped into the taproom, a long room with fires burning in the grates at the northern and southern ends. Tables lie scattered between, several arranged in a square shape and housing the papers, gloves, cups, baskets, pencils and assorted baked goods of Shadowdale’s town council: Archer bakes up a storm for any town event. It’s a warm, tidy room, smelling more of bread and stewed mutton than wine, although ze can’t miss an undercurrent of overripe grape, as though the memories of years of spilt drink have seeped into the floorboards. Clean, though: the Masters Doyen have close to Fletch’s own need for particular arrangement.

Unlike hir years studying in Malvade, Fletch never has to examine hir plate, cup or cutlery for fear of dust, hairs or missed food particles. Ze still feels wonderment at having somewhere not hir own home to eat without fearing soiled utensils.

Fletch tugs hir hand free of Quill’s, stops and unbuttons hir cloak to hang it on the pegs by the door, even though Quill twists the toe of her boot against the floorboards in impatience. They are two sides of the same coin, Fletcher and Quill: Quill yearns to live her life at top speed, racing through everything with a lick and a promise before moving on to the next task to catch her eye, heedless of the completion of the first. Fletch loves hir sister, but ze loves her far better now ze can appreciate her from the peace of hir own crooked house and not the same bedchamber.

“Fletch! Buck up!” Quill’s voice sounds low enough that she may not be heard over the crackling fire. “Please!”

“I’ve nothing new to say,” Fletch whispers back, straightening hir cloak and the two that hang beside it. Unless council cares for a new index ze created to catalogue stories featuring third siblings, the only accomplishment Fletch has made in months beyond warding for weevils and a lock spell to keep Macey Quill out of their mother’s pantry, ze has little to offer but apologies.

“They’ve something new to say to you!”

What can council have to say to hir? They paid for hir board and modest stipend in Malvade, allowing hir years of training as a witch on the understanding that ze will return to serve the town. While Fletch has done so well enough in other respects, in this the expense of hir education has come to naught: ze cannot witch rain and ze cannot mend the cause of this unnatural drought. In hir heart of hearts, ze fears both are impossible. Everything ze knows about the weather, the world and the cursed patches of land left by the Change suggest that no mortal worker can pay for the magic needed, for if such things can be mended, won’t the elves have done so? Won’t they heal the world instead of locking poisoned valleys and mountains away behind shimmering, failing wards of magic?

Ze, like every child born in Shadowdale, grew to adulthood in sight of the walls surrounding the Warp, grew beneath the Warp’s strange fingers shadowing the town—and, like every child born in Shadowdale, Fletch then thought nothing of it. Now, though, ze sees rain-bearing clouds diverted north and south, pushed away from Shadowdale; ze sees divers come back with empty baskets because the abalone haven’t spawned in six years. Unlike most adults of Shadowdale, Fletch has stood staring in incomprehension at the flickering, buzzing shield between the town and the darkness, but hir petty magic has no power against shield or the twisted landscape alike. Ze doesn’t know where to begin, and hundreds of books later, after devouring tomes on magical wards, tomes on the Change and tomes collecting elfish fairy tales, ze is no closer to understanding.

Ze guesses that the poisonous patch of land, perhaps five by five clicks at most, surges its malevolent power up into the sky, high enough to send birds and bees and clouds scattering, far enough to taint the ocean.

In the last three years, ze has seen rain but seven times. Never heavy and never for long; just enough to fill up buckets and muddy the streets. Only when the clouds are so thick that the bank cannot be fully dispersed by the Warp and Shadowdale catches the edges of the winter squalls smashing the cities and towns of the Stormcoast.

What can council have to say to a witch who has so failed hir home in their need?

Fletch says nothing; ze just follows Quill towards the arranged table.

“Sorry, Mother.” Quill shrugs—the kind of shrug that Fletch has long interpreted as you know, it’s Fletcher given the number of townsfolk who employ it—and plonks herself down in one of two empty chairs. “Fletch, sit.”

“I’ve made no progress,” Fletch says, sitting down beside hir sister. “I apologise, of course. I’ve ordered more books. There’s a volume about elfish ward constructs, exceedingly rare, coming from Laiphu. If I can get past the ward, safely, perhaps I can stop this. It seems more promising a line of research than trying to find a way to reduce the cost of weather conjuring.”

Even ze knows hir words are nothing, and from the frowns creasing the brows about the table, so does the council.

That the elves didn’t mend the Warp says such craft must be well beyond a human witch.

Even a witch running out of room to house hir books.

“Stop ordering in books.” Mother, as blunt as Quill, leans forward across the stable to stare at Fletch. Grey streaks hir dark hair and her dresses and coats are made from an unrelieved, untrimmed vermillion cotton and worsted, giving her a solemn, funeral appearance. Unlike Fletch, her hair stays put in a neat, crisp bun: what magic leaves Mother avoiding stains and creases Fletch doesn’t know, but ze’s spent hir life trying to replicate it. Unlike Fletch, nobody seems to mind Mother’s tidiness: nobody kicks her door because she takes too long to prepare herself. No meeting or gathering starts until Mother deigns herself to arrive; none ever dreams of complaining. “We’ve another way you can help us.”

Mother, Fletch long decided, has gravity. Of course, she serves Shadowdale as the town mayor, judge and lay priest, and while Fletch does have magical ability and a not-insignificant library, those attributes pale in comparison.

“Another way?” Fletch blinks. The Warp’s magic creeps past the boundary, resulting in weather distortion and drought. What solves the problem but human magic, given that Mother’s letters to the Greensward have resulted in nothing but polite dispassion, not an elfish magic worker arriving in Shadowdale to offer a solution? They can’t afford to pay a Grey Mage to travel over the Straits. Every human magic worker of renown has—if bothering to come at all—looked at the Warp behind its shimmering veil and left with little more than an abrupt apology and, often, a bottle of spirits in hand. Something about the smell and the shadow stretching over the town and bay quite unnerves them, leaving all reasonable hope of a solution in Fletch’s hands. “I apologise, but I can’t think of a way to help beyond continuing my research.”

Mother’s gaze flickers towards Aaron Doyen, but his elder brother Archer swallows and gives a slight nod. Archer’s brow creases with worry more than age, a man who put his life savings into expanding the tavern only for the wheat to stop growing and the abalone to stop spawning—and with no ships come no merchants or travellers, nobody to fill the creaking beds, no coin to offer up in taxes. The folk of Shadowdale have few enough coins for their own tax obligations, never mind spares for the Doyens.

Fletch no longer crafts preservation spells for divers and farmers, and while the town still has need enough of hir craft to offer up food and mending in exchange, ze has time enough for research.

They are drying up, Shadowdale’s people become nothing but ash and soil scattered over hill and sea.

“You can, you should continue your research.” Archer’s voice sounds a dry croak. “We’d be grateful, very grateful, if you would.”

“It may,” says Aaron Doyen, for one brother rarely speaks without the other, the only visible difference between them Aaron’s preference for kilts over Archer’s trousers and the brass chain Archer wears about his scarred left wrist over Aaron’s bare hands, “allow you to broaden your contacts out there, speak directly to other magic workers. It may get you closer to an answer than your letters to Malvadan booksellers.”

Fletch hasn’t determined which brother sired hir and Quill: their thick eyebrows and curved noses are mirrored on both Archer and Aaron. The knowledge matters little to hir life, since the siring of a child isn’t the fathering of one and Fletch lacked for no parent in a village of grandparents, aunts and cousins. Ze just wonders which of them Mother allowed that honour and how she went about such a negotiation.

Ze hasn’t decided if ze wishes to parent, but a quiet contentment in hir narrow house makes Fletch feel as though ze won’t miss anything if ze doesn’t.

“Please speak plainly,” ze says, for their words hold nothing of substance. What other way? How can Fletch ask questions of scholars and magic workers save by writing missives of the sort that too often go ignored? At least when writing to booksellers, payment provides motivation and willingness to hunt for hir; polite and desperate requests have gotten them nowhere. “I don’t take your meaning.”

“Hah.” A bitter cackle sounds from the fourth councillor: Carolien Maven, the oldest person in Shadowdale, reigning over the council for longer than Fletch has drawn breath. Ze sits huddled in a bright green and purple dress under a grey shawl, hir wispy white hair brushed flat against hir sienna skull—but Carolien has looked one step from death for the past twenty years, and Fletch rather thinks that when Shadowdale crumbles away, Carolien will be there, alone at the last, to watch it fall. “Tell hir properly, cowards.” Hir hazel eyes dance in hir drawn, wrinkled face. “We won’t be waiting on rain that doesn’t come. We’re going to give people out there a new reason to come to Shadowdale. You, Fletch, will help us advertise it.”

Carolien takes a long, crackling breath, and Fletch doesn’t speak because Quill sits frozen, her eyes fixed on Fletch.

When has Quill ever retreated into such frigid stillness?

Whatever comes, Fletch realises, ze won’t like it.

“Romance,” Carolien pronounces, hir words slow and sure, “is treated out there as universal.” Ze pauses, as any citizen of Shadowdale does, for the usual “hear, hear” that follows, but this time the room remains silent save for the crackling fire and the breathing from four councillors, Quill and Fletch. “It burdens story, poem, song. It smothers wedding and parenthood in a raft of unnecessary expectations. It’s only one means of attraction, an optional experience, but out there values it well beyond its purpose.” Ze draws a breath, and Fletch wonders that Aaron Doyen—the most intolerant of Carolien’s speechifying—remains silent, even though Carolien hasn’t left Shadowdale in sixty years and nobody here needs educating on this subject.

Fletch, who spent six years in Malvade and owns more books than the rest of the town put together, has more knowledge about the world outside Shadowdale than anyone in this room, but that hasn’t stopped Carolien from lecturing hir on the obvious.

“If romance is mistaken for universal, and celebrated as universal, it stands to reason that people out there will value it as such.” Carolien gives a small, decided nod. “If we can’t sell wheat, we’ll sell what people want. Romance.”

Fletch supposes there’s more than a little sense in that. Ze’s seen followers of the Sojourner travel clicks to their monasteries in search of sanity and salvation, and the world treats romantic relationships as more unquestioningly fundamental than either, so why shouldn’t they come to Shadowdale to find or better it? “You mean the associated symbols and expressions? I suppose Lacey could crochet pink roses instead of flowers, Master Tracer has always had a dab hand at sweets, Quill’s perfume—wait, advertising? Do you want me to write to the booksellers?”

Even as ze asks the question, ze knows it doesn’t fit with what the Doyens said.

“To sell something,” Aaron says, and all Shadowdale knows that Aaron keeps the books and wheedles at guests, “one needs not only to provide the object of interest but a reason why that object should be purchased over any other. Or why one should stay at the Crooked Arrow over any other, for example.”

By “any other” he means Lacey’s boarding house, as Lacey and the Doyens have been engaged in a twenty-year war over making their businesses Shadowdale’s premier hostelry—or they were, until planting after planting failed and ships stopped coming, until the bay offered up little but kelp and toadies. Minor differences like menus, the age of the cellared wine and proximity to the wharf mean nothing when there’s no travellers to enjoy them.

“I understand the theory of selling,” Fletch says, mostly because the silence lingers and ze fears that they will sit there, between the roaring fires, for all eternity unless ze speaks. “I don’t understand what this has to do with me.”

Quill sits as though afraid to be seen breathing.

“You trained in Malvade.” Archer blurts the words with uncharacteristic speed. He far prefers baking bread over greeting customers: Aaron sells stews and wine to travellers and traders while Archer hides behind his spice rack. Nonetheless, Fletch has never known him to be this awkward in a council meeting. “You’ve spent time out there.” He waves the braceleted wrist towards the bay, shudders and draws his hand against his chest as though the world is a snarling dog snapping at his fingers. White scars of varying thicknesses mark both his hands; his skill in the kitchen appears hard-won. “You know how they talk and think. You know the stories. You read their books. You said you had to turn down people who wanted to go ‘out walking’ with you. You’re experienced with … assumptions. And, if I may say so … you seem to fit the, uh, approximate description of what many people find … desirable. Not in an appreciative sense but how … not that I know myself, but you hear people talk—well, we did when traders still came, but…”

Fletch stares in complete and incomprehensible astonishment.

“I’d stop them, of course,” Archer says, as though thinking that he can’t make this any worse, “but they did talk. Murmurs and whistles—why do they whistle? Why do they—well, a suggestion that unsavoury items might end up in their soup puts a stop to most things, but I heard them. Before I mentioned the soup.”

It takes Fletch a few moments to work up enough saliva to say one strangled word: “What?”

“Fletch,” Quill says, her words uncharacteristically toneless, “they want you to go out there and pretend. Live the stories. Pretend to romance people. Be famous at it. So the world thinks Shadowdale is the home of a famous lover and they’ll come here to buy our—my perfume, Lacey’s roses. We need a reason for them to come. To stay here and eat Archer’s bread. We need a story of our own.”

Ze cannot find any sense in Quill’s words.

Now Quill twists her hands together. “You’d be best, Fletcher. Not that you—I’m not saying you feel anything that way! But you read, and you spent six years at Malvade, and you’re a witch, and you write letters to the booksellers! You’re almost in the world already!” She looks down at her lap. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but you’d be best. I told them you’d be best. I mean—Archer? He can’t! And Aaron will never leave the tavern. You don’t have a partner here, and you’re young, and you’re prettier than me, prettier than most of us, so you can leave—you’ll be best, Fletch, please. Please.”

Fletch sits, hir lips parted, while five sets of eyes stare at hir and not a single sensible thought passes through hir mind for long enough that ze can push it to hir lips.

“You can research out there.” Aaron points, like his brother, out towards the bay. “You can go to the Greys and the Greensward and ask. You can talk to other magic workers—pretend to seduce the magic workers, I suppose? More books, more people to talk to. I’m not saying this will be easy for you, but it might help you broaden your search.”

Fletch draws a breath, runs hir tongue over hir teeth and tries to speak in a calm, measured tone. “What are you saying? That I go around saving princes from towers and princesses from dragons? That I deliver serving girls from cruel stepsisters and youngest sons from hateful fathers because romantic love is the happy ending? That I just imitate all these, these stories—”

“See!” Quill reaches over and grabs hir left hand, clutching Fletch’s gloved fingers between her own—narrow, long fingers clasped between shorter, rounded ones. “That’s why you should do this! You’re a witch! You know all the stories!”

Ze doesn’t remember deciding: deciding means intent and foreknowledge, but Fletch feels nothing but the sudden rush of movement as ze jerks hir hand free from Quill’s grip, as ze stands, as ze turns and, in the face of a silence broken only by the smack of hir boots against the floorboards, bolts for the door. The cold wind whips at hir shirt as ze lands on the porch and ze realises in a moment of bewilderment that hir cloak hangs on the hook by the door, but that isn’t enough to slow or stop hir. Ze just moves, skirts hitched up in hir hands, as fast as ze can, tearing down the street without caring where hir feet take hir or that hir hair falls out from under the hat, tangling down hir back, hir hat sliding free. Ze reaches up, yanks it—heedless of pins—from hir head and keeps running past general store and chandlery, past livery stables, past houses tall and crooked, past empty and rattling granaries, past harbourmaster’s office and pier.

The latter juts out into the choppy grey water, void of ships.

Ze whips past shoppers and fisherwomen and two boys idling by the pier on their way back from lunch, running across the weathered-grey boards of the wharf. The short pier can only berth two grain ships at a time plus sundry smaller craft for fishing and abalone diving, but that was enough for Shadowdale when the clouds gifted them with rain. Now, north of the wharf, there’s little but oozing mudflats lying bare where the creek once flowed into the bay. Fletch heads south, running until the pier ends and ze jumps onto the sand, small stretches of flat under a growing cliff until the beach curves into the headland and there’s nothing but the rock wall spotted with seagulls and odd patches of speargrass and creeping pigface.

It isn’t much of a beach: no gentle beaches exist on the Stormcoast. Even the water inside the bay offers waves tipped with white despite the shelter of the narrow gap between the heads; outside, the waves devour the coast in violence unending. Here, though, there’s sand scattered with boulders and thick piles of brown kelp. Nothing picturesque, just as the pier itself tends to the utilitarian, just as the town is only grey board weathered by wind and time—nestled in the crook between two gentle hills, clouded by the shadowy, unexplainable fingers of darkness creeping out from the Warp.

Fletch picks hir way through the boulders, but ze can’t keep from turning hir head, looking back at the town, at the dry creek, at the Warp’s shadow stretching out from the head of the valley, at the empty pier and the grey clouds too high and thin for rain. Ze presses hir lips together, breathing in brine and kelp and dust, for the one thing Fletch missed in Malvade, aside from a sky unpierced by eternal stripes of gloom, was the acrid tang of the Warp—that sense of smoky, rotting bitterness ze didn’t notice until ze woke up, that first morning in a strange boarding house, and realised just how wrong the world outside Shadowdale smelt.

Or right, at least to anyone not born and raised under the Warp’s ghostly protrusions, but until six years ago it wrought no harm: a strange relic left by a stranger history. Even now, having seen the harm brought by that shadow, Fletch cannot imagine living, permanently, in a world without its scent.

Ze didn’t hate Malvade. Its booksellers, clothiers and tea shops were a delight to a young witch who’d never known anything of their like. Fletch revelled in every moment spent in the pursuit of fabric, tomes and strange tea blends brought down the Rose Road and shipped across the Straits. Ze revelled in the bounty, though, because it was temporary. Six years spent in a city not hirs, all so ze can bring back cases stuffed with skirts and a head stuffed with knowledge, all so ze can begin a career as the town witch, for all agreed that Fletch was unsuited for anything else. Ze left Shadowdale so ze can return, useful, to the people who understand what it means to lack those tangled feelings of attraction that so drive much of the world—the world out there.

Fletch doesn’t know if Mother or the Masters Doyen or even Quill truly understand what it means to live in a world where to lack any sexual or romantic inclination is normal, unquestioned. What it means to have conversations about relationships devoid of pressure to live up to the tales, so many tales, that treat romantic love as an essential human quality, companionate love not a poor second best but one’s failure to be human at all—and a lack of love, however one may live by kindness or compassion, deemed high monstrosity. A world to take for granted where people deem the emphasis on romance in books an absurd outlander notion and no absence of love any notable flaw, but Fletch lived too long in Malvade not to value this dusty, shadowed paradise.

There’s nothing wonderful about Shadowdale to the eye: cold and windy, dusty, reeking of drying seaweed and decaying magic. Its buildings are small and plain, its beach rocky and wet. There’s nothing wonderful about Shadowdale and everything wonderful about its people and the little world they’ve made here, and they want hir to—to…

Ze stops, sinks down beside a boulder, its front begirdled with rows of fingernail-sized blue mussels and odd variegated orange-brown limpets, and rests hir head against hir arms, weeping.

The wind lashes at hir hair and the too-thin layers of undershirt, shirt and waistcoat clothing hir shoulders, the boulder nowhere near shelter enough. Ze doesn’t move save to shrink against the boulder, hir boots sinking into the wet sand where the incoming tide hollows out a pool at its base, the hems of hir skirts heavy and sodden, the muscle shells pressing against hir sleeve, hir hair tangled down hir back. Ze doesn’t care. Some part of hir, some broken or childish part of hir both strange and new to Fletch, wants to dig hirself into the sand, bury hirself under water and kelp until time passes enough that ze grows scales and a tail—until ze can spend hir days doing nothing but sun hirself on the rocks, free of obligation and expectation, free to call the harbour home.

Half the stories say that if ze catches and kisses a mermaid, if ze allows her to brush scaled lips to hirs and drag hir down into the deep, the siren call of love or at least want will transform a scared witch into something boundless and monstrous. Attraction isn’t the problem in those stories: the warning lies only in love’s object. Go home to the shopboy and the farmwife and the baker, say the stories; go home to the security of human romance and human attraction, a force known and understood.

Love, but love the understood and known.

The other stories speak of surrendering to the passion of the unknown, of answering attraction’s call in the name of becoming something wonderful and unimaginable. Here passion, in its tempestuous wildness, must always be chosen over an unhappy, placid safety with the shopboy and the farmwife and the baker, who will not or cannot love back with the same unfathomable desire. Love, say those stories of mermaids, transforms a scared witch into an untempered creature of freedom and majesty.

Love, for wild love is better than lovelessness.

To Fletch, both sets of stories preach the same cruel truth: romantic love pounds through artery and vein, as essential to life as air and water. No less than love, expressed in narrow and proscribed ways that the romantically-inclined rarely examine, makes hir the deserving hero of stories.

Ze says love for books and rain and the feel of velvet under hir fingertips, but even in a world where ze need not romance, Fletch isn’t sure that ze holds it in any capacity for people.

Do mermaids come for hir? Do they come for lips that have no yearning to experience another’s pressed against theirs? Do they come for a body that finds little compelling in the closeness of another? Do they come for a mind unseeking of children or family? Do they come for a spirit undesiring of the companionate closeness Quill finds meaningful? Do mermaids come to summon a witch who prefers hir world limited to the daily interactions with hir village, hir evenings spent with books and the blissful peace of night in hir own bed in hir own crooked, creaking house?

Or what if mermaids don’t love? What if they choose any human who asks? What if they’re set only on creating new mermaids via their magic, no sexual or romantic yearnings to complicate their procreation? Ze laughs, soft and bitter, for perhaps only a world that values such feelings as natural and primary will assume the idea of mermaids loving the humans they claim.

Why not Fletch?

Ze heaves a long, trembling sigh, but while the waves swell and break against sand and rock, no mermaid comes to answer hir tears.

No mermaid comes to release hir from obligation.

Ze sees it writ in that eldritch shadow, in the brown and barren hills, in the harbour empty of ships. First the abalone, second the wheat, third the town until Shadowdale’s people scatter, seeking out friends and family further up the Stormcoast, in Malvade, in Greenstone, anywhere, everywhere. They’ll become clusters of people lost in a world that cannot see, never mind cease, its wounding assumptions on what makes one human. Ze thinks of Mother, sharing Fletch’s lack of interest in companionship, perhaps becoming nothing more than a tag-along member of Quill’s household. Ze thinks of Archer Doyen, accepted here but unsuited to the world for reasons more than lack of attraction, and how difficult he’ll find a world that questions his lack of intimate partner or the way he finds family in his brother. Ze thinks of Carolien, unimaginable anywhere else but Shadowdale—and ze wonders how many others will instead take a last walk up to the Warp to throw themselves against the barrier. Their knowledge and their stories that make no assumptions about mermaids, lost save for those bits and pieces recollected by a disunited people, slowly forgotten in the passing of years as heroes and pride become erased by illusion and dismissal.

Fletch studied at Malvade to serve hir town in the way Shadowdale thought hir best suited.

The truth that makes Fletch weep, heedless of the cold and the abrading muscle shells, is that hir service has changed not at all.

No mermaid comes for hir, but between the waves ze hears the crunch of boots against sand.

“I don’t—I don’t think there’s any good way of asking such a thing.”

Archer, hir cloak draped over one arm, steps out from around the boulder. Aaron speaks better, but his words are sometimes too polished for sincerity. Mother will dive into a burning house for a stranger, but she and Quill have always been closer—Fletch has long thought that ze and Mother are too alike in nature but too different in their handling of it for the ease of true intimacy, and she knows better than to force an accord here. Carolien no longer has the legs for traversing the beach, and while ze sometimes sees Fletch better than any other, hir kindness bears sharpness. Archer, like Fletch, arranges his life so he sits on the edges—more than ze does, in truth. Mother, unlike Fletch and unlike Archer, throws herself into her service to the people around hir to hide her own tendency towards stepping away from human entanglements. Fletch, who needs the evening silence to survive daylight conversations, doesn’t understand it and doesn’t wish to.

Did he volunteer or did Mother ask him?

“No,” ze says, knowing that no amount of wind or surf will hide hir reddened eyes, but ze shifts hir weight against the boulder, biting on the tips of hir gloved fingers until hir hands are bare and the gloves dangle from hir lips. Ze won’t be able to fix hir hair against the whipping beach wind, but ze wedges the hat under hir arm and starts to twist hir long, curling tresses back up into a bun. “Whose idea was it, exactly? Quill’s or Mother’s?”

“Ace’s idea, but Quill recommended you to carry it out.” Archer bundles up hir cloak and crouches, his free hand braced against the same boulder but an arm’s length between them. His own cloak, wet at the hem, wraps around his feet. “They didn’t—it wasn’t said, in the talking, but I got to wondering that if people come here, to buy, perhaps we can talk, show, teach, how to love and desire without assuming. How to love better so that you don’t have to refuse the way you’ve spoken of. That would be a good thing, I think.”

Yes, but it still supposes the need for Fletch to leave—and that makes hir lips quiver, for ze doesn’t wish it, yet ze cannot find any just reason to refuse beyond hir own petty wants. Their reasoning isn’t wrong: ze is young, unattached, more experienced than most in the ways of the world outside Shadowdale. Ze has experienced interest directed at hir; ze understands, at least in theory, the stories that stitch up the thoughts of those who desire and expect romance. Ze cannot imagine succeeding in this absurdity, this pretence of behaving in ways ze doesn’t feel to draw enough attention to hir name and home, but even as ze weeps on the beach, ze thinks of mermaids.

Ze cannot know in truth another’s mind, but nothing ze has seen in Mother or Quill leads hir to believe that they will think quite as Fletch does, and Quill, at least, has always known it.

Out there await books and spells and magic workers beyond hir knowledge, people who might have answers, who might know other places of walled-off eldritch strangeness and can speak of how they managed their ward-leeching shadow.

“I don’t want to go,” ze whispers.

The waves roll and crash, as steady and constant as the sun and stars, as steady and constant as ze once thought spawning abalone and spring rain.

“I don’t think there’s any reason why you would, would want to. But this isn’t about want.” Archer breathes a long, heavy sigh, his voice catching. “Aaron cooks well enough. He lets me do it because it’s a thing for me to do. The others, they have roots and jobs; I’ve long known I’m not … essential, I think, is the word. I’m not essential.” He draws another long, deep breath, twisting the chain about his wrist, his bottom lip pressed between his teeth. “I wore a sword in my youth and those days aren’t so long gone—perhaps to your eyes, not to mine. I don’t know how to pretend to love or seduce or even talk to someone, to flatter. I don’t know how to do any of that and I can’t see myself gaining the learning. But if one person feels a leaf on the wind, two may carry the town between us, out there. And maybe, if your words and craft don’t dissuade enough when the game ends, a dour man with a blade will.”

For a moment, Fletch feels as though ze’s forgotten how to inhale and exhale, how to move hir lips, how to shift hir hands, how to wriggle hir remaining hair pins back into hir bun. Ze leans against the boulder, the wind whipping at skirts and hair, hir face a tearstained mess and hir clothes little better, staring across at the man who crouches beside hir—a simple man, clad in black trousers and a shirt so green as to be black on first glance, unornamented save for the gold chain, grey-streaked sable hair pulled back in a short tail by a leather cord. Creases gather about his eyes, brow and mouth, and Fletch, not an hour gone, would have called him old when pressed—a few years younger than Mother perhaps, five decades at least. Hir nose and hir eyebrows mark his face, and all hir life ze has never seen him, save in emergency and holidays, step outside the shelter of the tavern.

Save for council meetings, Archer rarely ventures out of the kitchen: the doctor more often comes to him.

“You don’t have to—you shouldn’t.” Guilt unsteadies hir tongue, for of all people offering, it shouldn’t be Archer Doyen. Quill wasn’t wrong when she said he can’t leave. “I’ll go. I don’t need you to come. I’ll go and I’ll do it. Please—please stay here. Please.”

Archer shakes his head. “It seems unright to me to ask this of someone else and not ask it of myself. I don’t think I can have the words or the story. But I can keep company.” He pauses again, running his tongue over his lip. “I won’t talk at you when you’re in a book or quiet, and I know my way around a few weapons. Not all these marks are from kitchen knives. Seems to me that I can do this.”

For all hir life, ze doesn’t know what made the words leap off hir tongue, since never has such a thing mattered: “Was it … you? And Mother?”

Archer’s snort makes hir startle. “Did I sire you, as outlanders reckon it? No. I haven’t the body for that duty, if you’ll keep quiet the personal. This isn’t…” He halts to chew on his lip, his eyes half closed. “It isn’t about you being Ace’s child. Our words made you run alone outside. There’s nothing right about this,” and he waves a hand up towards the fingers of shadow stretching out from the Warp, “but there’s nothing right about our words, either. You shouldn’t go alone.” He stops and glances around at the beach. “I haven’t been out here in daylight in … long time, now. Long time. It’s better at night, when it’s dark and the waves sound as if they’ll swallow me up, and sometimes, sometimes, if it’s still and I’m lucky, the water flashes with blue light. Can’t see that in the day when there’s people to talk at you.”

No mermaid came to steal hir away, to offer hir a new, delirious freedom in the lurking depths of the Straits free of obligation and consequence.

Instead, the world gave hir a middle-aged man, one who prefers to avoid people, offering to travel with hir into a world that won’t be kind to him.

“You don’t have to come,” Fletch says again, desperately. “You shouldn’t come.”

“Shouldn’t, likely. Shouldn’t go wandering on the beach alone at midnight, either.” Archer reaches out with the chain-bearing hand, offering the cloak. “Give us your hand, Fletch, and we’ll go back and talk about the hows and the withs and the whens.”

Hir stomach knots because it seems craven, somehow, to accept his offer—and yet it feels a brilliant, unlooked-for relief to have someone who understands out there with hir. If ze wanders the world for years chasing after and creating stories, ze may survive with someone beside hir—someone who won’t crowd hir, someone who won’t see hir company as invitation to talk or game, someone who’ll keep to his side of the fire when needed. Someone who knows what ze must pretend to be. Someone who remembers Shadowdale and remembers the life ze sacrificed for it.

Fletch releases hir hair, pins hir hat over the bun, sighs as curls tangle down hir neck and slides hir hands back inside hir gloves. Archer waits, wordless, as ze stands, as ze shakes out hir sodden skirts, as ze brushes sand from hir forearms and straightens shirt and waistcoat, as ze takes the cloak, fastens up the buttons and arranges it over hir skirts. He waits, wordless, until ze takes his hand, and he says nothing more as they start off across the beach towards the pier and the waiting council, matching his pace to hirs.

A flash of crimson hair and viridian scales flickers in the corner of hir eye, shockingly bright against the grey and blue of sky and sea.

Fletch draws an unsteady breath and keeps hir head turned towards Shadowdale.

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