The Crew of Esher Hill: Absence of Language

Summary: Three months ago, Kit March abandoned his fiancé without even a note of explanation for a deserving man. Leaving Lauri should have brought him a wondrous freedom from the pressures of romantic expectation, so how does a talented magician end up performing flash magic for buttons and hairpins in Raugue’s worst tavern? Kit doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to think about it as long as he can keep drowning guilt in beer and spellworking, but when a stranger offers the word “aromantic” followed by a dangerous quest to the Gast, Kit may have more distraction than he can survive.

Word length: 7, 209 words.

Content advisory: Please expect depictions of or references to amatonormativity, allosexism, cissexism, heterosexism, depression, autistic-targeted ableism, alcohol and alcohol used as a coping mechanism for depression. This story takes place in Astreut where heterosexism and cissexism are endemic, but there’s also references to the way people see aromantics in particular as heartless or hateful. There’s also several non-explicit sex references, Kit’s use of sex as another coping mechanism, some casual references to and depictions of violence, and a heaping mountain of guilt.

Chronology: This chapter takes place three months after Ringbound, one month after Love is the Reckoning and a little under a year before Old Fashioned. The chronological order for these interconnected stories featuring both Esher and (young) Kit is The Sorcerous Compendium of Postmortem Query (Esher), Ringbound (Kit), Love is the Reckoning (Esher), The Crew of Esher Hill (Esher and Kit) and Old Fashioned (Kit, taking place after Kit’s return from the Gast). Please note that, as ever, Kit rarely meets a truth that he feels obliged to preserve for later taletelling.

Note the first: Welcome to the first chapter of The Crew of Esher Hill, a serial story about six trans, a-spec, neurodiverse folks on a quest into a weird part of the Marchverse, there to face monsters, find an artefact and learn to trust each other. Because Kit is the narrator and knows nothing about Esher, this chapter is readable if you haven’t read Love is the Reckoning. I’ll mention, however, that there is an unfinished story between this chapter and Love is the Reckoning, detailing the deal Esher makes with the Grey Mages. This chapter does not reveal all that goes down in the creation of this deal, but if you don’t want to read things out of order, I’d recommend waiting on reading this. If you’re desperate to know what happens in terms of Esher’s saving Mara, on the other hand, this will assuage some curiosity. Some.

(I am not sure on a posting schedule. Please don’t get excited about the spectre of new, regular content!)

Note the second: Some folks may remember that I posted Old Fashioned last year for @aggressivelyarospec’s #AggressivelyAroSpectacular. I liked the symmetry of this year posting the interaction that provoked the explanation Kit gave Amelia on the subject of aromanticism, so here it is. Old Fashioned kicked off for me the posting of twelve short works with aro-spec protagonists, so I want to say a huge thank you for starting me off on a year of aromantic fiction!

Awkward words spoken by a stranger shatter a lie so ordinary that Kit never stopped to question its falsehood.

Kit March learnt long ago that the closest thing to an Astreuch hell is the taproom, and the Creaking Door is no exception. It hits him, always, as he drops his hands, as the crowd becomes individual faces to watch and judge, as the drag threatens to sweep him off his feet. He turns, reaches for the small table beside the step that has become his stage, and snatches up a bread roll stuffed with cheese. “That’s it for tonight, lovelies!” He kicks the upturned bowler by his foot, since a man can be none too subtle when performing for a drinking crowd. “All gratuities gratefully accepted! My thanks for your enthusiasm, and I wish you all a good evening!”

He sweeps a bow, just managing to keep from planting his face on the grubby floorboards, and turns towards his table, stuffing the roll into his mouth.

A few clinking sounds echo from his hat. Knowing this place, they’re just coat buttons.

Kit sighs, sinks into his chair and chokes down the rest of the roll. Elizabet’s bouncer stands by the table, a looming presence of hulking muscles and more sharp edges than a pin cushion. While a few voices shout for more, none approach him. The regulars of the Creaking Door know that Kit doesn’t talk to people immediately after the show, and the presence of a hulking guard discourages everyone else. Nobody stops him from devouring the food on his plate—another roll, a congealing mutton stew, a mound of greyish potato—and finishing with a hastily-downed beer. The sores inside his cheeks sting at both, but Kit still waves his hand towards a server.

Nobody stops him from remembering, in a way he doesn’t while performing tricks for the crowd, where he is and why. Nobody stops him from feeling. He knows he’s better to take those moments for himself before allowing conversation, that he can’t shift from performance to talk the way other folks can, but the space gives him far too much time to ponder.

He exhales, trying to focus on anything but his thoughts, but the room doesn’t distract so much as torture.

First is the noxious mingling of sweat, perfume, wine and spilled beer, the reek seeping up from the floorboards as though no amount of soap and scrubbing will convince the wood to release its memory. Second sounds the riotous chorus: stamping feet, a hundred conversations spoken in words that grow louder as the crowd grows drunker, the metallic plucking of an untuned lute as Elizabet’s musician takes to the step, a mob in the corner howling requested folk songs. It hammers against Kit’s skull in thundering waves, varying only in intensity. Third and worst, though, comes the constant flashing and flickering of cloaks, hair and hands. For this, Kit takes the inside of his cheek between his teeth, biting down as hard as he can. He doesn’t enjoy noise or odour, but the flash of colour from a swirled skirt or the unceasing tapping of a woman’s ringed fingers against a neighbouring table, seen from the corner of his eyes, feel like a stabbing knife to the mind. It doesn’t bother him when he’s on the job, but now he chews his cheek, unable to react or explain when both are taken as high rudeness. Most people have a limit on the noise they can bear and find some scent objectionable, but the woman isn’t doing anything abnormal. Why should he mind?

Most people will tell him to stop flapping his hands while insisting on the harmless and hypocritical normality of their own wriggling fingers.

Kit looks to the bar, impatient, and waves again in search of the slow-coming beer.

Too much drink won’t be good tomorrow morning, but some now lets him survive.

A girl swishes over with a jug, topping up the mug. Board and bread and beer for the show each night, with Kit keeping whatever coins his audience throws him. He hooks the hat with his ankle and drags it in close to the chair for examination: one chip, three copper clips, two hairpins and six buttons of assorted sizes and colours, none matching. “So grateful,” he mutters under his breath, slamming down half the mug. Most of the rest slops over his fingers and the table; Kit curses and wipes his hand on his coat. “The famed generosity of Astreut!”

He tucks his earnings, such as they are, into his pocket and jams the bowler on his head. What best, tonight? Does he wait to see if an interesting man comes late to drink or does he call for another beer in search of the right amount of alcohol to settle his thoughts without leaving him groaning on the morrow? He hasn’t yet mastered the latter, but how will he without another attempt?

“Can I have a word, mate?”

A leggy figure Kit approaches his corner table, a copper sunburst pin in the Eastern style for designating masculinity fastened to the collar of a long sheepskin-lined oilskin. A second pin sits beside the first, a larger piece shaped like a horseshoe cradling a leaf. Guild marker, perhaps? At first Kit thinks the stranger a swordsman, for he wears a short, curved blade and a knife too long for fruit at his side, but then Kit’s eye rests on the brown breeches patched with suede on the inside of thigh and calf and the split skirt of his coat. A mounted mercenary guard? His cuffs, collar and red check shirt are clean and well-mended for this end of town, and he wears his sleeves wide and long, reaching past the knuckle to bare only the fingers of his leather gloves. For some reason, the sleeves of his coat are a different brown, less water-spotted, to the front and skirt.

A light stubble, as though he shaved yesterday, covers his jaw and throat. Unlike most travellers and wanderers in Astreut, he wears no hat, baring straight, sable hair pulled back in a short tail. He isn’t pretty given that a white-faded scar pulls at his bottom lip, his limbs are too long for his torso and weather lines his brow, but honey speckles his hazel eyes, he’s only a few years older than Kit at most and he leans against the table with an easy grace.

A massive grey wolfhound, wire-haired, long nosed and slender, leans against the man’s leg, its withers as tall as Kit’s table. The other, a sensibly-sized black and white herder, rests in a low crouch at the man’s feet, its feathery tail wagging. A mercenary or adventurer wanting a last night before crossing the range, perhaps? Kit shapes his best smile, doffs his hat, waves a hand at the watching bouncer and points to the chair opposite his. “What is it you want, sir?”

Men approach Kit based on his Greenstone accent and an understanding that a shift man like him won’t be caught up in restrictive Astreuch notions about acceptable bed partners. Sometimes, less pleasantly, they see in him a sought-after combination of desired masculinity housed in a body they can misgender as female. Masculine, yet avoiding the appearance of breaking religious edict—a convoluted attempt at justification that few but the Astreuch regard as reasonable. While Elizabet won’t recognise a broom when beaten over the head with one, both she and her bouncers offer a shift man and everyone else under her roof a fair degree of safety for Raugue. Most folk leave their morality at the eponymous door, and if some can’t, well, ending up on the street with a broken skull soon educates one on the importance of concealing disapproval.

The beer tastes sour and Kit’s bowler fills with buttons, but Kit doesn’t fear for his life when bringing a man to his bed. He knows waking up beside a man who isn’t Lauri will again break him, but a man keeps him from thinking now, better by far than beer—and a bottle or two in his room solves inconvenient attacks of morning-after guilt.

The swordsman takes the chair, turns it around so the railed back faces the table and sits astride in a smooth movement, his right hand resting on his lap and the left on the table. The wolfhound leans against his side; the sheepdog rests underneath the chair. His eyes look over the top of Kit’s head and stay there, paying no mind to the room. Odd. Has he read Kit as divergent even though Kit plies his trade on the basis that none here look past his smile and easy words?

“About the flash. I’ve a crew into the Crackenbush. I need a witch or word hag.” The man speaks in an accent that somehow mingles lilted vowels with a slight Malvadan drawl, his words clear and deliberate.

“A job?” Kit reaches into his pocket, fishes out the largest button and runs it between his fingers. Here at the Crooked Door, Kit performs the showman trickery that welcomes him to most taprooms—flowers, lights, levitation, sparkles, changing colours. Entertainment, but while performing he just follows the script, simple and uncomplicated. A performer demonstrates at the behest of non-magical folks who can order him around and howl at his mistakes, the unknowable eldritch stripped of its danger and majesty. “I’m not a witch. I’m a jongleur.”

None here recognise the difficulty in juggling kittens; Kit never reveals that he surrounds said kittens with a bubble of unmoving space to avoid jostling. Nor do they realise that Kit throws in a few mistakes each night just to endear himself to the crowd: people better respect a magician who isn’t too good at his craft. Flawed ordinariness doesn’t help the buttons in his pocket but ensures Kit’s safety in Raugue’s narrow streets.

“I saw you witch the beer. You’re more than just flash.” The horseman grunts. He doesn’t mush his vowels like Malvadans, thankfully, but there’s a cautiousness to his words, as though he takes a moment to consider before allowing them to dance off his tongue. “I don’t think much of the kittens. How can you do that?”

Kit exhales. There’s nothing subtle in how he now moves the button, but the man looks over his head, paying Kit’s hands no mind. Curious, for there’s also no reason a common swordsman or mercenary will recognise the true art in Kit’s performance. “I’ve worked with Elizabet’s cats each night. They’re used to it.”

“It’s cruel.” The stranger grunts louder. “But you have ability and I need a word hag.”

When he’s levitating ten glasses of beer, another spell difficult to block and execute, and listening to the room clap, Kit feels nothing—just the crowd and the craft. No inconvenient memories, no wondering on what Lauri might be doing or feeling now. No wondering on who Lauri might be doing or feeling now. No quiet, soul-aching moments when Kit realises that he left a man who cares about him without so much as a one-sentence note of explanation. No bitter, terrible truth where Kit can’t escape that what he once thought of as freedom has left Kit as a wandering magician in the dregs of Raugue, casting spells in return for a hard bed and terrible beer. No weighing doubt, no bone-deep misery, no guilt, no confusion.

Kit shudders, running the toe of his boot over one of the man’s legs. He needs a distraction and the stranger looks good enough, if he leaves his dogs out in the hallway. “Flash is my work. I’ve never done anything else. But, if you want, we can talk upstairs?”

The swordsman shakes his head and pulls his legs back out of Kit’s reach. “I don’t do that.” He stands just as one of the servers walks over and fills Kit’s empty mug from a pitcher of beer. “Good luck with the work. Stop juggling the cats.”

Kit stares, gaping. Sure, he knows better to be too obvious about a demonstration of interest, even here, but nobody’s staring under the table to watch where Kit puts his feet—and the swordsman isn’t Astreuch, so why should he care?

No. It doesn’t matter. He’ll find other men, other distractions. He won’t go upstairs alone now that he’s decided that companionship should end the night. He just needs to wait, smile at someone promising, talk a little. Easy. What does one man matter?

Perhaps it’s the drag, perhaps it’s the beer, perhaps it’s the uncommon rejection and perhaps it’s two months of devouring guilt, for Kit, startling himself even more than his blinking companion, leans forwards, rests his forehead on the table and weeps.

The floorboards creak and a long, lean hand closes on Kit’s right shoulder. “Outside. Not upstairs. Come.”

Kit doesn’t understand, but anything seems better than weeping at a table in a crowded taproom before the customers and Elizabet—none of whom will ask, all of whom will judge. Kit gulps, swallows and pushes himself up from the table, stumbling. He isn’t drunk, because he can think, because he can count the items on the table, because Lauri, because he can’t stop thinking, but he struggles to place his feet. He feels disconnected, dizzy: from crying, from the drag even though he ate, and isn’t the drag why he’s crying, the moodiness and instability that comes from so much magic worked at once? Isn’t it just the drag, forgivable for a magician?

No, he isn’t drunk, so Kit reaches for the cup.

The stranger pulls him up off the chair before Kit can close his fingers around the handle. “Leave it. Outside. Now.”

He doesn’t mean to lean against the swordsman, but he smells good—metal polish, leather, lavender, stinging tea-tree, horse and a touch of greasy lanolin all blurring into something clean and outdoorsy. Nothing like Lauri and his merchant blend of expensive oils, ink, paper and idle evenings. Nothing like Lauri, and tears roll down Kit’s face to soak into the collar of his shirt.

It hits him, with a stomach-churning clarity, that he isn’t sure when he last washed said shirt or even his coat; such things don’t seem so important at the Crooked Door. Even that consideration isn’t enough to strengthen his knees, to let Kit push himself up and away from the strange man bearing him. Even here, no man lets another man lean against him in public view—and if the swordsman allows this intimacy, why did he push Kit away?

Kit sniffs and stumbles, his right arm pressed into the horseman’s chest, the left flapping.

Two dogs trail them out of the taproom.

Outside, Kit inhales a breath of chill air. No salt, no seaweed, no harbour. Piss, manure, cows, hay, smoke and a ghost of eucalyptus, for the Creaking Door sits on the edge of Raugue, the stars obscured by thousands of chimneys burning in Astreut’s largest city. The road on which the Creaking Door sits leads to Arsh and Ihrne and the foothills of the Crackenbush with the cattle market and slaughterhouses across the way, an easy port of call for traders, merchants, stockmen and mercenaries. Foreign travellers, in Kit’s experience, who want cheap and close and the chance to talk the job; locals who seek strangers who’ll keep secret certain proclivities from wives and husbands at home; folk who don’t stay long enough to be bored by Kit’s display of tricks and spells. A different man for Kit most nights, but not this one. Why?

“I don’t—”

The horseman guides Kit down off his chest with his left hand; Kit stumbles and lands on a bale of hay that smells mouldy-sweet. That explains, he supposes, why it sits outside the stable. It doesn’t explain why the swordsman sits beside him, stretching his long legs out over the straw-strewn cobblestones. Lights shine out on the street and from the windows, but this corner beside the stable and away from the backhouse sits in near-quiet, with only a cold green witchlight hanging from the eaves. Music echoes from inside the tavern, and every so often Kit hears a horse rustle inside the stable, but neither loud is enough for distraction.

The wolfhound settles between and atop the horseman’s legs. The sheepdog leaps up, over the man’s legs and the wolfhound, to drape itself across his lap, a wagging tail thudding against the hay.

Kit sits, too bewildered to do otherwise, and tears drip onto his trousers.

“Esher. Esher Hill. He. Some folks call me Esh.” He points to the dog in his lap. “Berta. She. The pony dog’s Bill, he. Berta, greet. You?”

Berta bounds into a sitting position on Esher’s lap and holds out a paw towards Kit, her brown eyes fixed on his face and her feathery tail wagging even faster.

Kit, amused, reaches out to shake Berta’s warm, silky paw. Berta lowers her nose to sniff his hand, gives Kit a quick lick and, once he releases her, settles back on Esher’s lap. Esher croons something inaudible and gives her a soft slap on the flanks, her left side an uneven blotch of black over rump and part of her ribs; Berta rolls to the side, baring part of her belly. Kit thinks of his cousin Amelia, a woman never to be found without at least one cat—a cat she’ll complain about, even though Amelia never looks more at ease without something black and furry sprawled over her skirts. Esher Hill seems cut from the same cloth.

“Kit March. He. Kit, usually.” Once he went by Christopher, until Grandmother found him sleeping too often by the kitchen fire, but a shroudname can and should change as often as required. Christopher, he thinks, sounds too long and unwieldy. “I don’t have any dogs. My sister always has a cat, but I’ve never ended up with an animal.” He hesitates, thinking that Amelia warms most to Kit after he says something complimentary about her cats, even though Kit sees them as nothing but beclawed demons set on annoying him. “Berta seems clever.”

“She’s smarter than most people. Probably smarter than you.” Esher smiles down at the herder, working his left hand gently over her belly and flanks.

Kit waits, but Esher offers no following question or repartee, seemingly engrossed in his dog. Has he forgotten Kit? He doesn’t look Kit in the face, so odd a courtesy from a stranger, so shouldn’t he realise the difficulty in responding to such a comment? Kit wipes his eyes with his sleeve, bewildered. Esher all but dragged Kit out here without any indication of intent; why?

“That the Green in your voice?”

Kit jumps, breathes, nods. Esher uses the offcomers’ name, but since they have no right to know truenames, Kit offers no correction. “Yes. Born and raised in Greenstone.”

“Dead Horse Hill. Between Malvade, the Wold and Astreut.”

“Never heard of it,” Kit says, for want of anything else: Esher doesn’t make small talk easy. “You don’t drawl as badly as a Malvadan.”

“No.” Esher keeps his silence for another agonising moment.

Kit, with nothing else to think about, chews on his cheek and wonders why Esher now sits so close to him, thigh brushing thigh, when he pulled away from Kit inside. People often baffle in their behaviour, but he’s learnt to view it in terms of rules, nonsensical but possessed of an illogical consistency. Esher, though? Esher doesn’t act or talk like a man set on seduction, so why allow something now to which he before objected?

“Why are you trying to … bury something away, I think? Because … it doesn’t work.”

Kit leans away from Esher, tired, giddy, angry more at himself than at Esher’s question. “If you don’t want me, why do you care? What’s it to you? What makes you think you can go up to a stranger and just ask?” He shivers, rubbing his hands over his forearms, scratching dried stew off his sleeve. While he’s scraped together enough coin for essentials, the season turns fast towards winter and he still doesn’t have a good coat. How did that happen? Wasn’t he going to buy himself a coat and anything else he needed? Wasn’t he going to travel, begin adventures, explore new corners of the world? He left Malvade with a purse and a new horse, the world at his feet, liberated from chains he didn’t understand … and somehow he stopped at the Crooked Door, his feet now mired in the dregs of Raugue.

A drowning man doesn’t drown because the water crept up on him by degrees, so why didn’t he leave in search of better?

“Easy.” Esher’s word leaves his lips as a soft exhalation. “I’m singular, not heartless. I’m not interested in you or anyone, but I won’t ignore a crying man. Decency doesn’t just come with interest.”

Kit stares, his annoyance fading in the wake of such an odd, unexpected comment. Singular?

“I’m singular,” Esher echoes. “And if you’re crying because I said no, there’s something wrong.”

It takes a moment for Kit to find his voice. “Singular? What do you mean by it?”

Esher frowns. His eyebrows are oddly thick in a long, narrow face. “What it sounds like. Me. Alone.” He pauses, running the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip. “I don’t mean entirely alone. I mean … I mean my horse, and my dogs, and my kin, and my friends … they’re enough. I mean I don’t feel the pull for anything more. Nothing romantic. Not people intimately together. That’s what it is.” He gives a short, definite nod. “Berta and Bill and Bess are always enough.”

Bess, he guesses, is Esher’s horse. Kit’s hands don’t so much quiver as vibrate, even when he grasps his knees in a desperate attempt to hold them still. He draws a breath, hoping that his voice will emerge slow and even, for never in Kit’s wildest imaginings did he anticipate this conversation. “There’s a word for that?”

“There’s a word for anything if you look hard enough.” Esher shakes his head. “I know these words aren’t well known, but aren’t you a word hag?”

Even in the dark, he still doesn’t look directly at Kit’s face, shifting his gaze from over the top and to the side, close enough to suggest an intent to look, or at least the interest usually conveyed with such a glance, without catching Kit’s eyes. Talking with him feels almost as good as talking to Amelia, and Esher’s dogs seem a good deal friendlier than her current cat. He’s a trifle weird about them, admittedly, but aside from that foible and his hesitations, the latter perhaps also a sign, Esher seems more like Kit and Amelia than anyone else Kit has ever met. Divergent? Or just used to them?

In Kit’s experience, this isn’t a thing about which it is safe to ask.

“I am. Magician. I’m a magician. Learnt from a book and everything.” Kit exhales, trying to calm the shake in his voice and ease the catch in his throat. Singular. He isn’t quite sure that sounds like Kit’s experience, but it’s close. Does a word exist for the fear and the confusion that saw Kit leave a man who loved him, a man who planned to marry him, a man who deserves so much better than Kit’s unexplained absence? An absence Kit doesn’t know how to explain beyond something that sounds callous and hateful? “Is there…” He stops, exhales again. “Is there a word if you just want people for the bedding, the sex? And anything else isn’t right, even though it shouldn’t feel that way, because there’s stories, so many stories…” He gulps, shivering. “If you don’t want the romance, the marriage that follows it, if you’ve tried it and you can’t…? You just want the sex, even though it’s supposed to lead to romance, but that’s where it goes wrong, because that’s where it feels wrong? Is there a word?

He doesn’t know how he ends up sobbing into Esher’s chest, leaning over Berta’s warm back, or why Esher rests his left arm around Kit’s shoulders. Once the tears spill, nothing in Kit can hold them back; he isn’t sure he wants to. Never has he spoken such words aloud; never has he felt that there may be someone to listen or understand. Never has he felt anything more than a pressing fear that Kit’s lack of feeling makes him void of something natural and important.

Even before Lauri, Kit met various men for time spent in clothes-off intimacy. Given enough time and experience, that connection doesn’t feel like anything beyond want and desire, nothing like the terror provoked by the feeling that he cannot return the shape of connection and love a good man expects and deserves. One feels like an ordinary part of Kit; the other feels like an insurmountable mountain, leaving him standing in air too thin to breathe—but everyone else around him can breathe without difficulty, and expects him to do the same, so why can’t he?

He knows the kind of man he should be; there’s a thousand stories shaping the road before him, stories of romance and love and happy-ever-after, stories from which Kit ran to end up, drowning, in Raugue.

Awkward words spoken by a stranger shatter a lie so ordinary that Kit never stopped to question its falsehood.

Esher’s closeness, Kit realises, is one thing: kindness.

“I don’t know an ordinary word. I know the academic ones from the … the priests, but how do you tell people you’re ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’? When you can love as you want outside of Astreut, and there’s all the different names for it, depending on where you are and who you love, none of them academic? So I took an ordinary word. Singular.” Esher stops and draws a breath, rubbing his hand over Kit’s shoulder and upper arm. “Maybe that still works for you in some way, if you don’t wish a partner? Maybe you just prefer ‘aromantic’, not experiencing romantic attraction? I think that sounds like you. I don’t, either. And … I do, sometimes, sometimes, feel sexual attraction, but not often, so I usually say ‘asexual’ to people. Easier that way.”

Kit nods. His teeth ache, his throat pulses and his head pounds, tears pouring from his eyes like rain on cracked saltpans, and nothing in the world will make his mouth, just then, frame words.

“This it? The not knowing?”

A good number of patrons leave the Crooked Door before Kit can slow his tears for long enough to stammer, but Esher doesn’t seem to care. He sits there, Kit’s body pulled close to his chest with one long left arm draped around Kit’s shoulders, his fingers rubbing Kit’s forearm through sleeve and glove, his right hand sitting easy in his lap, his legs stretched out across the cobblestones. Berta lies warm between them, shifting her head to rest on Kit’s knee as though mimicking her master’s embrace.

Finally, his breath whistling through a blocked nose, Kit fumbles his way through telling the story to the stranger cradling him on the hay bale. Lauri, a kind and decent man who gave Kit a ring and the promise of a future, and Kit left him without apology, just knowing that everything about this was wrong while lacking any just cause for his feelings.

Now he weeps all over a stranger, but he has a word, miraculous and wonderful.

“My sister is aromantic, too—or a shape of it. She loves romantically in the beginning, but it doesn’t last for her. But, like you I think, she isn’t asexual.” Esher exhales, too long and slow to be anything but deliberate, but the movements of his hand and fingers don’t falter. “My kin … there’s a few folks, actually, who don’t do attraction the way we’re supposed to. I … I knew a priest for a while, a priest with an interest in such things, and that’s how I got the words. Some people don’t feel romantic attraction or desire romantic closeness because of it. That’s all.”

In that moment, Kit loves this horseman stranger. He loves him, in an odd, dizzying way, for the gift of a word that means more to Kit than a ring, a house, a future and a husband. Loves a man who seems uncomfortable with speech in a way he isn’t with touch and gesture, but freely gifts both to Kit despite knowing nothing of him.

Aromantic.

Why didn’t anyone tell Kit before now that people can be this way? Why didn’t people offer this up as a potential option, just like any other shape of attraction? With knowledge, Kit wouldn’t have hurt Lauri the way he did, wouldn’t have so struggled to live the lie pushed on Kit by the world, wouldn’t have denied for so long his own truth. Why didn’t he hear this word before his adulthood, before years of hoping that someday alien feelings come to bloom, before years of hurting others, before weeks floundering in a mire of confusion and hate?

Grandmother gave him the words “divergent” and “shift”, and he found “autistic” and “trans” in books, words Kit needs to fit into the world. Why didn’t Grandmother break this absence of language for him when she understood its importance for so many other identities Kit claims for himself? Why didn’t she know this word?

Esher’s left hand slips down Kit’s arm to halt at his, straightening his fingers, loosening the tendons and muscle. Only then does Kit realise how tight he clenches them, and he bites back a groan, leaning closer against Esher’s chest. In that moment, more than for any man since Lauri, Kit yearns to reach up, to kiss the man holding him, to take him to bed, to find himself inside Esher’s skin—a deep, boiling need more about discovery than distraction. Kit draws a shaking breath and wonders how Esher manages to sit this close to a man who has expressed desire. Yet Esher doesn’t pull away, granting intimacy for no reason that fits the rules Kit knows of the world—rules that don’t encompass Kit, never mind Esher himself. How much courage does a man need to state rules the world won’t cherish and behave as though they will be unquestionably accepted, even with two watchful dogs?

Esher doesn’t speak save through his fingers, seemingly content to give Kit the silent night.

Clouds drift over the moon before Kit finds words enough for the question: “You want a magician for an expedition?”

“My sister’s dying.” Esher skips through those words; only after does his voice slow to its usual measured cadence. “There’s a relic, a magical artefact, that can save her if I fetch it for the Greys. Across the Divide. I’ve a crew already, some of them magic workers, but you work like you’re quick with the words.”

“The Divide?” Kit sits up, pushing himself away; Esher releases his hand. “You want to go across the Divide?” There’s only one place to go once one crosses the Divide, a wall of magic blocking off a region left so distorted by the Change the elves separated it from the world and no human disagreed. “Say it as it is! You want to go into the Gast?”

Did Esher say this before? How did Kit miss that?

“Yes.”

“You want to go into the Gast for a relic?” Kit shifts to the side, desire fading as though Kit fell in an icy water trough; Berta lifts her head, gives Kit a sad-eyed look and settles herself back across Esher’s lap.

Any eldritch artefact procured from the Gast will be priceless due to its rarity, but Esher must be talking about something that cannot be reckoned in monetary value. No, Esher must be looking for a power source, one of the devices the elves of long-ago made to bleed energy off universes—a device with which the Greys can save anyone if they still breathe, a device that allows a magic worker to cast without dangerous deals with demons or the use of his own fat and tissue. Even near-drained, every magician, sorcerer and witch will crave such a creation.

How to ask? He knows why the Greys made such a deal: they’ll think nothing of having someone risk his life and those of his company in the hope of finding such an artefact. Why Esher, though? He must understand the dangers, the low chance of success. It’ll will be kinder by far to let his sister die, to be with her in her last days, to avoid the high likelihood that he will die within the Gast and his sister, days or weeks later, will follow him into the afterlife. Better the loss of one than the loss of many, surely? What of his parents? Isn’t it crueller to lose two children instead of just the one?

“Why would you risk your life to save hers? It’s the Gast! Go home and be with her in her last days! Don’t give your parents two corpses to mourn!”

They’re awful words, and Kit isn’t surprised when Esher stiffens. He answers, though, even when Kit himself wonders if his question deserves it: “She saved my life a few years ago. I need to save hers.”

Kit stares across at a lanky figure, tall and long of limb, slenderer than some same men but well-muscled across the shoulders. Hale enough, at least by the reckoning of a casual glance, but if he isn’t any kind of magic worker, Esher Hill’s sword, horse and dogs will do little to protect him in the Gast. He seems to have some understanding of magic, though; perhaps he’s a worker himself. “Are you an adventurer? Are you a magic worker? Do you usually do this work?”

Esher rests his right hand on Berta’s coat, working his gloved fingertips through the thick black-and-white fur. “Stockman. Drover. Spent a few years working cattle through the Crackenbush.” He presses his lips together, brow furrowed. “No magic.”

Kit bites hard on the inside of his left cheek, thinking of Grandmother’s stories—venomous creatures half snake and half vine, drakes and serpents, wandering spirits, feral beasts distorted by magic into ravaging predators of fang and fur. Those are only the horrors mentioned by those few who return; far more dangerous things must lurk in that forested hell. A man who herds cows through the bush will enter one of the most dangerous places in the West and survive monsters with nothing more than two dogs? Yes, Bill is a wolfhound, but wolves are nothing compared to what the Gast will throw at him, and Berta’s just a sheepdog who shakes paws!

“I do flash,” Kit whispers. “How are you supposed to survive it?”

Esher crooks his head, blinking. “We aren’t as useless as you think, March.”

Kit flaps his hands, trying to imagine Amelia—the closest person Kit has to a sister—venturing into the Gast for his sake. He can’t, no more than he can see himself attempting this for her. “It’s the Gast.” Yet if that argument can’t convince Esher, Kit has none other. That accent means Esher didn’t grow up so far from the Greensward that he can’t have heard some tales of elves and the Change as a child, so why? “It’s the Gast, Hill!” He looks across at Berta and down at Bill. “You do realise that you’re going to get your dogs killed? They won’t survive the Gast!”

Esher pulls away from Kit, wrapping both arms around Berta’s body so his forearms press against her chest; the sheepdog turns her head and licks him on the cheek. His unblinking eyes rest on the slow rise and fall of the wolfhound lying stretched across his feet, his lips pressed thin, face rigid.

For once, Kit thinks, Esher doesn’t need to break that silence with speech.

“You clearly love your dogs,” Kit says, thinking that it isn’t just beer making his stomach twist, but why should he feel so guilty over speaking the truth? “If you do this—”

“I need to save her. My sister. This is the only way.” Esher leans forwards and rests his cheek against Berta’s back. “I’ll pay thrice the going rate, held by the Greys, so if I don’t … you, or your family, will be paid. Standard risk bonuses, standard contract, everything supplied. Do you have your own horse?”

There’s something wrong here. People don’t go into the Gast if they wish to live a long, content life. Not only is Esher willing to do so, he’s found a group of people intent on doing the same. How? Are they all like Kit? Lost and broken, saying yes in gratitude for rescue?

A triple rate doesn’t sound good enough to compel such agreement.

“The Greys,” Kit says desperately, because all the rules of the world say Esher should have abandoned Kit to weep at the table, “can’t be trusted. Don’t you think that if this could be done safely, they’d do it themselves? Don’t you think they’re taking advantage of you, asking for a price you shouldn’t have to pay? Go home and be with your sister—please. Go home.”

“I need to save her. This is the only way.”

He’ll die when his body is possessed by unnamed demons, die of a plague that devours his body in a single night, die sucked dry of blood by venomous plant-beasts or die broken at the bottom of a ditch, die in more ways than Kit can imagine. Esher Hill will die in the Gast.

There’s nothing right or fair in that fate, even if Kit can’t understand why Esher won’t choose the sensible option.

“You want another magician,” Kit says slowly, “to go with you.”

“I’ve two magicians and a scholar.” Esher stares down at the wolfhound at his feet, head still resting against Berta, his face turned away from Kit. “The Roxleighs, Sarie and Marie, served in the Astreuch army as casters before I met them at Sir—met them. Faiza spent years with the dragons in Rajad and Tierre, studying pre-Change artefacts. They know what to look for. And there’s the guide, Indigo. Ze’s run the Gast before. And Bill and Berta and Bess.”

Five people, two magic workers. Nowhere near enough.

Amelia will name Kit by a thousand different curses, and he will deserve all of them. Yet he sits in the company of a man who rescued him from the grief and loneliness that leaves a man crying in a taproom, a man who gave Kit the words that shape and save a life. What does Kit with his days but drown out guilt and flash tricks to entertain a crowd? If he dies from monstrous magic or dies from drinking, what’s the difference?

He has a word now, a word that explains, a word that rebuilds, a word that makes him real. One day, if enough people hear it, grandmothers will give the word aromantic to their children as something they may find themselves to be without hesitation or consideration. Esher had no reason to begin the conversation that lead to his gifting of that word. Isn’t that worth recompense when Kit has no reason to remain in Raugue?

Kit deals in flash and stagecraft, and he knows he is no warrior, but he is a good magician. Will that make enough of a difference? Will that help a drover and his dogs survive the horrifying?

He doesn’t know, but Kit supposes that he can’t make the situation worse.

“I’m divergent,” he says into the dark. “Better at people and talking than most, but I am. If I weren’t … if I were completely sober, I’d never be in a taproom. Too much movement.”

Esher lets go of Berta, sits up and shifts his hands into a series of fluid signs. Soldier’s gestures, perhaps?

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

“You don’t sign? No matter. The Roxleighs don’t talk much, either. I thought more of you would, since my fathers do. They’re autistic.” Esher turns to look down at Kit’s face—the first time his eyes meet, squarely, Kit’s own. “Are you saying yes? Tell me what you need, and we’ll figure it out.”

Aromantic. A word for a man who doesn’t feel romantic desire for others. Kit exhales in a long, shuddering breath, dizzy enough to regret the last mug of beer. “I don’t have a horse. It lamed, so I sold it.”

The Gast takes Kit away from Raugue, away from a stifling loneliness Kit doesn’t know how to leave on his own. No, Crow has given him a door hanging ajar, and Kit isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t recognise that his job is to step through. Esher needs a magician. What will Kit do if refuses? Go back to the taproom, drink down another beer, perhaps find a man, perhaps face another horrific morning after only to endure the day for the too-short distraction of the performance? Won’t this be better than work that pays in buttons when Kit isn’t sure that he has the mind and heart to find anything better himself?

Raugue doesn’t need a jongleur; Esher needs a magician.

Kit March, magician, divergent, shift, a man of Crow, aromantic.

Esher, as odd as he is about his dogs, knows what it means to be an aromantic man. Kit now has the revelation and the word, but that’s only a beginning. Where else will Kit find a lived understanding but here?

“Yes.” Whatever happens, Kit will never tell Amelia about a decision she’ll only lambast as foolhardy. “I am. Are you staying here?”

“Down the road.”

“I’ll go upstairs, grab my things and leave.” Grab his gear, down a last mug of beer to celebrate, pen a quick note to Lauri and pay Elizabet to send it once Kit has vanished into the bush—and that last has a delicious appeal. He can give an owed explanation, unfettered by Lauri’s reply. “I’ll just be a few moments.”

Esher clasps Kit’s shoulder with his long-fingered left hand. “No worries, March.”

The words aren’t quite true, given what Kit knows of the Gast. Not when Kit can’t find a reason for Esher’s willingness to risk his life for his sister; not when Kit knows better than to trust the Grey Mages. Esher takes the time to explain to a stranger, yet he’s also willing to risk the lives of his dogs, something that screams desperation over cruelty but won’t be any less dangerous. No, whatever lies ahead will become a problem, if Esher decides his crew must be as expendable as the animals he cares about. If Kit hopes to get them through as yet-unimaginable horrors, he’ll need to better understand both the situation and Esher.

For the first time since leaving Lauri, Kit’s choice feels right. Dangerous, absurd and inexplicable, but right.

Kit has spent the last two months trying to keep from thinking on the world he left behind.

He wonders how well he can think, now, on the road that leads ahead.


Next chapter: Kit throws his pocketful of buttons at the eponymous crooked door, Esher and Faiza discuss a secret of Esher’s that they wish to keep from Kit, Faiza almost reveals a secret they keep from Esher and a stranger reveals that there’s something about Indigo…

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