When Paide ein Iteme says the words “I don’t love”, he doesn’t just refer to romantic relationships.
Content Advisory: Non-detailed references to war, violence, abuse, ableism, cissexism and suicidal ideation; depictions of heterosexism and heterosexist slurs/sex negative language.
(PDF, EPUB and MOBI files are also available for download from Patreon.)
Length: 1, 000 words / 4 PDF pages.
Note: I haven’t been posting all the Hallo, Aro stories here, but this piece takes place between A Prince of the Dead and The King of Gears and Bone. As it details a conversation important for events in The King of Gears and Bone, I wanted to be sure folks didn’t miss it.
I always planned to elaborate on Paide’s statement of love later in the series (and have done so in the drafts of the sequel novel, Birds of a Feather). The need for empowering, sympathetic fictional representation of loveless aros and aros with complicated relationships to love provoked me to tell this shorter version of the story now. Seeing the aromantic community’s excitement over posts and stories that stress all aros love in some way or are never without love leaves me fairly alienated from my own. I can’t seem to say it often enough or well enough in essay format for my fellow aros to remember that love isn’t what makes us human, so let’s try it in fiction.
(To be clear: aros who love non-romantically are great! Hell, I write about this myself! Aros who insist that we all love, on the other hand? Aros who write stories on the premise that loving non-romantically is an inherent part of being aromantic as opposed to being one of many shapes of aromanticism? Not so great.)
I wanted a character with a background of abuse and disregard wielded by those who love him, a character who is neurodiverse, a character who isn’t faultless but can’t be mistaken for an antagonist. A character telling the world something of what it can mean to be loveless–and why it doesn’t have to be a tragedy.
Little does this world hate more than a loveless man, save perhaps a loveless woman.
“He connects, attaches, to things.” Paide lets the words roll over his thoughts before speaking, unsure how to convey his meaning to someone unknowing of his brother’s nature. “Trinkets, odds and ends, textured bits he can hold in his hands. One year he went everywhere stroking a wooden spoon! I don’t mean a bribe. A token, showing him that we accept him in this way, so we may be trusted in others.” He glances across the table. “Do you still make your bits of beads and jewellery?”
Thereva called his sketches on maps and missives “bits of drawings”, but even she spent the quiet nights of the war working with wood and thread.
“I have something.” She almost smiles, her fingers still atop her last jade counter. “I also think you lied before, sir. Paide.”
Is this another declaration he’ll dislike hearing? “How so?”
“You said you didn’t love. How isn’t that love? It just isn’t romantic.” She shifts the piece two squares. “Your move.”
The board shows Paide another loss.
At least this one lacks consequence.
“I didn’t lie.” He didn’t correct her earlier assumption, but she did listen to him when all others denied his truth. Why not also in this? “You’re looking, I think, for something you’d rather see in my words. Something preferable. I meant how I said it.” He pauses for the space presaging impact, even here unable to cast aside his orator’s tricks. “Little does this world hate more than a loveless man, save perhaps a loveless woman.”
Thereva leans over the table, fine brows raised, her eyes searching his. Looking, maybe, for the shadows of the man that spoke of suicide? “I … I don’t know what that is! Princely pity shrouded in princely verbiage? Depression? Your debility?” She shakes her head. “What do you need of me? What are you asking by saying that?”
It means something that she asks.
It also means something that she thinks him hale enough for teasing.
“I don’t think love is something I want or need. I don’t think I should keep what I thought was love, having seen what it wrought.”
She blinks, frowning. “I understood that as you don’t wish a husband or a wife. How do you mean it, then?”
For the first time in months, the world feels steady underneath his chair. Perhaps it’s that today Paide reached the nadir of desperation, his sanity too rent to be further tarnished. Perhaps it’s the conclusion of a journey that shaped every use of his queerness as a weapon to discourage his father from pressing marriage, now unnecessary. Perhaps it’s the strange freedom come after casting the rest of his life to the pyre.
Their expectations denied his humanity. Why respect those few still within his ability?
“I don’t. I like … liked…? Like sex.” He laughs, as though Thereva didn’t see people emerge from his tent at odd hours, as though sex hasn’t become memory and history over hope. “I want a friend. I don’t love elsewise. I never have. But…” He exhales in the old habit of delay, speaking’s breath hissing over his lips. “My father loved me, but that didn’t stop me enduring his judgement, angels forbid he have a cocksucker for a son! Mamman loved my father, but that didn’t stop him from dying at her hands. Mamman loves my brother enough to war for him, but that didn’t stop his wooden spoon from shattering under her hands … or me applauding her anger. I thought…”
Thereva shifts her weight, preternaturally patient.
Is there any magical order of words, Paide wonders, that convey depth of feeling without implying self-pity?
“I thought I loved my people, my country. I thought to save Ihrne from the tyranny of a necromancer with power to void law. I thought I loved them, and they me, and I thought that love justified my war.” He halts, thinking of armies of bones, the bearing of corpses from the battlefield while the enemy claimed his living allies, a conflict that brought blood, loss and deprivation. “It gained Ihrne nothing.”
He lost his title, his crown, his heartbeat, his future.
For what? Death?
Thereva, commander of soldiers and forced co-conspirator in Paide’s useless idealism, nods at him … but her lips press, colourless, into a thin line.
“Lovelessness is a byword for hatred, horror and cruelty. But my family’s love is nothing but horror and cruelty. Our love justifies anything that follows, no matter how questionable, how wrong. Why isn’t it better to be loveless?”
Thereva’s brow furrows. She speaks with care, but it may mean anything; Paide has never found her easy to read. “My understanding … my understanding is that isn’t real love. False love, hate masquerading as love.”
Paide remembers too late her family: kin accepting of her womanhood if she denies herself expression, affection and connection.
If that’s what the world names love, why value it?
“Too many people too often call abuse ‘love’ for me to think it a false reckoning,” he says slowly. “What if it’s meant to justify what should be incomprehensible? Not a flaw, but a feature? Love didn’t shelter my brother from us. Is love, then, what’s required to craft kindness or governance? To rule? To protect?”
Her lips part, soundless, before she shakes her head. “I can’t say, truly, that it is.”
“I need acceptance more than love, Thereva Asigne. So does my brother.”
She sits, statuesque if not for the rise and fall of her chest, before reaching across the table, glancing at his hand. He nods; she closes her fingers about his. “Accept, then.”
Her faith, he thinks, empowers him more than a kingdom of love.
Paide ein Iteme, loveless prince-regent of Ihrne. It doesn’t sound like a tragedy this side of war, not when love failed to provide safety and sanity in his current shape of life. It sounds like a beginning, a renewal.
It sounds like hope.
He nods at the board. “New game?”