After seven years in Rajad, Darius has fallen out of love with the unattainable and failed to fall in love with the companionate. When the right person offers a romantic relationship and he doesn’t understand why yes won’t grace his tongue, the only thing an autistic man can do is ask the Ravens–and hope he can survive the word they give him in return.
As it’s Autism Acceptance Month, I’m going to spend April posting installments of a fantasy novelette about the ways autism and ableism can shape, colour and complicate the experience of discovering aromantic identity. Readers should note that this is a sequel to Certain Eldritch Artefacts, but you only need know that the protagonist, an autistic magician, found a talking sword belt and allowed it to convince him into becoming a mercenary.
Content Advisory: Aside from references to various acts of violence and combat common in fantasy, this story includes references to or depictions of bullying, abuse, assault and ableism, as well as the way these things shape and impact the people who survive them. Please expect references to sexual attraction, non-explicit sex mentions, amatonormativity, physical intimacy, kissing and romance. The protagonist also practices blood magic in a way that intentionally echoes self-harm.
Length: 772 words.
I want to ask them about something with … people.
He should report in: if he’s lucky, it won’t take long to brief the Master and recommend against his hiring out with Arvel. They may already know, if word got back to the school that the caravan delivered its goods to the warehouse and brigands to the Fetchers. Instead, while praying that he can manage this with a minimum of conversation, Darius Liviu crosses Cutter Street four buildings short of the school, limping up the steps to the black-doored-and-awninged three-story house looming between an apothecary on one side and a coalition of notaries on the other. This time of day, that pleasant, mild space between spring’s late afternoon and early evening, the door opens on a woman of middling years, clad in plain trousers and shirt while strumming an oud.
She stops, sighing. “I’m sorry, we’re not—Dari?”
Darius knocks weeks of dust off his boot heels, struggling against a moment of dizziness inspired by the pain above his knee, and crosses the threshold, his saddlebags slung over one shoulder. He can’t remember the names of all the Ravens’ musicians, but they’re kind enough. “Um.” He leans against the doorframe, trying to take the weight off his right leg. “Are Akash and Ila, uh, working tonight?”
“You’re bleeding.” She shakes her head and raises her voice. “Mair! Guess who’s here bleeding on your doorstep! Guess!”
“Most of the time I’m not bleeding.”
Her pained look tells Darius that it doesn’t matter how many times he’s entered the brothel whole and hale: he’ll always be defined by the first time.
He didn’t choose that, he wants to say; he didn’t choose those first wounds any more than he chose the gash seeping through his bandages and staining his last pair of untorn trousers. The streaks marking his left shirt sleeve, yes, in the sense that Darius chose to learn the magical art that provoked them and chose to slice a blade over his skin in order to work said craft, but that’s scarce but a few cuts. If he angles his arm right, they’re not visible. The rest of it, though? He didn’t ask the Master to save Darius and his magic for the most dangerous jobs. He won that dubious, albeit better paid, advantage by surviving seven years of mishaps and misadventures forced upon him by others.
He chooses to stay at the school, he supposes, but where else can he go?
“I don’t like when you do the saying things by looking,” he says, drumming his fingers against the leather of his bags in his frustration. “I can’t answer that as pithily.”
She raises bushy eyebrows. “Pithily?”
Mair sweeps down the hallway, her head high. She wears a plain black shift-like gown and a grey lace shawl knotted over her bare, muscular brown arms, clothing Darius associates most with storybook images of prim aunts. Age, looks or lack of height do nothing to soften a sense of a woman who can hold court garbed in a hessian sack; Darius believes that Mair simply decided that people should find her compelling and ordered the universe to oblige. She surrounds herself with cultivated shapes of beauty in her employees, but the plain, grey-haired woman in the unadorned house draws all eyes, and never has Darius heard it said she shouldn’t.
“Dari’s bleeding again,” the musician says as Mair’s eyes leap straight to Darius’s knee. “Again. Don’t make him remove his boots. He looked like he nearly fainted just scraping them off.”
Wooden boxes are shelved under the benches in the foyer, storage for boots, shoes and sandals. Mair spent too much money on her carpets and rugs—including the borrowing of a magician to embroider dirt-resistant spells into the edges and undersides—to let her clients risk ruining them with street-soiled footwear. Or so she says when asked, but even Darius realises this isn’t about caution and more about the feel of the carpet underfoot, the deliberate discarding of external trappings.
The House of the Ravens invites one to revel in abandoning the outside.
“I didn’t faint,” Darius mutters, giddy enough that he can’t find the energy for more than a token protest.
“What happened?” Mair’s bare feet sink into the plush red rug underfoot, slightly worn here in the foyer yet still as clean as the day Darius knotted the last thread.
Darius shrugs. “Job. Are … Akash and Ila? Working?” He draws a breath, trying to remember the words of the sentence the way he practiced, trying to sound as though his sanity doesn’t hinge upon the answer. “I want to ask them about something with … people.”
K. A. Cook is an abrosexual, aromantic, genderless, autistic, queer adult who experiences chronic pain and mental illness. Ze writes creative non-fiction, personal essays and novels about the above on the philosophy that if the universe is going to make life interesting, ze may as well make interesting art. Ze can be found online at Queer Without Gender and @aroworlds.