After seven years in Rajad, Darius has fallen out of love with the unattainable and avoided falling in love with the companionate. If he lives at arm’s length from passion, isn’t that better than risking the abuse his fellow mercenaries so eagerly deliver to an autistic who can’t quite fit in? But when the right person suggests a romantic relationship, “yes” still won’t grace his tongue, and Darius hasn’t the least idea why. He likes Harlow. Shouldn’t he want to love her?
The only thing he can do is turn to his old friends and rescuers, the Ravens. They have an answer if he can stumble his way through asking the question … but it may upend every truth Darius thinks he knows about himself.
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: 814 words.
I want to ask them about something with … people.
He should first report in. Word may have arrived, given Rajad’s fleet-winged gossip, that the caravan delivered intended goods to the warehouse and surplus brigands to the Fetchers; the Master must assume or guess the rest. Why not get this last horror over with? Instead, because the past weeks proved logic a fickle companion, Darius Liviu crosses Cutter Street four buildings short of the school. He limps, grunting, up the steps to the black-doored-and-awninged building 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 front door is shut, muffling the sounds of an oud strummed in the foyer.
Darius raps six times on the door, waiting as locks click and hinges creak.
“I’m sorry, we’re not—” The musician stops, sighing. Her lavender perfume, drifting into the street, doesn’t quite conceal the omnipresent reek of spilled wine, spices and urine. “Dari?”
Darius knocks weeks of dust off his boot heels, breathing hard against a moment of dizziness, and crosses the threshold, his saddlebags slung over one shoulder. The names of the Ravens’ musicians forever escape him, but they’re kind enough. “Um.” He leans against the doorframe, taking the weight off his right leg. “Are Akash and Ila, uh, working tonight?”
“You’re bleeding.” She shakes her head, raising 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.
I 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 to stain his last pair of untorn trousers. The streaks marking his sleeve, yes: Darius agreed to learn the magical art that provoked them, and he decided to slice a blade over his skin to work said craft, but that’s scarce but a few cuts. If he angles his arm, they aren’t visible. The rest, though? He didn’t ask to be the odd man cursed with the near-magical gift of provoking bullies’ aggression. He didn’t ask the Master to save Darius and his magic for dangerous jobs. He won that dubious, albeit better paid, advantage by surviving seven years of the mishaps and misadventures others forced upon him.
He chooses to stay at the school, perhaps, but is it truly a choice given his debts?
“I don’t like when you do the saying things by looking,” he says at length, drumming his fingers against his bags in frustration. “I can’t answer that as pithily.”
She raises bushy eyebrows. “Pithily?”
Mair saves him from echoing a thesaurus as she sweeps down the hallway, her head high. A black shift-like gown and a grey lace shawl knotted over her brown, muscular arms should make Darius think of prim, sharp-glanced aunts in storybooks … or his own family. Age, looks and lack of height, however, don’t soften the elegance of a woman who can hold court garbed in a hessian sack. She isn’t pretty; her features lack the evenness and delicacy Malvadans regard as desirable. The only reasonable explanation, Darius concludes, is that Mair desires people to find her compelling and the universe obliges. She surrounds herself with more-traditional shapes of beauty in her Ravens, but the plain, grey-haired woman with a touch of red scaling her cheeks and hands fears no contrast: she draws all eyes.
Never has Darius heard anyone suggest that she shouldn’t.
“Dari’s bleeding again,” the musician says as Mair’s glance leaps to Darius’s knee. “Again. Don’t make him remove his boots. He looked like he nearly fainted just scraping them off.”
The bench-lined foyer holds an array of wooden shelves and boxes scented with herbal sachets: storage for boots, shoes and sandals. Mair’s carpets and rugs—including the borrowing of the Master’s magician to embroider dirt-resistant spells into the edges and undersides—are too costly to let clients ruin them with street-soiled footwear. Or so she says when asked, but even Darius realises this as less about caution than the feel of the carpet underfoot, the deliberate discarding of external trappings.
The House of the Ravens invites one to abandon the outside.
“I didn’t faint,” Darius mutters, giddy enough for only token protest.
“What happened?” Mair’s bare feet sink into the red rug underfoot, as clean as the day Darius knotted the last thread, but she angles her eyes towards the street.
Darius shrugs. “Job. Are … Akash and Ila? Working?” He draws a breath, trying to remember the words of the sentence the way he rehearsed, trying to sound as though his sanity doesn’t hinge upon the answer. “I want to ask them about something with … people.”
Not people. Harlow.
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.