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.
Content Advisory: Descriptions of fantasy violence, wounds and blood magic along with an exceedingly obvious metaphor for real-world capitalism.
Length: 879 words.
Akash and Ila feel more like equals despite his awkwardnesses, less frighteningly parental in their provision of explanation
“Again?” Mair pauses; Darius, his knee throbbing, tries not to grit his teeth. “They’re working, but not yet engaged.” She smiles before glancing down the hallway in search of a target. “Lia! Water to Ila’s room, and tell them that Dari wants them tonight. Have you eaten?”
He sighs in relief, reaching into the hip pocket of his trousers. He cut a slit behind the seam, leading into a second pocket held tight against Darius’s calf by a tall pair of stockings. Security, alas, requires his tweezering his fingers around the topmost coin before awkwardly tossing it at Mair. “Thank you. I hope they don’t, uh, mind—”
She catches his wide throw with a one-handed finesse he doesn’t possess on a good day. “A meal, too. Move, Lia.” Mair turns back towards Darius, her fingers curling inwards to beckon, her brown eyes cast downwards. “If you prefer to talk to me, I’m not expecting company in better need of my time.”
Like most of the Ravens, she does him the kindness of not looking him in the face. Only sometimes does Mair appear as though creeping up on a nervous animal, but Darius still feels akin to a flighty foal—a child needful of something for which others don’t require or concern themselves.
Not even a year of working as a mercenary leaves him feeling sufficiently adult.
He drops the saddlebag containing the belt onto the closest bench. “Leave this one down here. Please?”
Nobody will steal the bag, even if left unattended: Darius copied his ward spells from those protecting a dragon’s hoard. Besides, sensible people won’t steal the belt, a verbose entity with no resale value and a grave capacity for annoyance—but they may be tempted by a bewitched cloak and his favourite embroidery scissors.
Mair nods, repeating the finger curl until Darius follows her into the hallway. Dim strings of witchlights and gauzy curtains shroud the tiled walls. “Would you rather talk with me?”
The musician closes the door and resumes a droning, elegiac tune undercut by the belt’s quiet whistle.
He breathes long and slow, considering. Mair has helped him more than he had reason to imagine when the Master of the school first sent him to fix their friend’s lighting spells, but talking to her feels too leaden with memories and seriousness. Useful and needed, sometimes, but difficult. Akash and Ila feel more like equals despite his awkwardnesses, less frighteningly parental in their provision of explanation.
He flaps his left hand: no.
“I notice you’re alone today.”
He nods as they pass a trio of workers on their way to the salon. Mair observes everything, but it isn’t hard to mark the absence of the belt he wears thrice-wrapped over his shirt or tunic. A belt now occupying a canvas drawstring bag wrapped inside a second shirt, shoved in the middle of his saddlebag and left where Darius hopes his shroud spells and the Ravens’ musicians keep it from overhearing—or, at least, interfering. The belt, a verbose eldritch entity who claimed him seven years ago, grudgingly consented to this from their long association and Darius’s name-sworn promise to never again cheap out on polish, but it surely will pay him out later.
While the belt excels as a tutor of swordsmanship and history, for an ageless strip of sapient leather, it knows less than it presumes about human relationships … a fact never keeping it from airing unwanted opinions on Darius’s sexual experiences.
“What happened?” Mair waves him towards the stairs. Her eyes track his limp as he passes wrought-iron brackets and trailing nets holding witchlights of his own spelling. “Cut, slash, shot, puncture wound or burn?”
A smiling man of middle years bounces down the steps; Darius, biting his lip against a groan, waits until he passes before speaking. “Stab. I was trying to flash the attackers on the other side of the wagons. I … uh, didn’t see him come close to my horse.” He stops at the top step and leans against the wall, the ache in his leg fierce enough to unsettle his voice. “His stabbing a blood witch was better for me. I got him stopped … after that.”
It’s just a wound, deep enough to make a mess, not deep enough to kill or maim. Inconvenient, not like witnessing, again, how much nix seed outvalues human life. The wealthy treat their goods’ guards as expendable, a truth worsened by the knowledge that Arvel, for all his crimes of disregard, gains little himself from the seed’s safe arrival. He owns scars and nightmares; he will again risk his life on the same tired quest. Only the Twenty Princes and the Greensward, orchestrators of scarcity, sleep ignorant of bleeding mules and bitter eulogies whispered over trackside graves. Only elves and nobles escape the pain provoked by a medicinal seed so rare that the desperate and predatory alike risk attacks on caravans wending their way through the Kara.
Sometimes Darius fears something wrong in him, something twisted and damaged beyond repair, when he aches most for stories untold and words unsaid, not his or his companions’ wounds.
Sometimes he realises that endurance means shifting his focus to the small and petty, as irrational as this may make him.
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.