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, bullying, the way neuronormative behaviours can enable bullying, and blood magic.
Length: 1, 089 words.
Maybe he should have left this for another day. Tomorrow, overmorrow, next week. Never.
Mair halts before the first door on the left side of the landing. Her dress brushes against the gauze drape shrouding the terracotta-coloured wall, setting a chain of witchlights to flickering. “Let me see your arm.”
Too tired to argue, Darius pushes up his shirtsleeve. Five shallow cuts mark his forearm beneath the elbow. The oldest scab peels away from fresh skin, an itchy trial at which he can’t stop picking despite knowing better. The newest stings, red and swollen in that way of a raw wound.
The tang of tea tree oil lingers beneath the heavy reek of sweat and horse.
The Master of the school took a boy beaten by his fellow students and gave him to a blood witch so that he may better protect himself. Instead, Eren Adalet taught Darius how to make his wounds serve a purpose not a bully’s gratification. Blood oft trickles over brown skin on his request, a knife-wrought sacrifice made to the Sojourner in return for power—and even when another forces such wounds upon him, he can draw magic just the same. When his unspeaking lips and jerking hands fail script magic, blood sacrifice provides eldritch force regardless of his shifting ability to communicate.
To Darius, it doesn’t seem an unreasonable bargain.
Mair nods. “And your leg?”
“It’s clean. It doesn’t hurt … more than it should.”
Her still face betrays neither doubt nor belief. “I’ll talk to you after you’ve bathed.”
The arrival of a house girl in grey trousers and tunic, lugging two buckets of steaming water, saves Darius from responding. Mair knocks thrice, waits for Akash’s shout and opens the door, standing back as the girl pushes past. Darius follows, unable to hold back a shaking sigh.
Safe. In this room, after weeks on the road, he’s safe.
The bed sits aligned with the hallway wall, two armchairs and a table positioned on the other side. A pillowed loveseat looks down upon the street so Akash can watch passersby in the afternoons, the window now shuttered. The girl heads behind a lacquered black screen, partially shrouding a tin bath. More gauzy curtains cover bare patches of rough-plastered wall, while sheepskin rugs, draping linen sheets and pillows in an assortment of wools and cottons distract from the plain, simple furnishing beneath. The wealthier patrons describe the Ravens’ interior as “cheap”, perhaps thinking this mere mimicry of the Twenty Princes’ beaded silks, but to Darius the gauze suggests a space outside of ordinary, an unnatural dreaminess impossible to confuse with the dusters and dishes of regular life.
The curtains also obscure scores of warding and silencing spells worked beneath the plaster’s topmost layer.
Darius drops his saddlebags and perches on the edge of the closest chair, working his fingertips over the armrest in search of its familiar creases, while Lia starts pouring.
“Dari! You said you’d be back three days ago!”
Two beaming figures duck out from behind a second screen into what Darius considers the “public” part of the room. He supposes that a ready smile must be part of the work, but he wonders, if such expressions are like the good suit one wears to an appointment or celebration, why Akash and Ila smile at him. Doesn’t friendship mean freedom from performance? But if they smile freely in welcome, how can he distinguish sincerity from professionalism?
His worst tormentor, the Bully, smiles as though that night of brutality never happened: no slurs, no broken bones, no bruises, no wounds. Darius’s fellow mercenary guards offer kind pleasantries, but they abandon all geniality when lacking clients as witness. He learnt the hard way, in his first year as a student, that friendliness two days after his beating isn’t an expression of apology or regret. Friendliness lies, breaking him further in its pretence of harm unintended, the world remade with Darius become overwrought and irrational—the cause, problem and justification in a game so weighted that he knows no route to fair victory.
Their smile makes unreal his memories, painting him as the monster for ignoring his tormentors’ public greetings and polite conversations.
What are expressions, so often, but ways for people to avoid committing to words their dishonesty?
“Dari?” Ila stops a few paces away, trailing one lean hand over the screen. “Are you okay?”
Ze looks at first glance a collection of slender planes, sharp edges and long bones, the effect heightened by hair cut to a scruff the length of Darius’s smallest fingernail. Hir mahogany skin, often dappled with blue and green mica powders, catches the witchlights as ze moves, while hir shift, plain black like the rest of the Ravens, stops short above legs almost as tall as Darius himself. Beautiful isn’t quite the word, although ze stirs want within him. Ila has presence, a comforting, ethereal confidence that lies not in appearance or physique but happens to be accompanied by litheness.
“Yes.” Darius lies unthinkingly—most askers don’t wish a true answer—before he blinks, reconsidering. Ila appreciates his honesty, but when he’s this far into tiredness he doesn’t know how to begin, never mind speak in ways that ensure understanding.
Maybe he should have left this for another day. Tomorrow, overmorrow, next week.
“A pen hag should be doing less bloody work!” Akash, his silky black mane tumbling down his back to halt at his knees, bounces toward the armchair. “Is it just the work? Or the people you’re working for?”
His god blessed him with full lips painted a muted silver, copper skin flushed with warmth, long eyelashes and a bold, vivacious energy. Powder in a pattern of bronze-green dragon-like scales frames his restless eyes. Everything about him curves from plump cheeks to broad calves and a chest only emphasised by the black sleeveless shift—one embroidered with ravens at the hem by his own hand. Akash’s rich lushness veers from the intoxicating to the overwhelming; never relaxing but always proud, arousing and all-encompassing.
Darius nods, shrugs, shakes his head.
“Damn!” Akash makes shooing motions at the house girl. “Go, Lia. Knock right this time when you’re bringing things.”
Lia nods, takes her empty buckets and closes the door behind her and Mair.
“What do you want?” Ila folds, moves and opens the smaller screen so it sits between the bath and the door, shrouding Darius’s chair from the doorway. “Just words? Did something happen?”
He counts backwards from eighty-four by sevens, but waiting doesn’t ease the catch in his thick, stumbling voice. “Asking. A question. About … about … romance.”
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.