Love in the House of the Ravens – Part Three

Cartoon-style illustration of shrubs, roses and grasses growing against a grey stone wall. Scene is overlaid with the dark green/light green/white/yellow/gold stripes of the allo-aro pride flag. The text Marchverse sits across the image in a white, fantasy-style type.

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.

Content Advisory: Descriptions of fantasy violence, wounds, bullying, the way neuronormative behaviours can enable bullying, and blood magic.

Length: 1, 010 words.

Links: Beginning | Previous | Next

Maybe he should have left this for another day. Tomorrow, overmorrow, next week. Never.

Mair turns and stops just before the first door on the left side of the landing. “Please let me see your arm.”

Too tired to argue, Darius pushes up his left shirtsleeve. Five shallow cuts mark his left forearm just below the elbow. The oldest scab peels to bare the new skin underneath, an itchy trial at which he can’t stop picking. The newest stings, red and swollen but nothing excessive.

He can still smell the tang of tea tree oil underneath sweat and horse.

The Master of the school took the boy, beaten by his fellow students, and gave him to a blood witch; Eren Adalet showed Darius how to make his wounds serve a purpose not a bully’s gratification. Blood now trickles over brown skin on his request, a sacrifice made to the Sojourner for a certain, stable power. One better than the way script magic freezes on his unspeaking lips and jerking hands; one that works regardless of Darius’s shifting ability to communicate. A sacrifice, this time, to halt the spilling of more blood.

It doesn’t seem an unreasonable bargain to him.

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 come and talk to you after you’ve bathed.”

The arrival of one of the house girls in grey trousers and tunic from the other end of the hallway, lugging two buckets of steaming water, saves Darius from responding. Mair knocks thrice before opening the door—the girl bows her head and pushes past them—and Darius follows, giddy, unable to hold back a shaking sigh.

Safe. In this room, after weeks on the road, he’s safe.

The bed sits aligned with one rough-plastered wall, with two armchairs and a table on the other side. The windowseat looks down on the street where Akash likes to watch passersby in the afternoons, the window now shuttered. The girl heads behind a lacquered black screen, partially shrouding a tin bath. No glinting flashes of gold or bright colours here hurt him; the room offers only the quiet and easing plainness of brown leather, white linens and wooden furnishings. 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 the girl starts pouring.

“Dari! You said you’ll be back three days ago!”

Two beaming figures duck out from behind a second screen into what Darius has considers the “public” part of the room. He supposes that a ready smile must be part of the work, but he always wonders, if those smiles are like the good suit one wears to an appointment or celebration, what lies underneath and why Akash and Ila still smile at him. How does anyone know the difference between what’s sincere and what’s professional when they both look alike?

His worst tormentor, the Bully, smiles as though that night never happened: no slurs, no broken bones, no wounds. Most of his fellow students and mercenaries offer Darius kind pleasantries; only when they are alone, no clients or teachers to witness, do their expressions and words abandon geniality. Darius learnt the hard way, in his first year as a student, that friendliness two days after his beating isn’t apology or regret. It’s a lie meant to break him further in its pretence that violence wasn’t intended, the world remade so that Darius becomes overwrought and irrational in his regard of it. It’s a game so weighted against his victory that Darius will be judged and diminished no matter how he plays: their smile makes unreal his memories.

Expressions, to him, are convenient ways for people to avoid committing their dishonesty to words. He knows it’s a habit in Akash and Ila, that their actions prove their affection, but, shades, he wishes they wouldn’t smile!

“Dari?” Ila stops a few paces away, trailing one lean hand over the screen. 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, most often dappled with mica powders, catches the witchlights as ze moves, while hir shift, plain black like the rest of the House, stops short above legs almost as tall as Darius himself. Beautiful isn’t quite the word, although he finds hir that. Ila has presence, a confidence that lies not in appearance or physique but happens to be accompanied by litheness. “Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Darius blinks, unsure: he knows that tone invites an explanation, but when he’s this far into tiredness it’s harder to decide what to say and speak so that he’s understood.

Maybe he should have left this for another day. Tomorrow, overmorrow, next week. Never.

“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. His god blessed him with full lips now 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—embroidered with ravens at the hem by his own hand. “Is it just the work? Or the people you’re working for?”

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.”

The girl nods, takes her buckets and closes the door behind her and Mair.

“What are you wanting?” Ila folds, moves and opens the smaller screen so it sits between the bath and the door while shrouding Darius’s chair from the doorway. “Just words? Did something happen?”

He first counts backwards from eighty-four by sevens, but it does little to 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.

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