Four months ago, Kit March abandoned his fiancé without even a note of explanation for a deserving man.
Leaving Lauri should have freed him from the pressures of romantic expectation, so how does a talented magician end up performing flash magic for buttons and hairpins in Raugue’s worst tavern? Kit doesn’t know and doesn’t care, as long as he can keep drowning guilt in beer and spellworking. As long as he can keep not thinking.
When a stranger offers the word “aromantic” followed by an opportunity to join a dangerous quest to the Gast, Kit may have more distraction than he can survive—and more comprehension than he can navigate.
A drowning man doesn’t drown because the water creeps up on him by degrees, so why can’t Kit make himself search out something better?
Contains: A transgender, allo-aro, gay, autistic man riddled with guilt for fleeing his fiancé; an aro-ace man offering the gift of language; and the prospect of a journey to a place that will forever change Kit and his new companion.
Setting: Marchverse, some months after Ringbound. Please note that this story contains spoilers for the in-progress Esher Hill novella A Quest of Spheres and Phalanges.
Content Advisory: Please expect depictions of or references to amatonormativity, allosexism, cissexism, heterosexism, depression, autistic-targeted ableism, alcohol and alcohol used as a coping mechanism for depression. There’s also several non-explicit sex references, Kit’s use of sex as another coping mechanism, some casual references to and depictions of violence, and a heaping mountain of guilt.
Length: 4, 302 words (part one of two).
Note: This is a reworked edition of an older story and is best read following Ringbound.
Kit March learnt long ago that the taproom is the closest thing to Astreuch hell, and the Creaking Door offers no exception. He fights to keep his smile as he drops his hands, as the last floating flower descends to the floor, as the crowd becomes individual faces to watch and judge, as the drag threatens to steal his footing. “That’s it for tonight, lovelies!” He kicks his upturned bowler, since a broke man can be none too subtle when performing for a drinking crowd. “All gratuities gratefully accepted! My thanks for your enthusiasm, and I wish you all a good evening!”
He turns to the rough bench atop the step that has become his stage and snatches up a roll stuffed with cheese, not caring if anyone objects to a man bowing and chewing at the same time. Magicians, as a rule, pass out on grubby floorboards too often to oblige food-related annoyances like “manners” and “social niceties”. Besides, the Crooked Door’s punters aren’t known for their commitment to decorum!
Neither are they known for largess when it comes to paying entertainers: only a few clinking sounds echo from his hat.
Buttons, most likely.
Kit sighs, sinks onto a chair and chokes down the rest of his roll. Elizabet’s bouncer looms over the table, a presence of hulking muscles and more sharp points than the average pin cushion. While a few voices shout for more, none approach him. The regulars know that Kit doesn’t talk to people after the show, and his guard discourages everyone else. Nobody stops him from inhaling the cold food on his waiting plate—another roll, a congealing beef stew, a mound of greyish potato—and gulping a beer to finish.
The sores inside his cheeks sting on contact with food and liquid alike, but Kit waves his hand at a server for more.
Free from the distraction of performing tricks for a crowd, it’s harder to forget what—whom—he left in Malvade. He knows he’s better to take those moments for himself before allowing conversation, that he can’t readily shift from performance to talk the way other folks can, but space gives him too much time to ponder. To remember. Kit exhales, trying to focus on anything else, but, as always, the taproom doesn’t distract so much as torture.
First lurks the noxious mingling of sweat, perfume, wine and spilled beer, the reek seeping up from the floorboards as though no amount of soap and scrubbing will convince the wood to release its memory. His meal, prepared and cooked by someone indifferent to the art, does nothing to ease his nose: if one must consume it, they’re better to do so quickly.
Second rings a riotous chorus: stamping feet, conversations spoken in words that grow louder as the crowd grows drunker, the metallic plucking of an untuned lute as Elizabet’s musician takes to the step, a knot of knackers in the corner howling the names of their favourite folk songs. The sound crests and ebbs like waves crashing onto Malvade’s beaches, softening just enough to give Kit hope before smashing against his ears.
Third and worst, though, is the constant flashing and flickering of cloaks, hair and hands. For this, Kit has no sense-dampening spells; he can only take the inside of his cheek between his teeth, grinding soft, swollen knots of flesh with hard molars. The flash of colour from a swirled skirt or the unceasing tapping of a woman’s ringed fingers against a neighbouring table, seen out of the corner of his eyes, feel like a stabbing knife to the mind. Nowhere, in this room of end-day gossip and frivolity, can Kit find his easing, needed stillness.
Sometimes, when he’s tired or overwhelmed, watching another person breathe is more than he can bear. Sometimes watching his own chest rise and fall, or the pulse beating in his wrist as he writes, is more than he can bear, because Kit forever drowns within a seething, writhing, restless world.
On the job, he pours his energy and focus into his spellwork, finding survival in distraction. Off the job, he has no ideal answers. Most people have a limit on the noise they can bear and find some scents objectionable, but the beringed woman does nothing abnormal. They can’t understand, can’t contextualise—can’t respond to a request that they stop moving save with indignant, offended fury.
Since drink offers the only practical, actionable solution, Kit looks to the bar and waves again. A girl swishes over with a jug, topping up the mug. In return for entertaining Elizabet’s drinking punters, Kit earns board and bread and beer, keeping whatever coins his audience deigns to throw him. He nods his thanks, decides the crowd done with their gratuities and hooks the hat with his ankle for examination. One chip, three copper clips, two hairpins and six buttons of assorted sizes and colours, none matching.
“So grateful,” he mutters under his breath, slamming down half the mug. The rest slops over his fingers and the table; Kit curses and wipes his hand on his coat. It isn’t good beer, but at least Elizabet doesn’t water down her magician’s drink. Best not to waste it. “Hark at Astreut’s famed generosity, all! The fabled city welcoming the wandering and lost!”
He can find work somewhere else—somewhere quieter, somewhere warmer, somewhere possessed of people able and willing to pay a magician his worth. Somewhere not Astreut; somewhere south. Why not?
He’ll need to buy another horse, a coat, a blanket, a…
Just the thought exhausts him, so Kit tucks his earnings into his pocket and sits the bowler on his table. What best, tonight? Does he wait to see if an interesting man comes late to drink or does he call for another beer in search of the right amount of alcohol to settle his thoughts without groaning on the morrow? He hasn’t yet mastered the latter, but nobody learns anything without willingness to risk error and great deal of practice. He’ll figure it out. Eventually. With practice.
“Can I have a word, mate?”
A gangling, leggy figure approaches his corner table, a copper sunburst pin in the Eastern style for designating masculinity fastened to the collar of a long sheepskin-lined oilskin. A second pin sits beside the first, a larger piece shaped like a horseshoe cradling a leaf. Guild marker, perhaps? At first Kit thinks the stranger a swordsman, for he wears a short, curved blade and a knife too long for fruit at his hip, but then Kit notes the brown breeches lined with suede and the split skirt of his coat. His cuffs, collar and red check shirt are clean and well-mended for this end of town, and he wears his sleeves wide and long, reaching past the knuckle to bare only the fingers of his leather gloves. The sleeves of his coat are darker and newer than the rest, as if taken from another garment; maybe they weren’t long enough for his arms?
Unlike most travellers and wanderers in Astreut, he wears no hat, baring straight, sable hair pulled back in a short tail. He isn’t pretty, Kit admits. A white-faded scar—bared by patchy stubble—pulls at his bottom lip, his limbs are too long for his torso and weather has coarsened his skin. Good enough, though: honey speckles his hazel eyes and he leans against the table with an easy grace. Perhaps—
Only then does Kit notice the dogs.
A massive grey wolfhound, wire-haired, long-nosed and slender, leans against the man’s leg, its withers as tall as Kit’s table. How does it move in the taproom without crashing into chairs or servers? The other, a sensibly-sized black and white herder, rests in a low crouch at the man’s feet, its feathery tail wagging. A mercenary or adventurer wanting a last night before crossing the range, perhaps? Kit shapes his best smile, waves a hand at the watching bouncer and points to the chair opposite his. “How may I help you, sir?”
Kit’s Greenstone accent and shift body mean that he’s regularly approached by men who want men free of restrictive Astreuch notions about acceptable bed partners. Sometimes, less pleasantly, men see in him a sought-after combination of desired masculinity housed in a body they can misgender as female—a convoluted attempt at justification that few but the Astreuch regard as reasonable. While Elizabet’s floors and rafters betray her inability to recognise a broom’s function, she and her bouncers offer a shift man and everyone else under her roof some safety—decent enough for Raugue. Most folk leave their morality at the eponymous door, and if some can’t, a broken skull soon educates one on the importance of concealing their disapproval.
A man distracts Kit in ways beer can’t … and the bottle kept up in his room solves inconvenient attacks of morning-after, Lauri-related guilt.
His companion turns the chair so the railed back faces the table and sits astride in a smooth movement, his right hand resting on his lap and the left on the table. The wolfhound leans against his side; the sheepdog slips underneath the chair. His eyes look over the top of Kit’s head and stay there, paying no mind to the room. Odd. Kit smiles and waits, only his hope of company inducing him to silence long-held opinions on the kind of men who sit backwards on chairs.
The Crooked Door, alas, attracts more than a few.
“About the flash. I’ve a crew into the Crackenbush. I need a witch or word hag.” The man speaks in an accent mingling lilted vowels with a slight Malvadan drawl, his words clear and deliberate.
“A job?” Kit fishes the largest button from his pocket, running it between his fingers. At the Crooked Door, he performs the showman trickery that welcomes him to most public houses: flowers, lights, levitation, sparkles, changing colours. Magic stripped of danger, complexity and capability for others’ entertainment and amusement, as if someone like him can’t be, and shouldn’t be, capable of anything more. He shapes his words at the behest of non-magical folks who howl at his mistakes, the unknowable eldritch stripped of its majesty. “I’m not that,” he says, testing, wondering. Most adventurers and wanderers know enough of magic to avoid propositioning Kit March, public house entertainer. “I’m a jongleur.”
Never yet has anyone observed the difficulty in juggling kittens, in his surrounding said animals with a bubble of unmoving space to avoid jostling. Nor has anyone noticed that Kit’s mistakes aren’t accidental: people don’t fear a magician who is competent but not gifted at his craft. Flawed ordinariness doesn’t solve the problem of buttons in his pocket but does ensure Kit’s safety in Raugue’s narrow streets. He isn’t someone able to threaten, challenge or empower. He isn’t the confusing aberration of a divergent magic worker who possesses more power or ability than the similar-minded.
There’s only so many shapes of different that folk can accept in a man.
“I saw you witch the beer. I saw you flub the catch but mouth a spell to keep the glass from smashing. You’re more than just flash.” The horseman grunts, his voice low enough that even the bouncer may not overhear. He doesn’t merge and mush his vowels like Lauri, but his words bear a slow cautiousness, as though buying time to think before allowing each syllable to slip from his tongue. “I don’t think much of the kittens. How can you do that?”
Kit exhales, alarm at the observation warring with pride at the compliment. There’s nothing subtle in how he now moves the button, but the man pays Kit’s face and hands no attention—no obvious attention. “I’ve worked with Elizabet’s cats each night. They don’t complain when getting extra meat after.”
“It’s cruel.” The stranger grunts louder. “But you’re quick with the words and I need a word hag.”
When he’s levitating ten glasses of beer before a clapping audience, Kit feels nothing not the thrill of performing for an enthusiastic crowd. No inconvenient memories, no wondering what Lauri may be doing or feeling. No quiet, soul-aching moments when Kit realises that he abandoned a man who cares about him without even a one-sentence note of explanation. No facing the bitter, terrible truth that what Kit once thought of as freedom has left him broke and idling in the dregs of Raugue, casting flash and trickery in return for a hard bed and cold meals. No weighty doubt, no bone-deep misery, no guilt, no confusion.
He’s a man who exists on stage, liberated from the wreck of the rest of his life.
He’s a man who knows that temporary escape will never be enough.
Kit shudders, running the toe of his boot over one of the man’s legs. The man isn’t pretty, but he’ll do for distraction if he leaves his dogs in the hallway. “Flash is my work. I suppose it depends what kind of magic you need? Wards? Protection spells?” He hesitates, boot stroking calf, for nobody stares under the table to watch what he does with his feet. “Perhaps you should explain to me what you want upstairs, away from the noise?”
Speaking in hints still feels like peddling deception, but while the Crooked Door offers a comparative paradise, even Kit doesn’t proposition a man in ways other people can’t misinterpret.
The swordsman jerks his chair backwards, the legs shrieking as they scrape over the floor. “No. I don’t do that.” He stands, his brow and lips twisted into a terrific scowl, as one of the servers—staring at the wolfhound—stops to top up Kit’s mug on his way to a table by the door. “Good luck with the work. Stop juggling the poor cats.”
Kit stares, gaping.
How can anyone not Astreuch react that way? Why? Is it Kit’s hands? Something he said? Why … no, it doesn’t matter. He won’t go upstairs alone now that he’s decided to seek companionship. He just needs to wait, glance at someone promising, talk a little. Easy. Kit doesn’t claim mastery over social interaction, but a broad smile, feigned cheerfulness and a flirtatious willingness go a fair way to smooth the cracks provoked by his divergence. Picking up men for his bed is one of the few non-magical things at which Kit considers himself good. One refusal doesn’t change that.
Perhaps it’s the drag, perhaps it’s the awful food, perhaps it’s the rejection, perhaps it’s the stranger’s accent reminding him of Lauri and perhaps it’s four months of devouring guilt, for Kit leans forwards, rests his forehead on the table and weeps.
Even as he starts, shaking, he wants to stop. People must be staring, the regulars and the servers and Elizabet—none of whom will ask, all of whom will judge. One thing to sob in his room, in those odd, uncomfortable moments endured between tipsiness and drunkenness; another to perform tomorrow knowing tonight’s punters saw him blubber! What chance does Kit have of finding a night’s companionship if they think him just a crying drunk?
His spine crawls as though their eyes bore through his clothing, but Kit, gasping under the onslaught of crushing sadness, can’t make himself sit up, never mind stop.
The floorboards creak. A long, lean hand closes about Kit’s right shoulder. “Outside. Not upstairs. Come.”
He doesn’t understand; he doesn’t care. Kit gulps and pushes himself up from the table, stumbling. He isn’t drunk, because can think, he can count the items on the table, he can’t stop thinking. Kit’s feet, however, possess a giddying inability to move where he thinks he means to place them; the legs of tables, chairs and one enormous dog feel like a tangle of traps waiting to snap closed. Just dizziness, he decides: from crying, from the drag even though he ate. Isn’t the drag why he’s crying? Isn’t this only the moodiness and instability that comes from too much magic worked in too short a time?
His body contains energy like a volcano contains magma, words the tools with which Kit accesses, manipulates and directs such power. Word magic requires less mystery and more mathematics in its working than people imagine; even the most practiced of magicians can fail to accurately estimate, tally and replace the sugars consumed in spellcasting. What mind works well when deprived of fuel?
He isn’t drunk, so Kit reaches for his mug.
The stranger pulls him up off the chair, huffing slightly, before Kit’s fingers close around the handle. “Leave it. Outside. Now.”
His button skids off the table and vanishes into the crack between the dirty boards underfoot.
He doesn’t mean to lean against the swordsman, but Kit’s feet and knees lack steadiness—just the drag—and the stranger smells good. Metal polish, leather, lavender, stinging tea-tree, horse and greasy lanolin blur into something clean and outdoorsy. Natural. Homely. Nothing like Lauri and his merchant blend of expensive oils, ink, paper and idle evenings—once exciting and thrilling when compared to Kit’s familiar worlds of Grandmother, Amelia and country. Nothing like Lauri.
Tears roll down Kit’s face, soaking into the collar of his shirt.
Reality hits him with an unwanted, stomach-churning clarity: when did he last wash said shirt … or his coat? Even the absurd fear of smelling like a pub, however, isn’t enough to strengthen his knees, to let Kit push himself up and away from the man guiding him through the bewildering leg-maze of tables, chairs and patrons. Even knowing what people think when a man leans against another in public view can’t make Kit stand—and if the swordsman allows this intimacy without heed for the Astreuch and their cursed ability to read suggestion into anything, why did he push Kit away?
He sniffs, his right arm pressed into the horseman’s chest, the left flapping.
Two dogs trail them out of the taproom.
Outside, the night free of the bitter, sour warmth generated by fire and body, he shivers. No salt, no seaweed, no harbour; inland, Astreut looks on the Stormcoast’s gulf ports with seething envy. Instead, Kit breathes a perfume of piss, manure, cattle and a ghost of eucalyptus, the stars obscured by Raugue’s countless burning chimneys. The road outside the Creaking Door leads to Arsh, Ihrne and the foothills of the Crackenbush; the cattle market and slaughterhouses sit across the way, conveniently located for traders, merchants, stockmen and mercenaries—and locals who don’t have the means to live in a less pungent location.
Raugue isn’t grand, for all that Astreut tells stories of wandering saints and the city’s largest church in an attempt to burnish shingled roofs with sacred resonance. It’s a crossroads, a tired offcomer settlement grown up around inland trade routes, a place of dour practicality and restriction masquerading as civilisation. It’s a sprawling, smoky city of human-wrought artifice that, having consumed the green wealth of Raugue’s cradling valley, now turns to devour the bush-shrouded foothills.
Bad country for a man called by Crow.
Good country for a man sundered of everything else.
“I don’t—” he murmurs, as his companion guides them across the yard towards the stable. “I don’t understand.”
The horseman guides Kit down off his chest with his left hand; Kit lands on a bale of rough, mouldy-sweet hay. That explains, he supposes, why it sits outside the stable. It doesn’t explain why the other man settles beside him, stretching his long legs over the straw-strewn cobblestones. Lights shine onto the street and from the Crooked Door’s windows, but this corner—beside the stable and away from the backhouse—provides as much late-evening quiet as is possible in this corner of Raugue. Music echoes from inside and horses rustle behind him, while a green witchlight hangs from the eaves, but compared to the taproom, he sits in an dim, blissfully still silence.
Dark’s smoothing shadows makes the breaths of dogs and men so much easier for Kit to stop noticing.
“Esher. Esher Hill. He. Some folks call me Esh.” He points first to the herder lying across his lap and then to the wolfhound, settling itself down beside his legs, a lean head resting atop a crossed boot. “Berta. She. The pony dog’s Bill, he. Berta, greet. You?”
Berta bounds into a sitting position and offers Kit her paw, her dark eyes fixed on his face and her feathery tail smacking into Esher’s ribs and the stable wall.
Kit, amused and confused, reaches out to shake Berta’s warm, silky paw. She lowers her nose to sniff his hand, licks his thumb and, once he releases her, settles back on Esher’s lap. Her master croons something inaudible and gives her a soft slap on the flanks, her left side an uneven blotch of black over rump and part of her ribs. Even as Kit watches, she rolls to bare part of her belly, and Esher promptly scrubs his fingers through her thick coat.
They put him in mind of his cousin Amelia, a woman never to be found without at least one cat. An animal she’ll never stop complaining about, even though Amelia looks most at ease when sitting or sleeping with something furry spread out over her skirts or quilt.
Esher Hill seems cut from the same cloth.
“Kit March. He. Kit, usually.” Once he went by Christopher, until Grandmother found him sleeping too often by the kitchen fire, but a shroudname can and should change as often as required. Christopher sounds too long and unwieldy for a man most kindly described as “short”, anyway! “I don’t have dogs. My cousin always has a cat, but I’ve never ended up with an animal.” He hesitates, thinking that Amelia warms most to Kit after he says something complimentary about her feline companions, even though he sees them, at best, as beclawed demons. “Berta seems clever.”
“She’s smarter than most people. Probably smarter than you.” Esher smiles down at the herder, working his left hand over her belly and flanks in slow, steady strokes.
Kit waits, but Esher offers no following question or repartee, seemingly engrossed in his dog. He doesn’t look Kit in the face, so odd a courtesy from a stranger, so shouldn’t he realise the difficulty in a conversational partner’s responding to such a flat, finite comment? Kit wipes his eyes with his sleeve, bewildered. Esher all but dragged Kit out here without indication of intent, so why must he direct the conversation?
He draws a deep breath and tips his head back against the wall, shivering. Despite the fragrance emanating from the backhouse and the cattle yards, the autumn-sharp night leaves him a little less giddy, a little closer to alert. Far less overwhelmed. Should he head back inside, slink upstairs, send down for another meal, go to bed and forget this cursed night? Do his best to worry about tomorrow—well, tomorrow?
“That the Green in your voice?”
He jumps, breathes, nods. Esher uses the offcomers’ name, but since they have no right to know truenames, Kit provides no correction. “Yes. Born and raised in Greenstone. Now here, through some fluke of fate.”
“Dead Horse Hill. Between Malvade, the Wold and Astreut. Northern edge of the Great Southern Plain.”
“Never heard of it,” Kit says for want of anything else: Esher doesn’t make for easy small talk! “You don’t drawl as badly as a Malvadan.”
“No.” Esher keeps his silence for another agonising moment.
Kit, with nothing else to think about and too many things he’d rather avoid acknowledging, chews on the inside of his cheek and wonders why Esher sits so close, thigh brushing thigh. People baffle in their behaviour, but Kit has learnt to view them in terms of rules, nonsensical but nonetheless possessed of an illogical consistency. If he strips rationality from the equation, he can parse, with reasonable accuracy, what people mean by what they do. Esher, though? He doesn’t act or talk like a man set on seduction, so why allow something so similar to that which he before objected?
“Why are you trying to … bury something away, I think? Because … it doesn’t work.”
Kit leans away from Esher, angrier at himself, at being someone to whom one asks such a thing, than at the question. “If you don’t want me, why do you care? What makes you think you can go up to a stranger and ask that?”
He should stand, walk away, depart. Instead, Kit rubs his hands over his forearms until the fabric’s texture changes from greasy worsted to something lumpy and crusty. Old stew, perhaps? He scratches it off, shuddering. While he’s scraped together some coin, the season turns fast towards winter and buttons won’t buy a good cloak. Wasn’t he going to buy himself a coat and anything else he needed? He left Malvade with a purse and a new horse … only to find himself at the Crooked Door, his horse lamed and his purse empty, his feet so mired in Raugue’s sucking dregs that he can’t even leave an annoying stranger!
A drowning man doesn’t drown because the water creeps up on him by degrees, so why can’t Kit make himself search out something better?
“Easy.” Esher speaks in a soft, breathy exhalation. “I’m singular, not heartless. I’m not interested in you or anyone, but I won’t ignore a crying man. Decency doesn’t just come with interest.”
The last word holds the bitter stress of long-ago or oft-repeated wounds, but Kit stares, his annoyance fading in the wake of such an odd, unexpected comment. Singular?
Confusion must show on his face, for Esher repeats himself: “I’m singular. And if you’re crying because I said no, there’s something wrong.”
Kit fights to find his voice, his throat oddly taut. “Singular? What do you mean by it?”
Keep reading: Absence of Language, Part Two.