Fiction: Absence of Language, Part Two

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.

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.

There’s a word for anything if you look long enough.

Contains: A transgender, allo-aro gay 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 does contain 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. This section contains depictions of non-romantic, non-sexual physical intimacy and depictions of desire for sex and love.

Length: 4, 483 words (part two of two).

Note: This is a reworked edition of an older story and is best read following Ringbound. Those who wish to know more about the circumstances of Esher’s quest should read Love is the Reckoning.

Esher frowns, his eyebrows thick atop a narrow face. Sharp bones crown hollowed cheeks, and it occurs to Kit that the layers of Esher’s coat, shirt and gloves lend him more bulk than he rightfully owns. “What it sounds like. Me. Alone.” He runs the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip. “I don’t mean entirely alone. I mean … that my dogs and horse, and my kin, and my friends … they’re enough. I mean that I don’t feel the pull for anything else. Nothing romantic. Not people intimately together. That’s what it is.” He gives a short, definite nod. “Berta, Bill and Bess are always enough.”

Kit’s hands don’t so much quiver as vibrate, even when he grasps his knees in a desperate attempt to hold them still. He draws a breath in the hope to even his voice, for never in his wildest imaginings did he anticipate this conversation. “There’s a word for that?”

Singular? It isn’t true to say that Kit holds no intimate interest in people. The concept, though, holds resonance enough to excite and frighten.

“There’s a word for anything if you look long enough.” Esher shakes his head as if baffled. “I know these words aren’t well known. I didn’t know them. But you’re a … you’re … educated, aren’t you?”

Even in the dull light of the yard, he doesn’t look directly at Kit’s face, shifting his gaze from various points over the top and to the side. Close enough to suggest an intent to look, or at least the interest conveyed with or expected from eye contact, without ever meeting Kit’s eyes.

At first he thought this kindness, odd because it betrays recognition, but now Kit wonders. Esher speaks with the stilted rigidity of a man who does so because it’s necessary, not desirable. The way his left hand never stops pushing, flattening and teasing Berta’s thick coat is, at best, a more-permissible variation on Kit’s button. On first glance, Esher may look little different to any other gruff mercenary, but Kit has seen too many pass through the Crooked Door to think himself wrong in this.

Divergent folk know their own, even when they hide its obvious facets in an unrelenting, similar-minded world.

“I am a magician. Learnt from books and everything. Grandmother had a library. She thought … I should find it useful to know offcomer magic, too.” Kit exhales, trying to calm the shake in his voice and ease the catch in his throat. “I left school after the first term. My teachers were philosophically disinclined to answer my questions.”

“You talk like…” Esher trails off, his eyelids flickering, his expression blank.

“I’m a magician,” Kit says carelessly. “We like language, even if we must learn it on our own. I just pretend that I’m certain on all the pronunciation.” He exhales, still feeling that he’s risking everything to ask the question … and then he laughs: a rough, spine-aching snort. Risking everything? What has he left to risk? “Is there a word—not an insult, a descriptor like gay or short—if you just want people for the bedding, the sex? And anything else isn’t right, even though it shouldn’t feel that way, because…”

Does a word exist for the fear and confusion that saw Kit leave a man who loved him, a man who planned to marry him, a man who deserves better than Kit’s unexplained rejection?

He’s always known, in the way rarely spoken outright but suggested in story and fable, that peace and happiness come from desiring someone in a way beyond sexual fidelity or commitment alone.

He’s always known, in the way rarely spoken outright but suggested in story and fable, that to be at a loss to do so makes him something indescribably, horrifyingly other.

“If you don’t want the romantic parts, that kind of closeness or the marriage that follows?” Kit sucks in a shaking, gasping breath. “If you’ve tried and you can’t…? You just want the sex and everything after that goes wrong, because that’s where everything feels wrong? Is there a word?

Kit doesn’t know how he ends up with his hands fisted in Esher’s coat, sobbing into his chest. Nor does Kit know why Esher rests his left arm around Kit’s shoulders as though content in such an embrace, save for that frustrated declaration of decency. Once the tears spill, nothing can hold them back; Kit isn’t sure he wants to. Never has he spoken such words aloud. Never has he held the shred of possibility that someone will listen to him voice something he knows to be awful and understand without condemnation or criticism. Never has he felt more than the suffocating fear that Kit’s lack leaves him void of qualities both natural and important.

Void of qualities profoundly, fundamentally human.

If he has a word, if this is a named experience like his sense of gender and the shape of his mind, maybe—just maybe—Kit isn’t a monster.

Well before Lauri, Kit liked men for time spent in clothes-off togetherness. Complications always exist in such a pursuit, especially in Astreut, but they never feel beyond his ability to comprehend if not navigate. Sex alone bears nothing of the incomprehensible terror that he must return a shape of connection and love he doesn’t feel, a shape a good man expects and deserves. It’s just sex! One colour of interest feels an ordinary part of Kit, the other an insurmountable mountain of air-stealing height—but when everyone else breathes without difficulty, why can’t he? What makes him so different that he can’t even pretend at courting and marriage, can’t accept those panic-inducing expectations of a lifetime’s love?

A stranger’s awkward words shatter a lie so common that he never stopped to question its falsehood.

“I’m sorry,” he rasps. “I just…”

“I know,” Esher murmurs, his throat and chest shifting as he speaks, “what it feels to … learn, suddenly, that someone else can name what you are. I know.” He breathes, a long exhalation brushing Kit’s neck and hair. “I don’t know ordinary words. I only know the academic ones from the … the priests, but how do I tell people I’m ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’? They don’t mean anything. When you can love as you want—outside of Astreut—and there’s all the different, ordinary names for the ways they know? I wanted that. So I took a word that sounds like what it means. Singular.” Esher shifts his left hand up onto Kit’s shoulder and upper arm, working his fingers over the fabric in slow, heavy strokes. “Maybe you just prefer ‘aromantic’, not experiencing romantic attraction? I don’t, either. And … I do, sometimes, feel sexual attraction, but not often, so I usually say ‘asexual’ to people for that, if I’m explaining everything. Easier that way.”

Kit’s teeth ache, his throat pulses and his head pounds, tears pouring from his eyes like rain on cracked saltpans.

Nothing in the world can make his mouth, just then, frame words.

For the first time in months, he feels possessed of hope.

“This it? The not knowing?”

Several punters leave the Crooked Door before Kit can slow his tears for long enough to stammer, but Esher doesn’t seem to care. He sits, Kit’s body nestled close, with one long left arm draped around his shoulder, Esher’s fingers rubbing Kit’s forearm through sleeve and glove. Berta creeps forwards to rest her warm, heavy head on Kit’s knee, as though mimicking her master’s embrace; even Kit can’t deny the pull of her dark eyes, dropping one hand to stroke her ears.

He weeps on a stranger and his dog, and Kit can’t find any good reason to stop.

Finally, his breath whistling through a blocked nose, Kit fumbles his way through his story. Lauri, a kind and decent man who gave Kit a ring and the promise of a future. Lauri, for whom Kit so desperately wanted to master the married, ringbonded life. Lauri, abandoned by Kit without apology or explanation. Lauri, subject to Kit’s confusion and cowardice by a lack of feeling for which he had no names beyond “cruel” and “heartless”.

“I told myself I was free,” he whispers, “and I end up here, like … like this.”

Esher, in his turn, doesn’t tell stories. He explains words, alternating between repeating memorised definitions and more halting, casual interpretations; at times he stops, raises his left hand and jerks it through the air before them, as if frustrated by something misstated or beyond his ability to enunciate. Aromantic. Asexual. Allosexual. Attraction. All outlined in his terse, deliberate voice, a scowl creasing his brow and pulling at his lip scar as he labours his way from one concept to the next.

His speech lacks gentleness, but Esher always returns his hand to Kit’s arm, his fingertips steady and gentle as he works them over shoulder and sleeve.

Kit knows himself a master of magic’s languages, able to wield, twist and manipulate the arcane subtleties conveyed with terms, phrases and even grammar. Esher reveals his possession of a language as arcane and as powerful: one concerned with identifying the ways humans feel, and don’t feel, about other humans—a language set on contextualising and encapsulating the unspoken rhythms of why people behave as they do.

Aromantic.

Allosexual.

Kit feels as entranced, as cursed with that overwhelming need to master something yet beyond his comprehension, as was his young boy-self when gifted Grandmother’s spell book.

He knows, as he knew on that first tantalising glimpse of the pages housing esoteric possibility, that he wants, needs, more.

“My sister is aromantic, just a different shape. She desires people romantically and sexually in the beginning, but that romantic love doesn’t last for her.” Esher’s exhalation is too long and slow to be anything but intentional, but the movements of his hand and fingers don’t falter. “My kin … I learnt that there’s a few relatives, dead now, who didn’t do attraction the way people think we’re supposed to. It’s just not talked about, yet, so we don’t know we’re not alone … that we exist, we’re here.”

Is it wrong to feel as though Kit loves this horseman stranger? He loves him, in an odd, dizzying way, for the gift of words more wondrous than any ring, house or husband. Loves a man who finds talking difficult and speaks as much through touch and closeness, yet gifts both to Kit despite knowing nothing of him. Loves, perhaps, a man who must have better things to do than spend a chill night outside, educating and reassuring a sobbing stranger?

Aromantic.

Allosexual.

Why Esher, though? Why didn’t anyone else offer this language as a potential option for how one may be human? With knowledge, Kit wouldn’t have hurt Lauri, wouldn’t have forced himself to pretend at something he can’t want, wouldn’t have denied his own needs. Why didn’t he hear this word spoken by teacher or elder before years spent waiting for alien feelings to bloom, before months spent fearing his own truth, before weeks spent floundering in a toxic mire of confusion, guilt and hate?

Why didn’t someone tell him that “adulthood” doesn’t have to mean “loving partnership” or “marriage”?

Grandmother gave him the words “divergent” and “shift” so long ago that Kit can’t recollect ignorance of either. She gave him stewardship over the sacred names Crow entrusted to their line of singers and tellers; she gave him the truenames, and the history embedded in those names, of the land and trees that midwifed his birth. While Kit later learnt the more academic “autistic” and “trans”, terms bearing a shroudname’s usefulness in navigating and educating offcomers, he did so inside the musty, paper-scented wondrousness of her library. Names spoken aloud, names scratched into the earth, names spoken only before crackling fires and beneath distant stars: Grandmother shared them all.

She, a woman of so many names, couldn’t break this absence of language.

“Where did you find this? Learn this? A school or university?”

Esher shakes his head. “I only went to our village school. No. I … I knew a priest. They were aromantic and made a study of it.” His hand slips down Kit’s arm to halt at his, gently prising Kit’s free from the shirt before straightening his fingers to loosen the tendons and muscle. “I suppose it’s my … I’m meant to share what I learnt.”

Kit bites back a groan at the release of unrealised stiffness, leaning against Esher’s shoulder. In that moment, more than for any man since Lauri, Kit yearns to reach up, to kiss the man holding him, to take him to bed, to find himself inside Esher’s skin—a deep, boiling need about discovery’s wonderment, not distraction’s desperation. So easy to turn his head, to stroke that stubbled jaw, to express a sudden craving for a man who not only treats Kit with gentleness but understands what he can’t offer. To express a craving for the first man with whom sex can be safely, non-romantically intimate.

How much courage does Esher need to state rules the world won’t cherish and offer intimacy as though his limitations will be unquestionably accepted, even with two watchful dogs? This generosity fits no rules that Kit knows of the world … rules that don’t encompass Kit, never mind Esher himself.

Does Esher write his own rules about expression and connection?

Can Kit learn how?

They sit in silence for minutes, hours or lifetimes. Wisps of cloud drift over the moon, the dogs lie still, Esher’s fingers speak what his words can’t, and Kit works to push away that bewildering longing.

Finally, he sniffs and risks speaking: “All this isn’t what you meant to do when seeking a magician for an … expedition, you said?”

“Yes. My sister’s dying.” Esher skips through those words with unwonted haste, as if he can’t bear to speak them. “There’s a magical … thing, a relic, that can save her if I fetch it for the Greys. Across the Divide. I’ve a crew already, some of them magic workers. You work like you’re quick with the words.” His breaths quicken. “The more people … maybe.”

“The Divide?” Kit pushes himself up and away. “You want to go across the Divide?” Esher releases Kit’s hand; he turns to face Esher, staring. There’s only one place on the other side of the Divide, a wall of magic surrounding a region left so warped and distorted by the Change that the elves separated it from the world and no human disagreed. “Say it as it is! You want to go into the Gast?”

Did Esher say this before? How did Kit miss that?

“Yes.”

“You want to go into the Gast for a relic?” The last remnants of desire fade as though Kit plunges, gasping, into an iced-over water trough. “Do you have a death wish?”

Berta lifts her head, glances at Kit as if pondering the reason for his loud slew of questions and settles herself back onto Esher’s lap.

Esher doesn’t answer.

Any artefact procured from the Gast will be priceless, but Esher must be talking about something beyond monetary value—for the Grey Mages, a powerful and mysterious sect of magic workers, can afford anything attainable by mere coin. Only one thing Kit can think of justifies enduring the Gast’s horrors, referenced in countless shreds of stories from before the Change: a power source, a device long-ago magicians made to bleed energy off universes. A device with which the Greys can save anyone if they still breathe and more besides; a device that allows a magic worker to cast without selling souls to demons or consuming their own fat and tissue.

A device that provides power without cost or limitation.

Any magician, witch or sorcerer must desire—with feverish, frenetic longing—such an object. Why shouldn’t the Greys make this deal? It’s quite sensible, in a way riddled with dispassionate cruelty, to offer a man seeking to save a dying sister her life in trade. Esher has no reason to find an artefact—be it the source Kit imagines or any other lost, ancient object—only to then sell it to the highest bidder. He has every reason to return to the Greys.

Kit thinks he knows the answer, given Esher’s proposition of a magician performing in a worker’s pub, but he asks to be certain: “And your crew doesn’t include a Grey Mage or two, does it…?”

Esher’s short, strangled grunt-laugh provides all the answer one needs.

Kit slumps against the stable wall, again bewildered. No, the Greys are happy to offer a life as incentive for another to risk danger on their behalf, and Esher’s lip-twisted expression doesn’t suggest any lack of awareness. Doesn’t he realise, then, that it’s kinder to support and comfort his sister in her last days, rather than his dying within the Gast only for his sister to follow him into whatever afterlife their beliefs dictate? What of his parents, his family, his kin? Surely it’s worse to lose two children rather than one?

“Why do you risk your life to save hers?” They’re awful words, and Kit isn’t surprised when Esher’s scowl deepens. “Go home and be with her in her last days! Don’t give your kin two corpses to mourn!”

“She saved my life a few years ago.” Esher bites off each word, his left hand clenched in on itself. “I need to save hers.”

Kit lets his eyes trail over Esher’s body, considering. Tidy, clothed as though accustomed to travel, armed, tall but too thin, accompanied by the biggest dog Kit has ever seen up close. If Esher isn’t a magic worker, his sword and animals will do little to protect him in the Gast. He did, however, see beyond the illusions in Kit’s art. “Do you have magic? Do you usually carry out this sort of work?”

Esher sighs and rests his right hand on Berta’s back, his gloved fingertips sinking into her black-and-white fur. “Stockman. Drover. Spent a few years working cattle through the Crackenbush. I’ve been up to the Divide, this side of the Gast. I know its … hum.” He presses his lips together, brow still furrowed. “Just a couple of camp spells. My sister’s the witch, not me.”

Kit bites down on the inside of his left cheek, recalling Grandmother’s stories—of venomous creatures half snake and half vine, wandering spirits, and countless beasts distorted by magic into ravaging predators of fang and fur. If these horrors are described by those few who return, who knows how many more threats lurk in that forested hell? A man who herds cows means to enter one of the most dangerous places in the West and survive with two dogs and a sword? Yes, Bill, for all his present placidity, owns a wolfhound’s impressive jaws, but the Gast must throw at him larger, more vicious monsters. Berta is just a sheepdog who shakes paws!

“I do flash,” Kit whispers. “How are you supposed to survive?”

Esher crooks his head, as if aware of the thoughts behind Kit’s eyes. “We aren’t as useless as you think.”

Kit flaps both hands in frustration, trying to imagine Amelia—the closest person he has to a sister—venturing into the Gast for his sake. He can’t, no more than he can see himself attempting this for her. She’ll tie him up in her cellar, with her cat guarding the door, before he gets past making the suggestion! “It’s the Gast, Hill! You realise that you’re going to get your dogs killed, if you somehow manage to avoid it yourself?”

Esher pulls away from Kit, wrapping both arms around Berta’s body in a reaction so childish—so odd in a gruff, quiet man—that Kit can only blink in shock. The sheepdog turns her head and licks him on the cheek, but Esher’s unblinking eyes rest on the rise and fall of the wolfhound’s ribs.

Bill lies asleep, stretched out across Esher’s feet.

“You clearly love your dogs,” Kit says in an attempt at apology, thinking that beer alone doesn’t make his stomach twist so savagely. Why should he feel guilt over speaking the truth? Yes, Esher has given him the beginnings of language, the hope of comprehension, but shouldn’t such kindness be repaid by honesty? “If you do this—”

“I need to save her. I have no other way.” Esher rests his cheek against Berta’s back, his head facing towards the yard, his words and shoulders as stiff and unyielding as the wall behind them. “You’ll have thrice the going rate, held by the Greys, so if I don’t … you, or your family, will be paid. Standard risk bonuses, standard contract. Have you a horse?”

People don’t go into the Gast if they wish to live a long, content life, but Esher has gathered a group of people—more than one!—intent on doing the same. How? Are they all like Kit? Lost and broken, saying yes in gratitude for rescue?

“The Greys,” Kit says desperately, because all the rules of human decency say that Esher should have abandoned Kit in his weeping and therefore he owes Esher something, “can’t be trusted. Don’t you think that if this could be done safely, they’d go themselves? Don’t you think they’re taking advantage of you, asking for a price you shouldn’t have to pay? Go home and be with your sister—please. Go home.”

“I need to save her. I have no other way.”

He’ll die when unnamed demons possess his bones and breath, die when a plague burns through his body in a single night, die when venomous plant-beasts suck his veins dry or die, broken, at the bottom of a ditch. He’ll die in more ways than Kit can imagine. Esher Hill will die in the Gast.

“You want another magician,” Kit says slowly, every iota of rationality screeching at the thought, “to go with you.”

“I’ve two magicians and a scholar.” Esher doesn’t move, his words slightly muffled by Berta’s coat. “The Roxleighs, Sarie and Marie, served in the Astreuch army as casters before I met them at Sir—met them. Faiza spent years studying pre-Change artefacts. They know what to look for. And our guide, Indigo, has run the Gast before. Returned. And Bill, Berta and Bess.”

Five people, two magic workers. Nowhere near enough.

Amelia will name Kit by a thousand different curses, and he will deserve all of them. Yet he sits in the company of a man who rescued him from grief and loneliness, a man who offered up the words that shape and save a life. What does Kit with his days but smother guilt and entertain crowds? If refusal means returning to the taproom, downing another beer, bedding a man, facing another horrific morning only to endure the hours before performance’s distraction, why bother?

If he dies from monstrous magic or dies from drinking and misery, what’s the difference?

He owns new words, words that may explain, words that may rebuild, words that may make him real and whole. One day, grandmothers will give the word aromantic to their children without hesitation or consideration—just another way in which some people are, another identity to consider. Esher, though, had no reason to begin the conversation that lead to his gifting of language. Isn’t that worth recompense when Kit has no reason to remain in Raugue?

Will his magic make enough of a difference? Will that help a drover and his dogs survive the horrifying? Kit doesn’t lack for skills in flash and trickery, but is he good enough off the stage? Can he trust Esher’s evaluation of him as more than the desperate hope of a man with few options?

He can’t make the situation worse, can he?

“I’m divergent,” Kit murmurs into the dark. “Autistic, in book language. Better at people and talking than most, but I am. If I weren’t … if I were completely sober, I’d never be in a taproom. Too much movement.”

For an awful moment, he can’t hear anything but breathing, rustling and a fading snatch of music from inside the Crooked Door.

“What am I supposed to say to the … obvious? I suppose that if there’s something you need, we’ll figure it out?” Esher raises his head, a slight frown creasing his brow. “It might be hard for you, if you like talking. The Roxleighs sign. Maybe you can talk to Faiza. Are you saying yes?”

Kit yawns, beset by a sudden, exhausted wooziness. “I don’t have a horse. It lamed, so I sold it.”

The Gast takes Kit away from Raugue, away from his stifling loneliness, away from a city lacking truename and song. Crow has given him a direction to follow, and Kit isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t recognise—as the red priests speak—his next step on the path. Raugue doesn’t need a jongleur, but Esher needs a magician.

Kit March: magician, divergent, shift, Crow-speaker … aromantic?

It doesn’t feel comfortable or understood, but it does feel possible.

He has a beginning, the book placed in his hands. Where else can Kit find a lived understanding, knowledge deeper than cursory definitions, but through working with another aromantic—one with an aromantic sister who learnt the word from an aromantic priest? If there’s anyone able to teach the subtleties of this new language in ways beyond cursory definitions, isn’t it Esher? Isn’t that, entwined with a desperate gratitude and a yearning to escape but no other direction, reason enough?

Who knows, too, what stories he may find in the Gast?

“Are you saying yes?”

“Yes.” Whatever happens, Kit will never tell Amelia about a decision she’ll only lambast as foolhardy. If he survives for long enough to not tell her, that is. “Yes. I’ll go upstairs and get my things.” Grab his gear, down a last mug of beer to celebrate, pen a quick note to Lauri and pay Elizabet to send it once Kit has vanished into the bush—and that last has a delicious, if cowardly, appeal. He can give an owed explanation, unfettered by fear of Lauri’s reply. “I’ll just be a few moments.”

Esher clasps Kit’s shoulder with his long-fingered hand. “No worries, March.”

No worries? When Kit can’t find a reason for Esher’s willingness to risk his life for his sister? When Kit knows better than to trust the Grey Mages? When the frond of knowledge’s temptation unfurls in his heart? He laughs, shaking his head. Yet, for the first time since leaving Lauri, Kit’s choice feels right. Dangerous, absurd, frightening and inexplicable, but right.

He spent the last two months trying to keep from thinking on the world he left behind.

He wonders how well he can think, now, on the road that leads ahead.

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