Excerpt for The Adventurer King by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

the adventurer king: an efe and darius story

K. A. Cook

table of contents



content advisory

author’s note

the adventurer king

additional works

about the author


The Adventurer King, © 2018, K. A. Cook.

Published by K. A. Cook at Smashwords.

Originally published in substantially different form at Queer Without Gender, October, 2016.

Produced in Geelong, Australia.

This publication is under copyright. No part of this book may be copied, reproduced or distributed in print or electronic form without written consent from the copyright holder.

The Adventurer King is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is unintentional. Any references to persons living or dead do not necessarily espouse the views of the author.

Layout and cover design: K. A. Cook.

Credits: Cover typeset in Amadeus by Bright Ideas and Life Savers by Impallari Type. Assorted stock images from Open-ClipartVectors, Rani-Ramli and darkmoon1986.


Seven years ago, Darius Liviu met a talking sword belt in the Great Souk, an eldritch being who changed his life forever. In that time, he has learnt something of the sword, mastered strange magic and survived dangerous jobs, but while he has friends in Rajad, he still feels out of place—too divergent to be welcomed and accepted as mercenary and magician.

When an unexpected meeting with potential employers goes wrong, his first instinct is to flee. But a wandering monarch, Efe Kadri, has an offer that might provide the certainty for which Darius has been searching, if only he has the courage to say yes...

content advisory

This novelette depicts casual autistic-targeted ableism and misgendering/cissexism from an allistic cis man, actions which are addressed as misgendering by two transgender characters, while the ableism is acknowledged as such—if not in modern activist terms—by the target. I will state that the perpetrator doesn’t apologise as learning to offer a genuine apology is part of his future character arc, but he does come to some acknowledgement that that what he said was hurtful, if not yet understanding the impact of it. (Again, part of his character arc.) It also contains references to previous instances of ableism and non-detailed acts of violence caused by ableist perpetrators, as well as the depiction of an act from the protagonist that is a damaging moment of revenge to his abuser.

Additionally, this story depicts gender dysphoria provoked by said cissexism and depictions of the want to self-harm. It also has the protagonist mentioning blood magic, which is not isolated from both dysphoria and self-harm.

author’s note

The Adventurer King takes place seven years after the events of Certain Eldritch Artefacts, in which Darius, a young magician, is claimed by a talking belt, something that isn’t so much magical as it is insufferable. I’m not sure this story will make for comprehensible reading without knowing where Darius’s narrative began.

I also feel that I should offer a warning. This story is a set up for the development of a queerplatonic relationship in the next, something that might be better understood as akin to an aromantic romance. A happily ever after ending is the norm for a romance narrative, but anyone who has read my web serial The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March will know that the best Efe and Darius (and Aysun and Darius) get is happily for a little while. While Darius’s ending is far from determined, Efe’s ending isn’t a happy one. If readers prefer the story of an aro pansexual/ace trans autistic and an allo bisexual cis allistic trying to navigate adventures and each other, without a tragic ending, I recommend avoiding the web serial!

the adventurer king

“You with the dark curls!”

Darius hesitates halfway through whispering the words “provisional paralysis” and narrowly misses copping a rattan blade to the gut. He wheels sideways and back just in time for the edge of his opponent’s blade to whip past his vest, lets the momentum pull him down to the floor of the arena and snags as much of the fine white sand as his right hand will hold. As far as he knew, the only people about in the cool of pre-dawn were his opponent, himself and the belt, and the belt knows better than to call out while Darius focuses on both not letting a rattan blade touch his skin and rehearsing the stringing of words in a situation that doesn’t involve pen, paper or motionless silence.

Darius knows better than to let a shout distract him, but theory isn’t practice.

He lets the sand fly as he raises his own blade to meet a driving thrust that rattles his upper body and, when she jerks her head back from the flying sand, snakes her extended foot with his right.

“You! Short with the curls! Come here a minute!”

She falls with a thump and a few curses, but Darius scrambles upright, sways to the left as he plants his foot just in time to keep from falling and tosses his blade at her feet. She stares at him with a livid scowl, already rising, but she jerks her head in something likely meant to resemble a nod as she swipes her fingers over her eyes. He didn’t aim directly for her face, and the still air should have prevented too much injury from flying debris, but the viciousness of her hands suggests pain or anger. Good. “Seems you’re wanted, mage.”

The spell wouldn’t have hurt her—wouldn’t have hurt anyone with the nonsense filler words used in place of a descriptive target, and he knows how to block a paralytic that doesn’t kill. That, though, isn’t the source of her disdain. No, he earnt that disdain by being a divergent magician, a magician who trips over his own feet, struggles to bring speech to lips when it matters and, in the eyes of the students, had no reason to study here. A divergent magician whose worthlessness was proved weeks after his arrival and didn’t deserve the Master’s incomprehensible tolerance over the years that followed. A divergent magician who doesn’t deserve the work he does.

That he has learnt something about weaponry in the last seven years is insult, not redemption. If he fights with magic, getting the words to his lips when needed, he cheats, calling on an unfair advantage few mercenaries possess. If he fights without magic, fights with clumsiness and a blade and dirty tricks to save his bones, he finds nothing but bruises and viciousness held in abeyance for his losses. What he does or how he does it doesn’t matter; no middle ground exists where he will find acceptance, and Darius has long since abandoned that quest.

The relationship between him and the students of the school, current and former, was made in an afternoon of blood, broken bones and urine, and neither party has any willingness to forget.

“Magician.” Darius sighs. He isn’t a mage; words mean things. “Alliterative magician.”

And blood witch, but that secret lies between him, the Master, Mair’s Ravens and Eren Adalet. Revealed twice on the Kara, once to remain breathing and once to reinforce his right to refuse with a magic that doesn’t require the carefulness of speech, and just the thought makes his forearm itch. Eren promises that one day he won’t be bothered by the scabs, that he’ll be too used to the sensation for it to matter, but even now that he’s near healed, he still struggles to keep from scratching.

He doesn’t remember faces that aren’t in front of him or the names that go with them, but he still knows which students drove him to the blood trade, and sand in the eyes is a small revenge for the itching and an arm that aches during rain.

She pulls a face.

Darius can’t think of anything to say or do, so he turns to trudge across the arena. Ward spell? Or better, perhaps, to let her carry out her revenge? In the end, he allows the fine grains to rain down on his head and shoulders: while the sand annoys him, it doesn’t hurt him. He doesn’t expect watching him run his hands through his hair to shake it loose will make her feel better, but warding will only make her angrier. His yearmates’ unhappiness has a direct correlation to the number of bruises Darius will garner the next time there’s nobody else around to raise an eyebrow at an unmerited thrashing.

He needs a job. Even the Kara, again, is better than this.

If he doesn’t work for another Arvel.

Darius sighs, the sand spilling over the toes of his boots. The pre-dawn quiet suits him best. No shouts, no clanging doors, no shining midday sun, no students layered in soaps and perfumes and the clinging hint of incense, no employers and the struggle of putting together polite words. Just the arena, the dry smell of the sand, the fading stars above as the cobalt sky lightens, the soft glow of the witchlights, the peace of only a single opponent, the rules inherent in training. No, the real world isn’t like that, and Darius knows that even if few others recognise that he does, but reality is why he likes the consistency of these precious mornings.

Why, then, are strangers here to ruin it?

They stand by the main gate, just to the side of the walkway leading to the baths. A row of benches rest behind them, used by employers wishing to watch during normal waking hours, and Darius wonders why they don’t seat themselves. A man and woman, he assumes by their dress and the pins attached to their robe and tunic—one a sunburst, the other a crescent moon, both gold. She wears a flowing red robe trimmed with sequins and gold braid and tiny embroidered leaves, upturned brown leather shoes and a filmy pink veil tied over her luscious black curls. Rings, gold bands set with pearl or amber, rest on every finger, and she holds the gem-encrusted leash of a lean brown sighthound in her right hand. He wears a long red tunic, decorated with the same braid and embroidery, over brown leggings and the same shoes, but while his hands are ringless, chunky gold hoops and amber-set studs pierce both ears. Brother and sister, Darius decides, perhaps even twins: they have the same thick black brows, the same square jaw and narrow nose, the same middling height, even the same short-cut beard. They’re both rather attractive, although they stare at him with a focus that smacks more of the politeness discarded by rank than it does too-intense study.

Over the last year, he has learnt that employers of rank, money or name have their own rules of social conduct, their own unshared permission to eccentricity. If Darius stares too long and hard, he betrays divergence; if his employer does, it’s their tacit right to render Darius uncomfortable. It isn’t his world. Easier to rail against that in the College, but he’s spent the last eight years surrounded by all manner of people. Maybe others come by their survival in means other than quiet fatalism, but in that truth exists an odd peace.

It isn’t his world. So be it.

Darius sniffs as he approaches. Sand and his own salt sweat smell strongest against the smoky backdrop of the city’s ovens and cookfires. Fresher, though, comes sandalwood and a touch of cedar merging with a citrus blend—perhaps bergamot and lemon, paired with an underlying hint of lavender. No scent has strength enough to make his head tighten—the last man to interview him drenched himself in neroli as if to display his impressive wealth, and Darius ended that miserable conversation by lying on the floor and announcing his dizziness to a most-offended merchant. He edges closer to the pair, relieved.

Rare are the people who don’t take offense at the idea that he can’t bear their layers of perfume. It seems to relate to the idea that one wears perfume as a courtesy to others and rudeness lies in the opposite, or perhaps a perceived critique of their choice in scent as though that means anything about the person wearing it. Whatever the reason, fewer people take offense at flapping hands or unmet glances than they do at the idea that their fragrance causes him distress.

He exhales and takes a last glimpse of the pair.

Neither bears any insignia, just the red, gold and amber. Siya, maybe? Most of the continent’s amber comes from Siya, and while he can’t recollect the composition of the Siyan flag despite six years of learning these things, he thinks red features in some fashion. Merchant family, then, or nobility possessed of title so great they need not display it. Either way, they have him at a disadvantage, but since Darius has never known any family to play the game any other way, he doesn’t bother sighing. He just waits until he approaches the gate and sweeps into a bow just deep enough for nobility, as is expected in Rajad.

If someone takes offense at that, they’ll take offense at anything.

“I am Darius Liviu. To whom have I the honour of addressing?”

He practiced with the belt, at the belt’s insistence, until he had the art of saying as little as possible. The script means he doesn’t have to fuss around with his own titles or guessing the required degree of deference or explanation; only the very highest of personages seem to take it askance that Darius seldom recognises enough of colour, cut and insignia to guess at a stranger’s identity or rank.

The woman looks at him with hawk eyes that don’t stray from his face. She smells of citrus and that faint suggestion of lavender underneath, possibly from her clothing, but also somewhat of dog. He likes that she doesn’t trouble herself to hide it, but she keeps on staring, wordless.

Darius shifts his left hand behind his back and drums his fingers against the belt. He looks at the fingernail-sized golden leaves stitched into the collar of her robe, taps his fingers and waits.

Her low voice holds that careful, melodic note that speaks of years of tutors, and Darius startles. “You worked a spell on your opponent, did you not?”

“Yes, no. I was practicing the use of the construct, so the blocking had fillers used in place of defining the target.” Darius nods, and, when her brow creases just enough that he guesses she wants more than acknowledgement, gives the speech: “I’m an alliterative magician, graduated from Greenstone.” His fingers drum faster. “I’m not a great swordsman. I’m a good magician. Which are you after?”

Slight warmth radiates from the belt, buckled over Darius’s sand-smeared trousers, bearing knife and coin pouch. There’s nothing wrong in admitting one’s flaws, the belt said at least once a week for the first three years of their acquaintance, if one doesn’t apologise for them. Even better if Darius can speak about his own skills as a statement of fact instead of waving a diploma around!

He lost that piece of paper during a river crossing, halfway across the Kara.

Darius isn’t sure that he agrees, although he acknowledges that vendors now seldom cuff him about the head when he ventures into the marketplace. He doesn’t fall less: it’s a great deal easier, in fact, to face down a similar fighter, given that they all move with much the same rhythms, than it is to walk through the Great Souk, a being with its own unpredictable breath and heartbeat. Age, he supposes. That and the sense of locality even a foreigner develops when he studies and trains here for years at a time. Rajadi vendors are far less likely to scream murder at regular customers than they are at strangers.

Being known as a friend to Mair’s Ravens helps, at least outside the school.

Fewer magic workers cluttering up the witcher quarter also make a difference.

“You’re one of Kit March’s boys, then?” The man’s voice sounds rougher, less careful. Both speak with a slight upwards inflection, unusual to Rajad, that Darius assumes to be Siyan-accented Orthodox.

Darius blinks. The man has heard of March? Other Rajadi magic workers seldom recognise the College, and it took Darius some time before the Master and Eren Adalet acknowledged him as a competent spellcrafter. Something that seemed so big and grand in Malvade is tiny to the point of irrelevancy in the Eastern Confederacy. Here, he’s nothing more than a hedge witch or word hag, one minor magic worker among many.

The healing cuts on his forearms, hidden by his sleeves, itch enough that Darius grits his teeth and taps faster. “He doesn’t just—”

The man’s eyes bring Darius up short. Honey brown, intent and no doubt sparkling or laughing for those with the soul of a similar poet, but drifting down Darius’s body whilst lingering in every place evocative of desire or interest. Neck, the slight swell of chest, groin. There’s nothing subtle here: his gaze lingers long enough to make sure Darius marks it. Worse, his lips curve into a smile.

Shades, why do they never consider that they aren’t the first? That Darius hasn’t seen this same thought cross the mind of several would-be employers? That the Master didn’t teach their students how to navigate these sorts of assumptions? That Mair and her Ravens, especially Akash and Ila, didn’t pay Darius back with a few tricks even mercenary guards don’t know? That after a year of this, Darius feels nothing but boredom at the idea of yet another employer thinking to get a good lay from his hire?

“Professor March takes students of any or no gender.” Darius folds his arms. “Top of my class. I specialise in eldritch artefacts and constructs. Most of the lights in the windows, in the school, in the businesses of Cutter Street, are mine.”

Before either responds, Darius meets the man’s eyes with as much intensity as he can bring to bear. He doesn’t like it, but here he doesn’t need to follow the mystical rules for the appropriate degree and length of contact. Sometimes, a stare beats anything he can say, and why should he care if this man feels uncomfortable? If he wants sex bought and paid for, Rajad has as many workers as any other city. If he wants a lover, he can go about it in any way other than staring as though Darius is a side of lamb. Why do they always assume he’s available and interested?

If he wanted to engage in sex work, he wouldn’t be a mercenary. There’s too much talking to potential and future employers as a sellsword, so why take up an occupation that requires an even greater ability to read and communicate with people?

He grinds his teeth, wanting to chew on finger or collar, not daring to do so. He has a script for this, one Akash and Ila helped him write and then had Darius practice on them and most of the house, but it isn’t a script worked safely on the nobility. Even the Master admitted that, in dealing with sparkles, officialdom and the entitled, he is better to say little and demur quietly, an approach that sticks in Darius’s throat as both a Malvadan man raised to disregard rank as a religious obligation and a divergent man long tired of similar folk and their contradictory rules.

Three things a follower of the Sojourner must respect without question or reservation: notaries, time and death.

The man, though, beams. “I know the kinds of students March takes. The strange.” He flashes straight white teeth, apparently not deterred by Darius’s best attempt at a flat stare. “Luckily, I’m a man who likes my boys girly.”

Say little and demur quietly, the Master said, but whatever the conversation, best always to stop, breathe, multiply and think before one speaks.

The Master looked at Darius as they spoke that last word.

“Luckily,” Darius says, “I’m a divergent man, divergent man, not strange, not girly, with far too much self-respect and not enough pay to give a damn about what you find appealing. There’s a mule in the stable—try telling him what you like, because after I’ve described you to the Ravens, you won’t be telling anyone else in Rajad. Gold and amber and red. My condolences to your sibling. I hope you trip and fall prone in fresh camel dung.”

He lets his arms flap as he turns on his heel and stalks back across from the arena, and only then, as his chest heaves, does he realise that he likely spoke too fast for the unaccustomed ear to process—not that it matters, since walking off will cause offense enough. Gold and amber and red, beard, fancy clothes with leaf pattern, lecherous entitlement, probably Siyan, a sibling with a sighthound. Mair will identify him, and before long no house in Rajad will open their doors, not when the work takes in the shift without question, not when the work protects the shift without question, not when the work still needs to house the shift without question.

Rajad, like most of the cities in the Eastern Confederacy, claims itself to be enlightened, accepting, civilised—folk wear pins on their garb so nobody assumes, wrongly, one’s gender, and that’s true enough. Darius can’t recall ever being referred to by incorrect pronouns. That doesn’t mean it’s a paradise of acceptance, though—no, Rajad hasn’t protected him from comments like that, comments from same folk who pretend he’s a man but still see him, underneath, as a woman, just a woman wishing herself to be a man. A man, but not male in the taken-for-granted way as a same man. A man who doesn’t try to look as same as possible and, therefore, can’t truly be male.

He doesn’t bind—can’t bind. Binding, he can’t breathe enough to run or ride or fight, and he can’t bear the pressure on his chest even sitting still. Common amongst the divergent, who often can’t tuck or bind, who can’t cope with the struggle of trying to make their bodies match same norms—and are often no more same in gender than they are similar in mind, the two so entwined in how Darius knows himself to be that neither will stand free on their own even if they can somehow part from the other.

Darius is divergent and shift, different, and the kindest word Rajad has for him is “strange”.

Tears drip down his cheeks, smearing over his chin and neck. He digs his nails into his palms and wishes, not for the first time, for the ability to tear his breasts off his chest, reach down and tear away those small globes of flesh that don’t mean anything but keep being read by same folk as a connection to a gender he has never felt himself to be. Shades, he just wants to tear, tear at his body that has never felt to him wrong, tear at his body for the crime of being misread by ignorant assumptions.

As much as he hates the assumptions, he hates the want they provoke worst of all, the want to rip and cut and bleed.

Eren Adalet asked him, over and over, if he has ever wanted to hurt himself, and Darius, seeing a way to ensure that he need never again endure the silencing, shook his head, trusting that Eren was no more able to read his feelings than any other similar person. If she doubted him, she taught him anyway, and Darius denied her every time she asked, instead learning the craft of magic wrought with his blood and pain—the craft of magic that justifies his blood and pain.

In some ways, he knows himself to be safer for the itching he can’t ignore, the itching that makes him stop and think, the itching that pushes him away from the knife.

Only when he reaches the fence does he realise he went the wrong way, that now he must go the long way to the baths. To get to the street, to leave the school for the one place he considers safe, the House of the Ravens, he’ll have go back the other way, past the siblings—shades, no. He grits his teeth and climbs over, ignoring the stares from the sleepy-eyed, yawning students beginning to gather for the morning’s training, struggling to keep his feet under him when landing.

Strange. There’s other, cruder ways to say it, and Darius has heard them all, but slurs used to attack by people who hate him don’t cut as deep as the unthinking word that means nothing to anyone else. Strange. Do they think he doesn’t know it? Do they think, somehow, they haven’t hammered home the truth that Darius Liviu, one of March’s boys, isn’t deemed normal enough to be accepted? That he doesn’t have the scars and bruises caused by that cruel judgement?

Inside the armoury hallway, the sun hasn’t risen anywhere near enough to warm the whitewashed walls. He scuffs his feet over the pavers, focusing on the drag of leather sole over the worn-smooth stone.

The tears drip onto his sleeved forearms, and he gulps, sniffs.

“I thought he was quite handsome, boy, aside from the ignorance.”

The metallic voice, a ringing intrusion into the quiet of the hallway and the seething tangle of his thoughts, makes him jerk.

“Handsome? Him?” Yes, he wasn’t bad looking, in the way bought and paid for by title, family and wealth, but who cares about trivialities when those lips speak such dreadful words? “Belt, I’m not an innocent virgin who needs you to manage my sexual engagements. Even if I were and I did, I have this thing, oh, maybe you’ve heard of it—pride? Self-respect? Integrity?”

The belt whistles and speaks at the same time. “You haven’t had sex in three months.”

Not this again. Who endured the belt before Darius? They weren’t shift and they weren’t divergent, as far as Darius can tell, and based on the belt’s erroneous understanding of what constitutes normal sexual activity, they spent as much time in bed as they did fighting. “Why do you care?”

The hallway, at this time of the morning, stands empty: there’s nothing but the long hallway leading out to the inner courtyard and the bolted doors set off by the occasional guttering lamp. Sweepers will come through, because students and masters alike track sand everywhere, but it’s too early for most and too late for the students. Thank the quiet dead.

“Before you embark on your usual speech about sexuality in humans, boy,” the belt says with a cheerful ringing undertone that makes Darius want to hit something, “I will point out that you seem to like both sex and romance, and you need to stop using the valid existence of a lack of desire for either as a reason to not have this conversation.”

Should he have shoved the belt inside his satchel when he limped home from the Kara, left his bags and went straight to Akash and Ila to talk about Harlow? It seemed like the best idea at the time—given the belt’s limited understanding of such things, he felt safer in figuring out what went wrong and why with people whose comprehension of sexuality is broad and professional. Darius knows how to grip a sword, how to cut his own skin for blood loss that isn’t lethal and how to block a spell that keeps the witchlights in the house glowing, but when it comes to matching human emotion with its corresponding words, the Ravens are going to know, and did know, more than a confused, divergent magician.

He digs his fingernails into his palms, too overwhelmed to know how to lie.

What happens if he doesn’t?

It seems absurd. He travelled the world looking for a sword to give to a man he thought he wanted—how does that stop being real? How does he say the words that make a lie of the reasons he left Greenstone? Except the man was too old, too far away and entangled in his bodyguards, not other magicians, so why not call the fantasy love and want when it never need be questioned? Why cross the Shearing Straits to leave the man Darius thought he wanted? Why run in the other direction and stay running, if it isn’t a story built to conceal a different sort of truth altogether?

It stops being real because it wasn’t real to begin with.

Is there another reason the belt pokes at him so?

“I don’t think I do. Like romance.” Darius stops, leans against the wall and releases a shuddering breath. Seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight, thirty-five. “I don’t know—I don’t know if what I think attraction is attraction the way similar people feel and know it. I like sex with people, sometimes; maybe that’s close enough. But I don’t … I didn’t want what Harlow wanted, and with her, it was just the romance. I like her, but not…”

How to say in simple words that he knew Harlow thought to love him, but when Darius thinks of love, he thinks of conversations with Akash and Ila, three people sitting on the floor and talking about food and clients and fingernails as weapons? How to say that he doesn’t want anything more? How say that anything closer than that feels alien, an imposition?

He’s lived in Rajad for the best part of seven years. Most of that time was spent avoiding complications of the intimate kind, but he always had a reason. Employer, demanding, similar, same, student. He’s not been alone, but he’s always been, infrequently, with people who understand that it is just touch. He never had to question, not until Harlow, a woman for whom he has no reason—she’s as shift as he, kind enough for a similar woman, neither a fellow student nor his employer. No need to question until he should have said yes and couldn’t.

“I only like her. Romance. It isn’t mine.”

The belt’s silence weighs on him; it isn’t often it answers Darius without something cheerful and pithy.

Eighty-four, ninety-one, ninety-eight, one hundred and five, one hundred and twelve.

“Did you talk about this with your Ravens, boy? Mair?”

Darius nods and draws a shaking breath. “Yes.”

One hundred and five, ninety-eight, ninety-one, eighty-four, seventy-seven, seventy.

“Not me?”

Is the belt offended that he didn’t? March and Amelia and Osprey taught with a patient gentleness—even the Professors Roxleigh, in their own frightening way. That gentleness, though, comes from knowing. They made a safe little world and taught their students how to both navigate that safe world and come to terms with themselves within it. They taught acceptance and survival. The belt taught him how to talk with, or more often to, similar people, how to exist in a world that to him makes no sense. Unlike humans, it never seemed to take offense; it didn’t despair or grow frustrated. It just repeated itself with a relentless and incomprehensible willingness to teach what it believes to be the optimum way of being human via the art of driving Darius to distraction.

Darius never thought before now that the belt can even feel offense or hurt.

“Aren’t you asking me to agree with something you know didn’t happen because if it did happen you wouldn’t be asking me about it? Does this mean something else?”

The belt sighs. “Are you comfortable with the conclusion, boy?”

Darius blinks and rests his left hand on the leather at his hip, running his fingertips over the polished length. “Comfortable? But…” He draws a breath. Forty-nine, forty-two, thirty-five, twenty-eight—the numbers are so familiar he doesn’t have to think about them. No. Two hundred and twenty-eight, two hundred and nine, one hundred and ninety, one hundred and seventy-one. “I hurt her. Because I didn’t know—I knew there were words, but I didn’t know these were mine, that this is what it feels like to me. It’s so hard to know, what things properly feel like, and I hurt her. I don’t want to do that. Romance isn’t me, so knowing that is better.” He runs his tongue over his lips. “And the way you think sex is—that isn’t me, either.”

The belt doesn’t speak. It hums, a low, melodic tune that sounds, in the Astreuch tradition, elegiac.

Darius shakes his head and pushes himself up off the wall just as pounding feet in full sprint break the quiet.

Something else. Of course.

One of the school runners—the newly-admitted, just as he once was—waves her arms as she bolts down the hallway, her white skin flushed tomato red. “Darius! The Master wants you—now.” She stops and draws a shaking breath, her lips curved into a slight smile. “There’s two sparkles in their office. What’d you do this time?”

Shades. Nobles, then. Darius sighs. “Thank you. I’m coming.”

The girl nods and scampers down the hall.

Darius turns and, at a much slower pace, follows. Too much too fast, but what can he do, other than prepare to catch a fast ship out of Rajad afterwards? He can’t hide: “wanting to rip at his own chest” and “a conversation with the belt” aren’t reasons accepted by other adults for his failure to behave within their expectations. No, he’ll wipe his eyes, walk slowly and hope he looks less tearstained on arrival, but there’s nothing to do but endure this song and plan to bolt after.

Does it matter? He’ll miss Mair, miss Akash and Ila, miss the Ravens, even the Master a little, but he won’t miss the school, won’t miss grasping and entitled employers, won’t miss men like Arvel who value nix seed over the safety and breath of his mercenaries. He won’t miss the job, won’t miss the students, won’t miss the memories that walk these cursed hallways. Isn’t he drowning here in the fake smiles, the hate, the blood, the history? Will it matter if he finds himself doing a quick runner to escape a nobleman angered by denial and directness?

Maybe, if the dead are kind, the nobles didn’t parse the comments about mules and camel dung.

The belt hums until the moment Darius raps on the Master’s door.


The Master, a small, lithe person—a head taller than Darius himself—who looks barely strong enough to heft a sabre, can run a person through in a single breath and has given Darius too many bruises to count over the last seven years, sits behind their desk. Their pale hands are folded around a mug of coffee strong enough to leave Darius lightheaded, and they dress in plain, severe brown robes. Their straight black hair falls free of its hasty knot, their lips pressed together in bloodless lines: they look every inch a person roused from their bed to greet unnecessary pettiness.

Darius knows well the Master’s dislike for complications, yet they allowed the belt to talk them into accepting Darius. Even when he shouldn’t have remained, they just sent him, bruised and splinted, to Eren Adalet, knowing what would happen if he failed Eren’s lessons, perhaps knowing that his passing them will do little to lessen the complications the Master claims to abhor.

A chip marks the wall behind the Master’s head where the pot Darius threw smashed into the whitewashed sandstone—the pot Darius threw when he learned that Eren would have executed a failed blood witch and neither Eren nor the Master said a word about it beforehand.

Opposite—and looking rather out of place in the Master’s plain room given that it is a space marked only by a desk, three chairs, witchlights and a shelf for books and scrolls—sit the two nobles. The light, bright as the Master prefers it, glitters oddly off the gold braid trimming the hems and sleeves of robe and tunic. Flashing or glittering light too often leaves him feeling as though he’s only half inside his own head. His worst defeats most often came from noon sun reflecting off steel, not his clumsiness: Darius’s inability to predict how and when he’ll fall is somewhat mitigated by the fact that his opponent can’t predict it either, but Darius has hard-won experience in knowing what to do next.

The sighthound sits on the floor beside the woman’s chair and rests its head on her knee.

The nobles stare at him.

“Darius.” The Master’s brown eyes show nothing in the way of pleasantry. Did they look less annoyed when they mopped up the blood from wounds caused by flying pot shards? He suspects they did, and it was an irreplaceable pot, one decorated with gold leaf and gifted by a Takeshyo noble. “You are acquaint with His Eternal Majesty, Efe Kadri, yes?”

He stares at the nick in the wall, no longer caring about tears. Two minutes to run to his room. Ten to pack at most: he leaves his gear packed—and spelled—to make it harder for the students to destroy. Five, even. Half an hour to the harbour, but he’s spent most of the last seven years in Rajad, six of those here at the school. He knows the backways, and if the Master grants him a little kindness, they’ll send only the guard after him. A binding spell will buy him the time, while a lock on the door should stop anyone from wandering in, and no magic worker within a shout on Cutter Street can deliver his lock spell. A little luck and he’ll beat everyone to the docks before the hue and cry, and Darius is magician enough to find a captain willing to take him. Catching ship from Rajad should throw pursuers off his trail, since they’ll expect him to run for the Kara, for the Straits, for the West. Difficult, but nothing near as dangerous as what he faced with Arvel, so he reaches into the hole slit in the pocket of his trousers and pulls out a stub pencil.

Even Darius knows that name, knows it from books and conversations with merchants and mercenary guards, knows it from politics and gossip alike: Efe and Aysun Kadri, twin claimants to the Eternal Throne of Siya.

Why? No, don’t waste a thought on irrelevancy. He frowns, trying to find the words, but panic makes it hard to put them together—better to write, and he angles his hands as best as possible to hide the tiny pencil while he scribbles on a slip of paper pulled from his sleeve. If the Master is kind, they won’t shout out that Darius has a knife on his person—shades, if the Master is kind, they won’t leap up from their chair and punch Darius in the throat. No, stop thinking about ifs and maybes! Just do!

“Are you writing?” The woman cranes her head to the side. “What kind of spell are you blocking—are you planning to run? Would you bind us and gag us, or would you turn yourself invisible?”

Darius jerks his head, too astonished to do anything more than stare. “W—what?”

“What is your strategy for exiting two royals with the power to disconnect your head from your neck, given our previous exchange? Unless you have another reason to write on your hand?” The woman gently pushes the dog’s head from her knee and rises in a graceful swish of fabric and beads. “I’m Aysun Kadri. Efe’s sister. Pretend I wasted your time with all my titles.” She turns and pokes Efe Kadri in the shoulder. “Efe, don’t you have something you want to say to him?”

Efe’s lips screw up into a petulant, bearded glower. “I said I liked him. It might have been the wrong way, but it counts.”

Darius draws a gulping breath, staring.

Aysun glances heavenward, just for a moment. “Gods save me from stubborn men! Efe, if you want to do this, learn to apologise.” She nudges Efe in the arm before turning to face Darius. “Darius Liviu, my brother apologises for his ignorant, insulting and misgendering comments in the arena. Unfortunately, he isn’t yet man enough to admit this and do so himself. While I have no reasonable anticipation that you should listen to my offer, will you do me this kindness?”

The pencil stub spills out of Darius’s fingers and lands with a clatter onto the floor.

The Master raises their eyebrows but says nothing.

Stars shift in the sky while Darius stands there and tries to make his throat, tongue and lips work in concert enough to speak a single word. “Offer?”

Aysun jerks her chin towards Darius’s hand. “How were you planning to leave?”

“I.” Darius swallows. “I … writing, I…” Shades, why does he have to lose words now? “The—making still but breathing—freezing, I was blocking a freezing spell. You’d still breathe. I don’t—I don’t use magic that way. Ethics. Freezing, just freezing. Not invisibility. You can’t block it, invisibility, on something that moves. Too much changing information.”

Aysun nods. “How would you target the spell? I don’t think you could compress the structure enough to fit on your hand by describing us, could you?”

“Room. Not people. Room.” Darius draws a shaking breath and points at the witchlights. “Those. They’re mine.”

“Using your own constructs as the definition. Clever.” Aysun settles herself down in her chair; the dog returns its head to her knee. “Would you like to sit? You look a little shaken.”

Shaken isn’t quite the word, but Darius doubts a single word even exists for the experience of discovering that the man he directed to a mule after promising to blacklist him in every house in Rajad, no matter how deserved, is the king of Siya—a king that, for some mystifying reason, isn’t trying to arrest and behead Darius.

He exhales, failing to reduce his trembling, and shakes his head, more afraid that his knees will give out if he moves.

“My brother,” and here Aysun sighs, “has got it in his head that his service to Siya isn’t best spent sitting the throne. It might be the one useful thought he’s had all his life, as he has no mind for administration.” She pokes Efe again. He shoots her another dark glare, one to which she pays no seeming attention. “He doesn’t want to travel with nobles and guards and the other tiresome accoutrements of rank. No, he’s got the idea that he wants to travel incognito, with a single companion. I told him that I will allow this, if I choose the companion. He’ll pick some pretty thing that doesn’t have the courage or the sense to tell him when he’s being ridiculous. I want a companion that can protect him from both the world and himself, and a magician-swordsman seems ideal. If, of course, you’re willing to endure Efe.”

Nothing in his life has prepared Darius for this moment, and that seems absurd. Why did no one during fifteen years of education ever go over what Darius should do when the forward sister of an arrogant king offers him a job guarding said king? Why didn’t Amelia mention it, even in passing?

“I, I—”

“Of course!” The belt’s tinny voice rises with every syllable. “I’d be honoured to—”

Quiet!” Darius wraps his right hand over the belt buckle, despite knowing it won’t make any difference, and looks straight at Aysun. “Sorry. Magical belt. The belt thinks it can word—word, speak for me. Magician.”

The belt’s continued possession of him has nothing to do with Darius’s ability to alliterate, but he’s found over the years that people accept the belt more readily as something to do with magic and not an unusual matter of adoption.

“He says yes! He’s been waiting for just this opportunity! Yes!”

Darius does the obvious: he unfastens the belt, removes his knife and purse, pulls the belt free of his trousers and tosses the damn thing out into the hallway.

“My boy wants to—”

Darius closes the door, holding his gear in his left hand.

The Master doesn’t bat an eye at this latest absurdity, but Efe and Aysun stare outright.

“A talking belt?” Efe’s eyebrows creep up his face. “I wonder what use a man might have for such a thing in—” He stops because Aysun leans across and thumps him in the ribs with her elbow. “What was that for? What did I say? And can you remember for one moment, woman, that I am your king?”

Aysun looks across at Darius as if Efe didn’t speak. “I don’t see how an enchanted belt makes any difference,” she says, her words soft, her brows furrowed. She is, Darius thinks again, beautiful, and he swallows back sudden gut-wrenching envy, because in all his days yet to live he’ll never move or speak with her unconscious elegance. “Regardless, should you wish to take this job, I’m offering twenty chips a week plus a mount and all expenses, deposited in your account here on a monthly basis. You’ll protect Efe—to go with him into danger and to keep him from going to places too dangerous. You work from your evaluation of danger, not his. You must understand that I want a guard who’ll stand up to him, because Efe will be the more dangerous to you. Efe and I have agreed that should we find a candidate I deem suitable, said candidate will be granted the prerogative and the right to disregard protocol in matters of handling Efe. He won’t be allowed to prosecute you for doing the job I pay you for. If you abuse that I will chase you to the ends of the earth, but the references given you by the Master and your previous employers are excellent—at least for what I want, if not in any conventional sense.”

Arvel, most likely, but he’s hardly the first employer to find Darius less than pleasing and to say as much in words loud enough to reach beyond the Master.

Aysun punctuates that speech with a cold, stiff smile and a stare so sharp Darius looks down at his hands to avoid it. Aysun might talk about Efe with something verging on frustrated disdain, but she seems more than ruthless enough to rain hell on anyone who hurts her brother.

Shades, easier to bind them and run! Darius leans against the doorframe, trying to think even though the bright witchlights, the coffee or the situation leave his head spinning. Twenty chips a week? Three months and he clears his remaining debt with the school, and if this lasts longer, he’ll have savings against wet seasons and injury. He’ll never have to take a job he doesn’t like. Efe Kadri, though? Aysun won’t accompany them wherever it is Efe wishes to go, and Darius … well, he’s Darius. He can tell a man to shove his head in manure, but sometimes he can’t talk at all, and while Darius is no deft hand at reading people, he guesses Efe will need more talking than most.

If Darius understands this aright, Aysun wants him because of how he handled Efe in the arena, not despite it. Nor did she react when Darius struggled to explain the spell on his hand. If she isn’t a magic worker herself, she at least knows enough to ask questions, and she hasn’t used his inability to fluidly communicate to dismiss his magical ability.

If he disregards the arena and his tears, this is one of the better interviews he’s had with a potential employer.

Darius draws a breath, holds it, exhales for as long as he can. One hundred and sixty-eight, one hundred and fifty-four, one hundred and forty, one hundred and twenty-six, one hundred and twelve. On one hand, he has a job with exceptional pay. On the other, an ignorant, judgemental and disrespectful ward who will likely waste Darius’s time with advances and flirtation. What amount of money justifies that? Besides, what is this? A king playacting at the adventurer life? Guarding a merchant on the road to Khaloun seems more honest, never mind necessary. Riding around protecting a king who wants to play the fool seems more like the job of a nursemaid.

There’s the answer, or the question at least.

“Why? Where are you going? What are you doing? Why?”

Efe leans forwards in his chair, his knuckles pale where they clasp the worn-smooth wooden arms. The heat in his words takes Darius by surprise. “An Ashadi nobleman, just over my eastern border, has spent the last two seasons hiring minions, discouraging traders, banning Siyan labourers and fortifying his keep.” His brows, great thick curves that only add to his sudden forbidding look, creep again towards his hairline. “He hasn’t crossed my border, but displaced villagers have. Villagers mourning the loss of their youths, seduced by the dark lord rhetoric. We saw it begin in Laiphu with Golzar. Uniforms and statues and the kind of political dialogue that has love screamed from rooftops and fear silenced by blood. Now here.” Efe’s voice thickens as though he rests but a thought away from hawking in disgust. “But my Ashadi counterpart is a snivelling piece of camel shit who does nothing—useless or bought. I can’t do anything without provoking war. A single traveller, though, who just happens to be Siyan? Hardly the act of a king interfering in another sovereign state.” He stops, swallows and fists his broad, calloused right hand, his following words slow and sure. “I mean to kill the man who calls himself Kian Adal.”

Darius’s last employer got half his mercenaries killed because he valued nix seed over human life. Arvel would have gotten them all killed, Darius and Harlow included, if Darius didn’t keep a hidden knife on his person. Blood for gold sent back to the Greensward, blood for gold that didn’t seem to make Arvel safe or happy, blood for gold that won’t stop the travesty repeating itself with a new cast of mercenaries—perhaps without a hidden blood witch able to make a difference. Who can afford, these days, a magic worker not a minor hedge witch or an awkward word hag from Greenstone? How many times has he walked past the Great Souk’s shuttered stalls in the witcher quarter only to learn from Safi that another lot of workers left Rajad for Laiphu and the Guard?

The scabbed cuts on his forearms itch.

Darius fists his fingers and looks over at Aysun.

She nods and strokes the head and ears of her sighthound, her silence the final punctuation on a claim Darius has no reason to doubt.

Another king will send an agent, a mercenary, an assassin, anyone but himself—but Aysun seems more than king enough for Siya. Efe might better serve them all anywhere but the throne, but the possessive pride in his voice leaves Darius sure that Efe isn’t the kind of man to abdicate. So this, then. Aysun rules and Efe lives as he prefers, king and not-king. Yet their honesty before the Master suggests that Siya, and by extension Rajad and Khaloun and the rest of the Eastern Confederacy states, will accept Aysun as sole king without hesitation or concern. What kind of country, he wonders, possesses such certainty in its dealings with others that the king’s sister can rule openly and confidently while the king himself vanishes?

Mair might be able to tell him more of the politics Darius has spent the last seven years ignoring.

“I’m not a—I’m not an assassin.”

Efe snorts. “His life is mine. You protect me.”

It isn’t quite an answer, but it might be all he gets. “And then?”

Efe’s laugh rings dismissive and derisive, but Darius doesn’t think it cruel. “Do you need the list, man? The Phoenix Guard slaughters Siyan and Rajadi nationals in Laiphu. Hamide Golzar! Mul Dura! Anywhere the world wants someone to decide no more and make the problem go away instead of wringing hands and bemoaning the result. What good, otherwise, is money and title?”

Aysun’s brown eyes come to rest on Darius’s face, and her soft glance differs little from the beseeching look cast upon her by her dog.

He wants to take out Golzar? The greatest magic worker in living memory?

A wealthy, entitled, frustrated idealist, then, meaning Aysun’s assessment of Efe’s danger to himself might be well understated—especially if Efe has little experience of the world lived by artisans, merchants and even dark Lords. His hands speak of weapons well handled, but one can acquire callouses without threat to life or health. Darius has seen more of the world than some, but he has experience enough to know he isn’t experienced enough, not for this. Yet before he met the belt, he travelled the continent, reading and scribing, and found the world to be less dangerous than he assumed. Isn’t that what Efe needs to be safe, up until the moment he draws the knife? Isn’t that something Darius can give him, given it is the very quality he now sells?

The Master recommends Darius to employers who need a magician that doesn’t look like a magician, a man dismissed by everyone—sometimes even the people paying for his services—until the hell breaks. They saw it in him when he was a stammering boy standing before their desk with no understanding as to why he’d agreed to the belt’s preposterous idea, and they still saw it in him when he was a divergent boy, damaged and broken by his fellow students. They saw him wilt and sent him to Eren Adalet, who did nothing to help Darius grasp a sword but gave him access to a magic neither March nor Osprey mentioned during Darius’s years at the College. The Master knew from the beginning that he was strange and will never be otherwise—a magician and blood witch who can pass a little as a mercenary, overlooked and belittled. A divergent magician and blood witch a hundred times more dangerous because of, not despite, the world’s ignorant assumptions.

He isn’t a magic worker like Hamide Golzar, a threat Darius cannot fathom, but isn’t this his job? Something better, however terrifying, than bleeding out for barrels of seed?

Nine, eighteen, twenty-seven, thirty-six, forty-five. Nines have always been his favourite; Darius likes the pattern of ascending and descending numbers.

Nines are for special occasions.

“You’re hiring a mercenary, a magician. You’re not hiring a sex worker, a consort or a lover. You’ll treat me like a same man.” Darius pauses long enough to breathe deep, thinking through the words. “I’m not your groom, your cook, your masseur or your serviceman. You wish to travel as a working man, you do the same work as one. And we travel as scribes. A good scribe or historian can go anywhere, unasked and unquestioned. I’ve done it. This isn’t—not negotiable. None of it.”

The silence leaves him with nothing to do but struggle to ignore the itch.

Efe breaks into a broad smile. “Do you know how attractive you are when—” He grunts at the first contact of elbow to ribs, and growls when Aysun, apparently for good measure, repeats her blow. “Sister!”

Darius scowls. “This is the last time you comment on my perceived attractiveness. No comments, no flirting. Nothing. Not negotiable.”

Efe’s eyelids flicker. “And if I do?”

Darius glances at Aysun—she tilts her chin ever so slightly—before he slides into a cross-legged position on the floor, placing his gear in his lap. He reaches for the pencil with one hand and a slip of paper from his sleeve with the other, resting the paper on his knee—two lines, one for sandalwood with “stifle” and one for cedar with “constrict”. His head pounds as he binds the lines together, and he bites his lip as the drag batters his body, but it’s worth the weariness to see Efe Kadri stiffen like a dressmaker’s mannequin, his eyelids fluttering, his fingertips waving, but unable to raise his arms off his legs or lean forwards in his chair.

Darius works free the cube of gum elastic from his pocket, erases the relevant descriptors and crumples up the sheet.

“You don’t have my name!” The words fly from Efe’s lips in a gasping breath as he jerks his arms, lifts his feet, leans forwards, sighs.

No magician worth his ink will discuss the art of navigating around a shroudname to a stranger, but since it’s a statement of the obvious and he sees no benefit to explaining how he uses smell and perfume as an identifier—something uncommon to similar magicians—Darius says nothing. He returns the pencil and gum to his pocket. The lights blur his vision and his head sings, with increasing desperation, of the need to be supine on a flat surface.

“I told you.” The Master speaks a rung above inaudible. “Do you believe me now?”

Efe’s gritted voice sounds, to Darius, as though he talks through an extra set of teeth. “Liviu, I … won’t flirt with you.”

It isn’t an apology, but it might be as close to one as Efe gets.

“Thank you.” Darius nods. Shades, he’s doing this. “When are you thinking to begin? I’ll need to gather you things, a kit—your things won’t be right, not for a travelling scribe. Do you write yourself? Maybe you don’t have to.” He glances up at Efe, tries to guess his size, gives it up as pointless. “Maybe you should come with me. I don’t—clothes are hard, knowing how they fit. Guessing them. I’m not good at that.”

“Of course I write, man!” Efe scrunches up his face, but he speaks low enough that Darius suspects the indignation to be more token than not. “I’m not as ignorant as my sister thinks me. I brought two saddle geldings, a pack mule and the kit of a traveller. The horses are Siyan crosses—strong, hardy, not given to looks or fire, too common to be branded. The mule is ugly enough to be dismissed. I have only a secret compartment in the skirt of my saddle holding signet ring and proclamation; all else is drab and worn and ordinary. All I need do is pack food and dress.” He tilts his head, his eyes flickering across Darius. “You’ll need a smaller mount, though. Good gods, you’re tiny. You’ll be a man grown on a pony.”

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