Alida Quill is just fine spending hir holidays alone with a book if it means freedom from hir family's continued expectation to court and wed. When hir co-worker Ede sets hir up with a friend and won't take no for an answer, Alida plots an extravagant, public refusal scene to show everyone once and for all that ze will not date. Ever.
Ze doesn't expect to meet Antonius Quiver, a man with his own abrupt, startling declarations on the subject of romance.
It isn't courting if he schemes with hir to pay back Ede ... is it?
Contains: One autistic, aromantic organiser extraordinaire armed with coloured ink; one autistic, aromantic officer a little too prone to interrupting; and an allistic friend in want of better ways to go about introductions.
Content Advisory: Aromantic characters pressed into dating along with casual references to general amatonormativity and ableism.
Length: 3, 335 words (part two of two).
Endday greets Alida with clear skies and unseasonable warmth, the kind of weather that entices customers and denies excuses. Jan takes over for the lunch hour, giving Ede a wink suggestive of schemes approved by older siblings before insisting that Alida idle in returning. Ze has nothing to do but sigh, fetch hir purse and stow hir spelled papers inside hir coat.
Ze does cuddle Miep in a fit of protest until Ede, cursing, disregards custom and instruction to grab Alida by the hand, dislodge the cat and pull hir outside.
“You’re lucky Antonius absolutely won’t notice the hair,” Ede says, shaking her head at the grey-furred state of Alida’s good coat and skirts as she hurries them down the road towards Parliamentary Square. “Honestly, Alida!”
All Alida can think is that Ede chose one of the busiest, loudest parts of the city for this meeting. It feels a shame that ze must meet someone: sunshine comes too seldom in the waning days of Elsten’s autumn. What if ze takes Jan at his word and risks unwanted conversations with strangers by spending the afternoon in the park? Crunch the last fallen leaves under hir boots, watch the ducks, find a private spot to read the book hidden inside hir coat? If Alida must go to the trouble of rejecting a man to show Ede hir seriousness in not courting, ze at least deserves a quiet afternoon!
One quick conversation, freedom to follow. Ze can do this. Ze practiced hir speech to a startled Miep last night and this morning. Given how little time ze’s had to prepare for the unknowable, ze is as ready as possible.
Logic does nothing to ease hir sweating palms.
“Keep an eye out.” Ede steps out onto the square, a stretch of cobblestones surrounded on all sides by stern offices, court buildings and the Old Palace’s sweeping wings. Trees line all edges and the compass-point walkways, their barren boughs strung with lights and blue ribbons for the coming winter, and a cluster of food stalls forms a ring around the central fountain. “He’ll be by the Nine O’Clock statue.”
Spices, roasted chestnuts, cheese pastries and sausages scent the air. Ze likes most food smells and has learnt to tolerate perfumes, but the clatter of heels, horseshoes, handcarts and hollering humanity has Alida biting hir lip. Why are people so noisy?
“There, see?” Ede points just past the fountain.
Ze rises to hir tiptoes, fighting to see over a red-and-white awning shrouding an oliebollen cart. Few sellers take kindly to being asked to leave off the raisins and currents; ze prefers hirs with chunks of apple. Easier to make hir own at home, despite a rumbling stomach. Did ze remember breakfast this morning? “The … the guard uniform?”
“That’s him! Come on!”
Ede pulls Alida along after her, darting around too many people for hir comfort until a space clears between them and the marble figure of a tall, robed priestess with a sundial at her feet.
The man sitting at the bench beside the statue folds his newspaper and stands, clad in the cream, blue and navy uniform of the Parliamentary Guard. His black boots and brass buttons gleam as though daily polished, his blue sash aligns perfectly with his navy coat, and a blue silk ribbon holds back his wiry black hair. He stands perhaps half an inch taller than Alida, but his back and shoulders can’t possibly be any straighter. Thin lips bear no hint of a smile. The perennial boyishness of a beardless jaw offers a trace of softness, but that doesn’t keep hir stomach from twisting.
He stares at hir with all the sharp, proud flawlessness of an eagle surveying a baby rabbit.
“Ede,” he says in a monotone, glacial sort of voice, “I really think that—”
“Alida, this is Captain Antonius Quiver of the Parliamentary Guard.” Ede’s words, unwontedly breathless, trip over each other in her haste to speak. “He’s my cousin’s cousin, and he promised to be nice. Antonius, this is Adelheid Quill. I work at hir family’s store, and Alida promised ze won’t run away from you.” She offers both a too-big, too-bright smile. “Remember, Alida. I’m not doing the fireplace if you come back early! So … good luck, talk to each other and … talk, please. Please.”
Why does Antonius’s occupation get deliberate mention while Alida’s family, not hir labour and skill, defines hir?
Ede gathers up her skirts, flashes another nervous grin and, before Alida can say anything, darts off behind a sausage cart.
She was supposed to stay for long enough to hear Alida give hir speech! She wasn’t supposed to leave Alida alone with a glowering pistol-bearing guardsman!
“I,” Alida says, hir anger slamming into hir body like a storm blowing leaves from trees, “am the shop’s stock manager. I’m not ashamed of my work. I’m good at it.” Ze reaches inside hir coat, anxiety forgotten, to pull out hir slightly-crumpled bundle of papers. “I’m also not—”
Antonius turns his dark glare back to Alida. “I’m here because Opa is unbearable if I don’t appear to court someone once a season and Ede wouldn’t stop pestering me about our perceived perfection. I’m aromantic. I’m not interested in dating you or anyone else under any circumstances. I’m sorry that you’ll have to endure Ede after, but please spend this hour without me. If you’d lie about your being in my company, I’ll be grateful, but I won’t ask it of you. Good day and farewell.”
Without giving Alida even a breath’s space in which to respond, he turns to pick up his newspaper.
Hir sheets drop from stunned fingers to spill like rainbow-patterned leaves across the cobblestones.
“You too?” The words emerge from Alida’s lips in stumbling squeaks, but surprise puts hir past caring. “You’re aromantic, too? You’re aromantic?”
Antonius wheels to face hir, his thick eyebrows raised. “What?”
“I’m aromantic, and I don’t date, court, woo or pay suit to anyone. Not you, not anyone else, and I’m here because Ede wouldn’t stop.” Alida draws a breath, trying to slow hir words.
While Antonius’s expression doesn’t convey friendliness, his shoulders soften.
“And before she ran off, I was planning to tell you … what you told me, but in front of her, with bright signs and arm-waving, so she’d understand why begging me to date wouldn’t work, but...”
Did Ede say words like “date” or “court” in her repeated pleas? Alida can’t remember.
Antonius bends down to pick up the closest of Alida’s papers, unfolding the sheet of thick, creamy foolscap.
“Oh, close that one!” Alida exclaims as the sunlight activates the spell—causing the words I’m AROMANTIC, Ede to glow a vivid, eye-stinging green. Ze crouches, in part to look away from the horrendously bright ink taking up most of the paper, in part to avoid everyone else’s looking at the intentionally-unmissable green, and in part to gather hir signs before someone opens the pink one. “Quick!”
Antonius crumples the paper and shoves it inside his outer coat pocket before stooping to help gather the rest. “You’re also a mage.”
“I only went for two years, so I’m not.”
Most people question that, but Antonius barks a hoarse laugh and straightens as Alida gathers the last paper. “I believe that Ede didn’t mention the other’s aromanticism to either of us?”
“No. No.” Alida shakes hir head and stands without stepping on hir skirts. “I … I’ve always wanted to get a strong magnet to hold above her head, just to see if it removes all her hairpins. Can you imagine her braids all tumbling at once? I think it’d have to be a spelled one, and I don’t know how myself. I wouldn’t waste money on that kind of … oh, frivolous curiosity, but I’m so tempted! I have to do something!”
Antonius sits on the bench, folded foolscap sheets clasped in his hands, elbows resting on his knees. While his chortle still lacks warmth, his lips curl upwards.
Alida watches, bewildered by hir honesty and his reaction.
Finally, he sits up; Antonius’s sable eyes rest a little too hard on Alida’s own. “Quill, I’ll sport half a spelled magnet, if you’re in want of incentive—on the obligation that you should put it to use when my cousin and I pay call on your business.”
Part of Alida wonders at the absurdity of planning such a scheme with a near-stranger. Jette will as good as consider that courting; Jan will call on the priestesses to begin marriage arrangements. Ede, however, deserves payback, and Alida doesn’t have money for books and magnets both. “By blood and name and craft. When should we...?”
Antonius tucks the newspaper under his arm and rises, holding out the rest of hir papers. “Are you otherwise occupied now?”
“No.” Ze considers, stuffing the papers back inside hir coat. Won’t Antonius’s bluntness make him more receptive to direct confession? “You should know that I’m not … good … with people. That’s what Ede does at the shop. So I don’t really know … how to...” How to go to a shop in the company of a near-stranger, a stranger that requires more than the simpler scripts for making purchases, without Ede or a sibling to push hir about.
Hir family never understood why Alida found the Academy so difficult.
Antonius barks another laugh. “What makes you think I know?”
Blunt, rude, threatening, prone to interrupting—and self-aware, generous, possessing of a sense of humour. Antonius isn’t as frightening as he seems on first glance, but in many ways that makes him more dangerous. What if this is courting?
“Just so you’re not expecting … normality, I suppose.”
He scoffs. “I haven’t any interest in what people consider normal, for all that they try to foist this on me.” He sweeps a hand towards the northern edge of the Square and the direction of Sparks Row, where magical artisans and suppliers run all the way to the Academy. “Shall we try something abnormal? Don’t take my arm; I don’t like being touched.”
“Abnormal,” Alida agrees, relieved that Antonius seems uninterested in anything not walking beside hir—and that ze need not offer him a sweaty palm plastered with cat hair. “I don’t like noise.”
“We’ll stay off the canals.” He leads off towards the edge of the Square, avoiding the throng of food carts, but his pace isn’t so fast that Alida can’t walk alongside.
Ze decides his surprising acceptance makes him safe enough and, after wiping hir hands, reaches into hir skirt pocket to remove a puzzle of interlocking metal rings. Turning the rings back and forth relaxes or distracts hir, but too many people ask questions about an adult person playing with children’s toys.
Antonius glances at Alida, frowning, before he slips one hand inside his coat—retrieving a tattered piece of velvet ribbon that he threads between his fingers. “Where did you get that contraption and how may I get my own?”
This rare question, too, suggests ze can indulge in honesty. “The priestess who diagnosed me knows a craftsman, Cilla, who makes bits for the hands.”
Ze pauses, waiting, but Antonius doesn’t react to hir revelation. He only watches as Alida moves the rings, much like the way Miep studies a mouse peering out from under a bookshelf. Aware enough of the world to avoid clusters of people, but entranced by hir hands.
“I can show you, if you like? The shop’s just off Sparks Row.”
“Please.” The word emerges from Antonius’s lips with surprising vehemence. “My priestess mentioned no such wonders, but everything is easier when I have something in my hands. Something not a person touching me.”
“I know.” It surprises hir that ze doesn’t hesitate before holding out the toy. It doesn’t surprise hir that he’s kin in more ways than aromanticism. “Try, please.”
Antonius’s expression doesn’t radiate gentleness, but it possesses no falsehood, no pretence, no misdirection. He’ll never smile the way Ede does, but Alida has no need to guess his moods or hope ze can identify what lies beneath them. He won’t mask his feelings with politeness and then grow annoyed when Alida can’t see past it.
What does it mean that Ede may be right?
He takes the rings and places the ribbon in hir palm, careful not to touch Alida’s stubby fingers. “I hope you understand that this connection between us still doesn’t and won’t, ever, obligate or even suggest a romantic partnership—this device is wondrous.”
Relief and amusement both make hir grin. “I don’t date, court, woo or pay suit to anyone, ever … but maybe I’d like, Quiver, to have a friend.”
“Yes. I think, yes.” Antonius nods, his lean brown hands smoothly turning the rings. “But friendship or no, Ede still deserves a magnet for her hairpins.”
Alida can’t remember the last time ze laughed in someone else’s company.
Ze can’t remember the last time ze felt this hopeful about continuing it.
Two people stare at Alida as ze pushes open the front door, smiling as though finding deep satisfaction in hir lateness. Their lips broaden to grins as ze holds the door open for Antonius, and Alida looks at the shelf display behind the counter, unable to bear the weight of their expectation. “My brother, Johannes Quill,” ze says, pushing the door shut behind him. “Half-owner of and buyer for Quills’. Jan, Ede’s cousin’s cousin, Captain Antonius Quiver of the Parliamentary Guard.”
Perhaps ze should have waited for customers to provide distraction. Antonius, his lips pressed together in a tight line, stands so rigidly that he best resembles a wooden toy soldier. Only his fingers move, clicking metal ring against metal ring with a speed that Alida takes as anxiety, not so different from the way ze starts sliding hir coat buttons in and out of the holes.
At least Ede only stares at Alida and the bag dangling from hir arm.
Jan bows, a little too low and deep, before folding his hands on the counter. The Quill family never dared dream of marriage to an officer when it comes to Alida’s future. “I am so very pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Quiv—”
“Did you,” Antonius asks, turning to face Ede, “arrange this meeting with the intent of establishing a romantic interest between us?”
Even that doesn’t lessen Jan’s shop-wrought smile.
Ede blinks, today’s loose-coiled braids brushing her shoulders. “Of course not! I just knew that both of you were autistic aromantics, and it’d be a crime against the divine to not have you meet—as friends. I don’t know why you had to be so stiff-necked about it!” She jumps on the spot, her eyebrows raised in that searching expression presaging a barrage of questions. “Did you go shopping together? Alida, you went shopping with someone?”
“You didn’t tell me that Alida is also aromantic.” Antonius pairs his flat words with a glowering scowl. “Or autistic.”
Ede smiles, as undeterred by his mood as a dog is by a puppy’s growl. “Yes, I did. That’s why you two had to meet! And it’s perfect, isn’t it?”
Alida shakes hir head. “You didn’t tell me. Not once.”
Ede’s lips part; she stands, eyebrows raised, gaping. “You thought—oh.” She darts around the counter, skirts rustling, braids flying, brown cheeks dappled with a hint of scarlet. “I’m sorry! I thought you should meet someone who wouldn’t want to court you! I’m so sorry!”
“Then why did you tell me what to wear?” Alida folds hir arms over hir chest as Ede barrels towards them.
“Because you look so good in those skirts! Doesn’t ze, Antonius?”
Antonius blinks, taking a step backwards. “I have no opinions on another’s clothing beyond efficacy and comfort.” He hesitates, rings clacking. “There does appear to be a greater than usual addition of cat hair. May I meet them?”
Jan leans against the counter, listening. He still smiles, but his eyes flicker between Alida and Antonius with a marked air of something like bemusement or incomprehension—something he chooses to let Alida see. Both men are similar on first glance, possessed of a shared tendency to professional polish and pressing. Jan wears a neat grey suit above shiny black shoes, almost as good as a uniform. He too ties his mouse-brown hair back from his beardless face. But Jan knows how to make his expressions tell falsehoods, and obeying the same rules about comportment doesn’t lessen their differences.
Like Jette, he’s family.
Blood doesn’t necessitate connection.
“Yes.” Alida scans the shop for a flash of grey before deciding Miep must be in the stockroom. “I’ll fetch him out. Will you please slow your hands a little?”
“Noise. I apologise.” Antonius nods and slides the set of rings inside his inner pocket, retrieving the faded velvet ribbon in their place.
“See?” Ede murmurs, brows high, waving her hands at Alida and Antonius. “Perfect!”
Perfect. Alida shakes hir head and darts into the stockroom, finding Miep sitting on a pile of crates. One surprising afternoon comprising good weather and a companion that didn’t overwhelm, frustrate or pressure Alida. A companion that talks precisely, doesn’t fear using words that had hir mocked in school and doesn’t object to direct request or instruction. A companion who didn’t push or challenge when the conversation strayed to Alida’s classes at the Academy or hir work at the shop. A companion whose set, dour face lit up when Alida showed him Cilla’s array of wooden and metal puzzles—understanding, in the way hir siblings can’t, the wonderment in what others dismiss as toys.
The afternoon felt closer to perfect than Alida thought possible, but it didn’t come without preceding days of anxiety and annoyance.
Ze emerges with a grey tabby cat draped over hir chest and shoulder. Miep’s claws dig into Alida’s coat, but Antonius doesn’t attempt touch. He just holds out his fingers close enough for Miep to brush skin with whiskers, withdrawing when Miep stiffens. “Thank you. He’s beautiful.”
Alida lowers Miep to the ground, accounts it a good sign when Miep sits and stares at Antonius, and rests hir fingers on hir left-hand coat pocket—the pocket containing a spell-wrought magnet.
Antonius bows, straight-backed like the pair of nutcrackers Oma used to keep in her dining room. “Quill, may I call on you at noon next Endday? I wish to bring my cousin to see the shop.”
“Don’t bring Rien!” Ede howls, her words loud enough to make Alida wince. “Do this on your own!”
That gives Alida a week to practice on pen nibs and sewing pins, just to be sure of setting the spell to draw the largest number of hairpins at once. “You may.”
“Thank you. May I also call on you after morning services tomorrow?” Antonius pauses, his words no longer quite so measured: “Just for a short time? Perhaps a walk should the weather still be good? And then I’ll leave you to your afternoon?”
He understands the need for those hours Ede so disdains—hours free of even the best people in favour of a book or craft. Hours allowing survival in a world that isn’t easily accommodating of hir—of them. Unlike so many stories, though, there’s no fluttering in hir heart, no giddy expectation. Just, for the first time that Alida can remember, a quiet, wondrous potential. A chance, perhaps, at finding another person companionable in ways that provide some of the things Ede thinks important while preserving everything Alida thinks important.
“Yes. Yes. But this isn’t dating, courting, wooing or paying suit to you.” Ze ignores Ede’s delighted squeal; only the slight upwards curve of Antonius’s lips matters to Alida. “Do you like currents, Quiver? Or raisins?”
“No. I don’t. They’re too sweet and too … shrivelled.”
Alida grins and, thinking that Antonius has endured enough of Ede and Jan, opens the shop door to a cooling late afternoon breeze. “Then I’ll make us oliebollen without them.”