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I am too big for this country. That was obvious within minutes of arriving through the gate from our homeworld. Though I’m just as human as they are, the people of this world have not thought to accommodate their more robust brethren. It is bothersome and perplexing.
I hit my head on the top of the doorway leading into the passport office, and it wasn’t by a narrow margin or a gentle graze. I had to hunch my shoulders just to get through, and I still managed to crack the top of my forehead against the doorjamb. The chairs are tiny. The tables low. Below me is a sea of head tops and shoulders. Even the men are shorter than I, and that is the strangest thing of all. I don’t, typically, have to look down to meet a man’s eyes, and it bothers me that I have no other option here.
This electric carriage is supposed to fit four comfortably, six cozily. With only Sourblossom and myself our knees are lifted and pressed to our stomachs. Being a bull elf, she’s a head shorter and thinner throughout, but still just outside the capacity of what this world is able to realistically accommodate.
“Tabea, are you holding up okay?” She taps me on the knee a few times. I can see the coachman squirm through the tiny window. It’s possible he’s unnerved by our native language, but it’s equally likely he’d be uncomfortable even if we were silent. Possibly more so.
“I’m fine,” I respond. “I hate this, but I’m fine. Can you ask the coach driver how much farther?”
Sourblossom leans forward and opens the window to speak through the fine grate between us and the driver. She speaks to him in that language I don’t grasp. I know a few words. How to say hello and ask for the embassy. Most of it sounds like garbled nonsense with an overabundance of hard sounds and spitting. It’s the language of commerce, though, so of course they speak it here in this hub-city. Sourblossom’s people are naturally gifted at picking up languages, though. They’re good at a lot of things my people aren’t by our peoples’ mutual design. They call it applied symbiosis. We call it voluntary selective breeding. Either way, we can barely function without each other anymore.
“He says it will be a bit, still. We’re going to someplace called Tower Watch, and it’s all the way across the city from our gate.” Sourblossom pats me on the knee again and lets her hand linger a little longer than she’s supposed to in public. It doesn’t matter. No one can see us in here, and it’s not like they’d understand the implications, anyway.
I set my head against the coach window and watch the city pass by outside. We have cities like this at home, of course, but it’s the subtle things that feel so alien. Warm red bricks instead of smooth white stone makes everything look like it’s caked in mud. The shop windows are full of light clothes. Dresses. Skirts. I tug on the fur collar of my cloak. We used a series of transportation ritual circles to get to the gate on our side, but we were primarily indoors most of the journey up to this point. It’s only now that I’m realizing just how awfully hot it is under all these layers of trousers and stockings and woolly shirts. I’m actually perspiring under my clothes in a most unbecoming way. I glance over at Sourblossom. There are beads of sweat on her brow, as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her sweat outside the sauna. This is ridiculous. How do these people deal with this heat?
I start pulling things off. The latch of my cloak undoes itself easily. There’s a padded vest under that with too many buckles. Why do my clothes have so many buckles? What is the point of having so many damn buckles? And the metal is always cold and frosts over when you go outside. There’s clinking next to me on the bench. Sourblossom has followed my lead and is stripping off her top layers. Cloak, furry sweater, knitted vest, all the way down to a muslin shirt that hugs her straight and narrow frame, her gray skin making shadows against it. I get distracted watching her and my hands make unsuccessful passes at the ties of the shirt under the vest I finally managed to unbuckle. The bow that’s supposed to be in the cording has become a knot. I tug at it a few times. I’m not good at knots. There are those among the mongrels of the Neighboring Alliance that can weave intricate tapestries by thinking at a loom in the right way, and I’m lucky if I tie my horse up tight enough to the post that it doesn’t wander away. It’s not entirely fair.
As I glare down at the cording laying haphazardly on my breast in consternation, a pair of thin fingers reach across to me. Sourblossom makes a low tching sound at me. I feel one of her shoulders press against mine as she fiddles with the cording, but I can’t bear to look at her when she’s this close to me.
“We should buy dresses while we’re here,” she remarks casually and pulls away, her task complete. I chuff at her as I pull the shirt off over my head. I have a muslin shirt at this layer, too, but I don’t wear it as delicately as she does. Well…relatively speaking. To me she’s always seemed so fragile and feminine and breakable, but I know, logically, that outside our home we’re both seen as equally monstrous. Two beast-women prancing haughtily through the city.
“You really want to buy a dress of all things?” I say once I’m able. “Why? When would we even wear it?” I half turn my head toward her to meet her eyes, but she’s peering out the window curiously.
She shrugs to her reflection in the window. “In the summer?”
“Ah, yes….all five days of it.”
Sourblossom punches me in the arm. “And everyone is miserable. We’d be the only ones who are actually prepared. We’ll cause a fashion revolution.”
“That’s not the sort of revolution I’m interested in,” I say quietly. Sourblossom shoots me a warning look, but I don’t particularly care. There’s a reason we’re on this world after all.
The building we pull up to looks like one of the newer ones in a neighborhood that seems ancient. There’s a woman waiting for us by the wrought-iron gate that leads into the small courtyard in front. She’s short and boxy even compared to the other people here. She’s very firm, though. Tough. Stalwart. A woman of mass and character. I like her instantly. She’s not who we’re here to see, though.
Sourblossom and Chi (as she manages to introduce herself to me) blather at one another as we make our way through the gate, up a small stone path and steps, and through giant wooden doors.
The inside of the Tomar mercenary guild is surprisingly impressive. This is not a world, nor even a country, that is known for its warriors, after all. This is a place of merchants and commerce. But no matter. The war weary must gather someplace, and this is as good as any. Chi brings us through a room of long tables and benches. Quite a few are gathered, but their voices float up and get lost in the high arched ceiling, leaving just a gentle, indistinguishable murmur over the whole hall. No one seems to make note of us, and I prefer it that way.
Chi brings us up through a narrow staircase hidden behind a couple of walls set against each other at strange angles, like the passageway was meant to be hidden, but it wasn’t done properly. At the top of the stairs and down another hallway, Chi stops us at another large, heavy door. She knocks once, then opens it. Music drifts out. It has lyrics, but they’re in the local language. I think I catch vague drifts of thought. It’s a love song, perhaps. It’s accompanied by gentle, masculine humming.
When he stands, the ariesian is certainly huge, but still only just as tall as Sourblossom. The horns sprouting from the front of his head curl back across the top toward his crown where they abruptly bend upward. This puts the tip of those horns at my eye level, and I find myself tracking them as he approaches us.
“Hello, Young Madame Ahlberg.” He’s talking to me, not Sourblossom. And it’s one of the languages of my region. That’s certainly new. Sourblossom shoots me the deadliest of glares. In having to rely on her to craft our presentation, she had insisted on approaching the matter in a more diplomatic manner than I thought necessary. If I was the one to be engaging in talks, this changed things, considerably. I cast her an equally spurious gaze. She wasn’t going to be in control of this one.
“Mr. Steelshanks,” I address him.
“Sledgehammer. Everyone calls me Sledgehammer. Your father should have told you that.” He leans his bulky weight back on his heels, crossing his arms lightly across the lower part of his chest.
“My father told me to call you Dorrit if I ever met you in person because your given name makes you squirm.” I’m smirking inexpertly. It’s not a thing I’m accustomed to, but it seems like the thing to do. The one he gives back to me is much more practiced.
“That sounds like him. Sit.” He gestures to two large chairs. They’re the first that have been big enough for us. He sits on the giant desk that’s taking up the bulk of the room. This allows him to look at me in the eye.
“So, how has my old friend taken to the sudden push into politics?” He says.
“Like a deer across a frozen pond.”
“Hm. Well. He was always a man of action. It’s…odd…to say the least, that your Queen would choose to appoint him to the court.” He’s choosing his words carefully, but it’s hard to tell whether from discretion or a less-than-firm grasp of the vocabulary.
“Yes the Queen has made a number of poor choices.”
Sourblossom gives me a dark look, and I turn my eyes from it. Steelshanks has narrowed his eyes at me, too, however.
“Why did your father send you, exactly?”
“I am my own woman. I’m here of my own accord.”
“And you’ve decided to take up the mantle of his cause all on your own, then?”
“Then I was right to send Chi down to get you. You haven’t been seen with me, yet, so you need to leave before someone does. I don’t want any part of whatever it is you may be up to. I also highly recommend you reconsider your involvement, as well. You’re getting into something you might regret.” He slides down from his desk, and relishes the moment that he can be taller than I. I stand to steal that from him.
“You made a promise to him. You told him that you would help his cause. With him under the eye of the Queen it is my job to carry forward with his intentions now that I’ve come into my own. By the code of the Bosmari soldier, that means that I am now owed that promise, and I intend to collect.”
He’s angry. I can see it boil up from his gut through his face and to the very tips of his horns.
“I’m not a Bosmari soldier, and neither are you. You’re a little girl playing political revolution.”
I begin to bristle, but then I feel a hand touch the outside edge of my own. When I slant my eyes downward they meet Sourblossom’s. She hasn’t moved from her chair, her powerful legs crossed one over the other, still. She hasn’t moved an inch since she sat.
“So, you’ll go back on your word?”
He smirks again, and it infuriates me.
“I made that promise to your father when the old King died, and your country was still at war and it needed people to take charge. That’s been, what, fifteen years, now? Your world’s a different place. My world’s a different place. Your countries are all at peace for the first time in how many hundreds of years? You’re really telling me that not just you, but your father really wants to wreck that? It stops being a righteous political coup when the current administration is doing a better job than the old one.”
I choke back a sigh. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand.
“The Princess just had her first child. A little half-Bosmarian, half…..savage baby. The little whelp is going to be our King.”
“And the Cofash always called you savages, and sitting on one of their thrones someday, is going to be a half-Bosmari, half-Cofash, as well. That was the whole point of the arrangement.” He leans back against the desk. “Do I really have to teach you your own history?”
I want to punch him. I want to wrap my hands around his throat and crush his airway until he can no longer take in breath. I want to watch the light fade from his eyes. I take a deep breath to calm myself.
“I suppose I really can’t expect you to understand the honor of pure Bosmari bloodlines and the warrior’s heart. You’re just a sellsword, after all.” I mean for it to sting. To burn him from the inside out. He laughs.
“You were…what….eight when the treaties were signed? Seven? And you lived out in the countryside with your mom while your dad worked his ass off to protect his kingdom and try to put things back together. And I know all this because I was the one he called in to consult on protecting the caravans getting supplies out to the people whose trade lines had been cut off. You don’t know crap about war or being a warrior. And as far as pure Bosmari bloodlines,” his eyes shoot to Sourblossom pointedly, “right. Because Bosmari have only ever stuck to their own kind.” He pauses gently.
“Get out of my office, and go see the damn worlds.”
“We have to call for a carriage in the next twenty minutes and get back to the gate, or we’re stuck here for the night.” Sourblossom is standing over me. There is a park a block or two down from the mercenary guild building, and we have found our way to it idly. I don’t think I’ve moved from this bench for about an hour. It has been silent until now.
“What in a snow hare’s arse would someone like him even know about the Bosmari?”
She hands me the frozen dessert she had left to retrieve. It’s chocolate. Chocolate is hard to come by back home, so I’m not used to its bitterness. I eat it, but I don’t really taste it.
“It seems to me like he knows quite a bit.” Sourblossom doesn’t look at me as she eats her own dessert. She got one with berries. “He knows the history. He knows the politics. And he is correct. He was instrumental in getting supplies where they were needed. My village was one of them, and I was old enough to actually remember.”
I purse my lips at her.
“So you’re on his side, then? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“It’s not about sides. You wanted to come here to talk to him because you respect him. Because your father has spoken highly of him your whole life. Did that suddenly all change because you didn’t hear what you wanted?”
The paper bowl my dessert is in crumbles as I subconsciously tighten my fists around it. The frozen cream oozes out into my hands. I let the remains drop onto the ground between my feet, and wipe my fingers on my pants. They remain sticky afterward, however, and that irritates me more now than it would any other time.
“Old men. They don’t see the way world is, anymore.”
“Tabea.” Sourblossom’s voice is stern, and I turn to her sharply. “Just…stop it.” She’s angry. I’ve never seen her angry. Not genuinely like this. “I came to work in your household seven years ago. And the whole time it’s just been….” She sighs and leans against the back of the bench. “It was cute at first, you know? There was a sort of endearing quality to your sense of political rebellion. It was….I don’t know…romantic. ‘The honor of the Bosmari.’ ‘Glory in Death.’ All the old chivalric codes. I assumed you’d grow out of them.” She leans forward over her knees, and flicks her head at me. “But it’s not cute, anymore. We’re too old to keep playing knights and dragons. The Cofash aren’t our enemies, and they haven’t been for almost as long as you’ve been alive. The old ranks are retired, and the standing military is defensive, at best. No one wants to fight anymore except you and your little brigade of pretentious, sheltered, pseudo-revolutionaries whose only knowledge of war are the stories Daddy told you over state dinners at the governor’s mansion. So just….stop. Because I just…can’t…with you…anymore.”
Things are silent in the wake of her outburst. I stop looking at her, and she stares ahead at some discrete point on the path that winds through the park toward us.
“What do you mean ‘you can’t?’” I say after a while, still digesting her complaints. Sourblossom sighs.
“If this continues…this….activism of yours…I won’t be sticking around. I’ll go to work for someone else. I just….I don’t want to be a part of it anymore, even on the periphery. It makes me…tired. I have to do what I have to do.”
“You would just leave? You’d leave me? Does the cause mean nothing to you? Do I mean nothing to you?” And as I say it I realize that it is that thought that hurts me the most.
I see her, sitting there, this person who has been by my side for so long, and the thought of being without her fills me up and it…burns. This whole time I had always assumed she’d be there, riding the waves of my glorious ideals with me. But without her….without Sourblossom…those plans seem so hollow. So lacking. So easily disposable.
For the first time I doubt. For the first time I am unsure. For the first time the thing with which I had built myself starts to collapse, and I realize that my faith in Sourblossom’s companionship had been the thing propping it up.
As as I look at her, and see her shoulders hunch and her head hang, and her fists clench and unclench the empty air, and her body curl in on itself under the weight of her exasperation, I sense her already starting to pull away, to detach from me. And I feel…small.