(In Which Harper Can’t Talk His Way Out of Trouble)
“Be sensible,” Mama says, “or be dead.”
Harper Mitzin Seili is many things: fashionable, witty, queer. Cautious … not so much. Nonetheless, life as a tavern server on the working side of Ihrne’s dividing wall demands preparation and limitation. He obeys the rules that matter. He remembers what Mama sacrificed for his chance to live as a man. Besides: the end-of-war Proclamations, issued in the name of Ihrne’s trans crown prince, promise a new, better world. A world in which safety doesn’t require his rejecting connection, intimacy and that shifting, nebulous thing called “attraction”.
But when the Traditionalists take up violence in protest of noble-issued laws, Harper’s risky ventures and glib tongue don’t just fail to steer him out of trouble: they destroy the life he and Mama spent two years building. He can stay and suffer at the hands of his neighbours … or begin anew in another place, under another name. A place where he must now submit to every restriction Mama, in her fears for him, deems “safe” and “sensible”.
A third way exists for Harper, if only he dares break Mama’s foremost rule … and several of his own.
If Mama trusts him to lie about a betrothal to a girl in Astreut, why can’t she also trust him to decide when to risk participating in a world void of safety?
Contains: An abrosexual, abroromantic trans man who can’t bring himself to perform restrictive masculinity but clings to the illusion of fine amid deepest hell; a gay, quoiromantic cis man struggling to help a liar he loves in a not-a-crush way; and a world in which cishets’ violence and hatred twist even queer affection into a weapon harming their own.
Content Advisory: References to classism; references to misogyny, cissexism, heterosexism and queer antagonism; casual references to sex and sexual attraction; casual references to romance, kissing and dating; references to self-harm, trauma, and emotionally unhealthy/abusive relationships; frequent references to and descriptions of blood, injury, violence, death, necromancy and decomposition. This story depicts queer-antagonistic slurs, attacks, threats and acts of violence made against the protagonist by cisgender heterosexuals that go ignored by witnesses and police. It also depicts later acts of violence against said attackers made by the protagonist.
Length: 3, 247 words.
Note: I think most queers, unless we have a good deal of privilege on other axes, well understand the feeling that inclusive changes in law or procedure announced by leadership figures fail to protect us if other people don’t agree to be governed by them. While I write with the speed of a dozing snail, I have always planned for Paide and Ein, the royal protagonists of the other Eagle Court stories, to learn that many layers of obstruction–in priest-judges, nobles, ministers, community leaders and the police–exist between Proclamations that permit a trans prince’s existence and Harper’s ability to walk down the street. How Harper brings that revelation about, though, is the subject of a future story.
Like the Other Prince, instead, focuses on the way queerness, in a world of hatred and antagonism, often requires the tragedy of our rejecting safety to find personal—if not societal—liberation.
The sun, barely cresting the city’s outer wall, can’t keep early-spring’s cold from nibbling at Harper’s ears. He shivers, pulls his scarf tight about his throat and, standing on tiptoes, eases open the tenement door. Mama forbade his going out, so he dressed and made up his face to the chorus of her soft, raspy snores. He’ll return to an almighty row, but guilt and fear can’t browbeat him into staying if he leaves first … and why shouldn’t he turn out for a glimpse at the princes who so upended his life? What purpose does this experiment in expressing his masculinity serve if Harper must forever skulk at home?
He’s a man grown as reckoned by every religion this side of the Shearing Straits. He abides by, and acknowledges the sense in, most of Mama’s restrictions. Never has he left home without conforming his body and dress to meet, roughly, social expectations. Never has he revealed himself even to his few friends. If Mama trusts him to lie about a betrothal to an Astreuch girl, why can’t she also trust him to decide when to risk participating in a world void of safety?
Just be sensible.
Outside, Harper’s breath forms faint puffs of white, the alleyway swathed by deep shadow. Winter torments him with aching toes and fingers that won’t stay warm even when shod and gloved, but the spring to come portends no relief. Ihrne’s baking summers condemn a man who binds his chest and conceals his hands to brutal sweltering. Only rare autumn days, clear and mild, soften the seasons’ message: you don’t belong here.
When his shaken purse makes no noise, where can he go?
Harper sighs, grits his teeth and tiptoes past the spinach pots cluttering the stoop. Only when he passes the grocer’s youngest delivery boy does he relax into a normal stride away from Mama’s ears and towards Devotion Lane, frowning at the growing chatter. He thought to see a few early-rising folks set on getting a good place to watch the parade of returning bones, soldiers and Old Family nobles—much like him. A cacophony of shouts and cries, on the other hand…
Horrified, he hesitates by the draper’s empty window. A sea of people surges down the lane, waving and laughing as though the crisp hour can’t be described as “ungodly”. Never has he seen so many of the Boneyard’s denizens display ribbon-adorned caps and fresh-polished boots! The workers of Ihrne, perhaps encouraged by the promise of fruit from Arsh and a day’s wages returned from the taxmen, throng the streets in early celebration or protest … although Harper expects noble speeches to go ignored in favour of dancing, drink and dice.
Tomorrow, perhaps, Ihrne will remember farmland decimated by war and the dead’s solemn return to their sleep beneath the Eyrie.
Today, beaming neighbours slap each other on the shoulder. Why shouldn’t they? It’s a holiday, a festival, the farewell to winter and privation: soldiers and bones returned home, a war ended. Children wave blue rags, matrons wear white kerchiefs embroidered with cyan feathers and stars, men thread rosettes made from knotted cords through top buttonholes. Harper chose a faded blue shirt and scarf—despite scant affection for Ihrne or the Itemes who rule—in the name of maintaining appearances, but he won’t make his stiff lips smile.
How can he feign gladness when azure flowers surrender to an infestation of pink and red weeds?
For months after King Hiletan’s death, the Convocation’s surprise announcement and Prince Paide’s declaration of war, Harper hoped that the Lucky Horseshoe’s talk was just that—talk fuelled by beer, deprivation and grievance. Harper, his server’s smile concealing heaving anger, told himself that he heard ignorance stoked to bitterness by the district’s usual bullshitters and rabblerousers. Night after night, listening to his neighbours’ drunken speeches as he carried and cleaned, he told himself that the Lucky Horseshoe’s clientele didn’t represent the Boneyard entire. Night after night, as Ragen’s whispered barbs grew more explicit, Harper reminded himself of Mother Lielen’s many kindnesses and Nevo and Sopha’s friendship. Hatred, targeting the prince who upended a monarchy, will ebb when the war ends and stability returns. Some people, maybe most people, will accept Harper if he dares reveal himself.
Such hope, he realises, was always futile.
Raging against deliverance of a law they believe a dangerous imposition on a long-suffering, ordinary citizenry, the Traditionalists proclaim defiance with vivid reds and pinks. Pink for girl, a declaration that Prince Einas ein Iteme is, in the minds of the right-thinking, an irrational indulgence of a princess’s illness. Red for rejection, a refusal of the end-of-war Proclamations 839 and 840 issued by Prince-Regent Paide ein Iteme affirming his brother’s masculinity and announcing a change of law—the voiding of several prior Proclamations—concerning marriage and gender. Pink and red for tradition, a world in which the now-traitorous priests return to condemning same-gender relationships and the constabulary assumes the queer guilty of “immoral conduct”.
Harper slips a hand inside his coat pocket, tracing the pitted surfaces of his rock collection with leather-shrouded fingertips.
Traditionalist men don scarlet waistcoats, hatbands, scarves and armbands; most accompany a wife—every Traditionalist man must have or want a wife and a score of children—clad in rose-hued gowns, coats and bonnets. Wealthier Boneyard citizens parade status through additional bows, buttons and trim, but even the folks hard up for coin deck themselves in borrowed, made-over and home-dyed coral and coppery-red hues. The elderly Mairille sisters, dubbed “Peck” and “Preen” by the Boneyard’s youths because their bobbing walk and cooing voices so resemble Ihrne’s many pigeons, wear pink yarrow blossoms threaded through their white braids. A beaming Sopha saunters past the apothecary, a battered red cap perched atop his thick curls, and Harper reels in shock. Sopha? Red? How could he?
Does Nevo know? Does Nevo wear—
“No red, Seili? Finally copping to your deviant ways?”
Sweat moistens Harper’s spine as he turns his head.
Ragen ein Ilveine, towing his wife behind him, strolls down Devotion Lane. While her bright-pink skirts and tomato shawl insult subtlety, Ragen doesn’t let his affiliations overwhelm his usual good taste: his reds comprise a waistcoat, a scarf and his coat’s set of scarlet buttons. Despite the colour, Harper admits Ragen more than a little attractive: how does one not appreciate a young man possessed of an enviously smooth complexion, lush lips, a narrow nose running just this side of sharpness, sculpted legs, well-cut clothing … and a pert, inviting rear provoking more than a few—utterly horrifying—fantasies?
The Boneyard’s labourers don’t easily reckon men like Ragen, with his long eyelashes and expensive clothes, “handsome”. Unlike other men, this quality escapes gossip and conjecture; Ragen owns the security offered by family, wealth … and his vindictive, unrelenting harassment of any man less masculine, as the Traditionalists reckon such things, than he. Harper once felt a shred of sympathy, as a queer man forced to navigate the absurdity that is manhood in Ihrne, but two years of barbs, digs and insults soon rendered such pity fleeting at most.
Harper—effeminate, verbose and foreign-named—makes too good a target, but his refusal to fawn at Ragen’s admittedly-admirable boots is, perhaps, the truest cause of enmity.
“What deviancy?” Harper smiles enough to appear affable, cocking one hip. “Do you mean realising that one should never offend the senses by pairing a cherry waistcoat with a partner’s excessively pink gown? I thought that simple common sense, myself…”
He learnt long ago that his attempts to copy downwall speech sound forced at best and condescending at worst, so he doesn’t try.
Olinne ai Ilveine’s narrow face darkens to match her husband’s coat as she studies her skirts, and Harper fights an inconvenient flash of guilt. Olinne—a spectre of tight ringlets, spotless gowns and polite delicacy, possessed of nothing so scandalous as personality—scarce has five words to speak in any given day, but Devotion Lane’s barroom gossips claim her father more than just pushed her to marry Ragen. Harper, never disinclined to eavesdrop while drying dishes, heard that said union involved forgiving long-outstanding gambling debts. Ragen, for his part, gained a pretty wife possessed of an upwall cousin and thereby the faintest chance at class mobility; never has Harper seen him treat her as anything more than ornamental.
She doesn’t deserve his humiliation, even if nobody believes Olinne chose to wear that beribboned insult to fine tailoring.
“I mean that everyone knows you bend over for Nevo’s prick every chance you get.” Ragen’s smooth voice rises, his words surely audible to everyone in the Boneyard—if not everyone this side of the Spires! “The moment we make Convocation rescind, I’ll send the constables to your door.” He releases Olinne’s hand to adjust one of many rings, tilting his head as if in thought. “If they catch you panting with your trousers down, will they let you pull them up before dragging you off?”
Never before have the denizens of Devotion Lane so obligingly surrendered to quiet.
Harper hesitates … and as the throng surround him and Ragen like an auditorium splashed with red and pink paint, the curious doing nothing to pretend that they haven’t stopped to gawk, he curses his foolishness. A solid wall forms between Harper and the alley—too solid a wall. Too familiar a wall. How can it be coincidental that most of Ragen’s drinking companions gathered to witness an early-morning exchange of insults?
Dare Harper forgo high-minded concepts like “shame”, “dignity” and “courage” by running for the small gap between Sopha and Maliea ein Ilveine? Will Sopha—just standing there, the traitor!—help him escape? Or will Harper’s fleeing invite audience participation in something starting to feel no small amount orchestrated?
Mama told him to stay home, stay safe, be sensible.
Perhaps, this time, he should have listened.
His hands fear-slick and stinging beneath his gloves, Harper tries for genteel horror. “I say, man! Did you, a good and loyal Traditionalist husband who’ll never be seen stepping out on the lovely Olinne, just describe the…” He lowers his voice, as though the words are too shocking for utterance. If Ragen wants to speak at dawn what he once whispered after midnight, let him acknowledge his crudity! “The ways men go about … intercourse? You mean fornication? Surely I didn’t hear you speak of something so indecent—and before your wife? Think of her dignity, man! Think of yours!”
Harper’s prior life—before naming himself, before he and Mama began anew on the other side of Ihrne’s dividing wall—as a companion-maid to noble daughters provides a grand collection of insufferable airs and exclamations. As much as he loathes servants who give themselves graces by mimicking their “betters”—almost as much as he loathes nobles and everyone who considers themselves “Old Family”—the lord, his brother and their daughters did bequeath him responses best appropriated for just this absurdity.
“Mistress, from the depths of my heart, I apologise.” Harper bows at Olinne, softening his voice to convey sincerity. “I’m horrified that you must witness this shameful conversation—”
The cobblestones slide from beneath his feet and smash up into his hip, the world rocking as though an enthusiastic carpet beater grabbed the lane’s edge and whipped it up to shake off the dust.
Well, that didn’t work.
Harper groans, his face resting against his left arm, the stones a blur. Pain races down his neck and shoulder, but they offer the barest of inconveniences against the pulsing throb across his right cheekbone—one lancing up into his nose and eye until the side of his face feels like a half-mask of torture. A punch? Ragen punched him? He gulps, his stomach surging perilously close to his throat, and scrambles about in search of ground that doesn’t ripple and sway.
Someone slams a boot into his side, knocking him back onto the ground.
Someone else grabs his collar and then his arms, yanking him upright.
Ragen whispers into his good ear: “I’ll give you red, Seili.”
A sharp crack heralds another wave of pain washing over Harper’s face and a sickening salt-sourness blooming in his mouth, but he hasn’t even breath enough to grunt.
“Help! Oh, please, help!”
Harper, flung aside like an unwanted rag doll, smashes into the none-too-clean cobblestones.
“Please!” Olinne cries, her voice sharp enough to pierce his ears, his eyes, his bones. “It’s a mistake, that’s all. Ragen misheard and, and … offended, he hit out. It’s a mishearing, isn’t it? Harper? Ragen hit Harper over a mishearing.”
Something black and gleaming nudges his arm. “Are you awake?”
If profound giddiness means “awake”, Harper feels little inclination to concern himself with it.
Yet, despite his lack of interest, the black blur before his eye—the left watering nearly equal to the right, as if sorrowing for the other’s agony—takes on ordinary shape: a well-polished boot. A boot rising over ankle and shin to meet brown trousers and the long skirt of an oilskin coat. A coat, with cerulean stripes running down the sleeves, bearing brass buttons impressed with an image Harper knows better than his own face: the now-dead King Hiletan, engraved in profile on currency and uniforms alike.
Constables. “Stabbers” in downwall cant.
Panic’s heart-quickening sharpness washes clean his fogginess if not his dizziness, for there’s nothing in Ihrne more dangerous than the constabulary. Not even Ragen. “Yes. I’m … I didn’t mean offense. I’m sorry—I apologise.” Harper spits blood onto the cobblestones, draws a deep breath and gasps, his bindings now a vice crushing his ribs. “Uh … huh … if I thought that what I said was how you heard it, I’d…” He looks up, discovering a second officer standing by Olinne and Maliea ein Ilveine now hovering at Ragen’s shoulder, forever appearing the loyal, obedient cousin. “I apologise. I should have been … clearer with my words.”
Why Olinne throws him this unlooked-for rope, Harper doesn’t know—but he’ll clasp it tight if her out means grovelling and placating sates the stabbers.
He won’t soon forget, though, the drying blood now splattering Maliea’s sleeve.
“Can you sit up?” The officer extends one lean arm.
Sit up? How absurd! Harper wants only to lie in the street until the world ends, even should the shit cart first run him over! He places his palm on the ground—finding his cap by lucky accident—and rolls over, grunting, before pushing himself into a sitting position. The ground rocks as though trying to spin Harper down into the world’s depths, and he braces one hand against the cobblestones, less bothered by the dizziness than its cruel twin: nausea. “I apologise again, Ragen, for the … misunderstanding.”
He won’t vomit on the stabber’s holiday-shiny boots. He won’t.
Ragen, oddly, frowns at his beringed and bloodied hand, his brow creased—a look most often worn in the moment before he closes his purse, slaps a hand on a mate’s shoulder and announces that it’s “your turn to cover me”. He brushes his fingers over his trousers and, expression returning to his usual not-quite sneer, clasps Olinne’s small hand inside his. “Yes, you should have. But, Seili, I forgive you. This time.” He turns towards the second stabber, breaking into a warm smile—but not before his blue eyes rest, for the barest of moments, on Harper’s face. “I’m sorry—you don’t need all this! If you’re taking us in, can I send for my father, Ellail ein Ilveine? He worries, and someone should comfort my wife.”
Ragen’s grip tightens around Olinne’s fingers, and she ducks her head, her cheeks darkening.
“There’s no need, sir! You’re both sorry, and it’s over, so there’s no need for fuss.” The second stabber smooths his coat, staring at Ragen’s face with the unwavering certainty of a stopped clock—a fawning gaze Harper witnesses nightly as youths from the Boneyard and the Spires approach Ragen’s table in hopes of joining his court of carousers. The Iteme family may rule Ihrne, but on downwall streets no upwall prince compares in power to Ellail’s owning a quarter of the Boneyard’s rents. “Can I take you to the Way, avoid more bother?”
A hundred thousand protests writhe across Harper’s tongue.
Part of him thanks the pantheon of northern angels for the constabulary’s indifference to laws that—at least nominally—frown upon bloodying one’s neighbour. The new Proclamations didn’t stop Ragen from beating him in the street; they won’t protect Harper should he demand redress. Maliea—or another witness wanting to make good with the family—will twist Harper’s words into slander, for the vagueness of “offensive conduct” is a weapon wielded against most downwall denizens. Should the stabbers lock him in a cell for long enough to need to piss, he’ll learn again the truth colouring his world red … this time without a watching audience, the appearance of law’s obeisance and, most of all, Olinne. Escape from officers holding no loyalty to or interest in protecting a suspiciously-feminine newcomer, even if they aren’t Traditionalists themselves, is no small fortune.
Be sensible, Mama says, or be dead.
Part of him, though, chokes on the rage that drove him to scour Ihrne’s streets for suitable stones.
“Oh, please!” Olinne, clutching her voluminous skirts in her free hand, speaks just as Ragen opens his mouth. “Thank you, sir! I don’t suppose we’ll now get a good place to watch the parade, so we need your help!”
“Gladly, madam.” The second stabber, smiling broadly, turns to make a break in the crowd. “Make way! I’m sorry you’ve had such a morning, but I’m sure…”
Something akin to murder lurks in Ragen’s eyes, but he nods, spins on his heel and drags Olinne after the constable.
“Move on, move on! Nothing more to see here!” The first stabber waves his arms at people decorated in their pinks and reds now chattering—too loudly, too idly. “Move on!”
Move they do: Sopha breaks into a sudden run, waving at someone down by the apothecary. The Mairille sisters, their top speed comparable to that of a racing snail, hobble towards the crossway, their eyes fixed on the road. Mother Lielen, pink ribbons fluttering from the brim of her fresh-pressed hat, frowns at Harper, and for a moment he dares think she’ll help him … until she loops her arm through her son’s and, as if nothing has happened, strolls down the lane.
How can Sopha and Mother Lielen just ignore him? Why won’t they—no. Be sensible. Don’t waste time on indignation. He’s free, for the moment; he’d best take advantage of that. Biting his lip, Harper levers himself upright. A sudden cough leaves him gasping and lightheadedness has him doubting his feet, but he stands, pressing his cap to his bloodied, throbbing eye. Good. Upright is enough to get himself away. Upright means he can go somewhere safe to shake, weep, collapse, rage … somewhere not home. Somewhere free of Mama. Move!
Nobody hails him as he stumbles down the alley. Eyes refuse to see him. No tug of prior conversations made at wells and front steps pull him into the threads and knots of chatter that—more than streets, houses and pigeons ever can—comprise the Boneyard. His now-declared queerness and their shame, it seems, offer up one last, albeit temporary gift: his unmaking.
Even pain can’t quiet Harper’s rasping laughter.