(In Which Harper Is Not Actually Fine)
“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.
Hindsight offers only the obvious: a man with too stiff a spine to kneel, too glib a tongue to grovel and too weak an arm to fight has no business making himself available to those wishing harm.
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, 325 words.
Highwall once enclosed the city entire, but workhouses, markets, animal pens and tenements long ago spilled beyond this ancient border. A decaying, neglected remnant of its former glory, the wall only symbolically separates the Old Families and their kindred from working districts like the Boneyard and Seven Spires; the adventuresome and the foolish climb it at their own peril. The stair by the end of Canter’s Lane remains mostly sound, however, and Harper hesitates at its foot, considering his options. Ivy, nests, bird droppings, crumbled mortar and Traditionalist slogans in white chalk mar the blue-grey stonework, but the sun’s steady climb offers illumination enough that Harper shouldn’t miss the rotted steps.
Only odd figures move along the parapet above. If he’s quick, careful and lucky, he’ll make it unnoticed into the old watchtower—his secret place possessed of privacy and safety.
The tower just happens to be located atop Ihrne’s tallest curtain wall.
Whom did the builders seek to keep out? Wasn’t Ihrne’s vaunted necromancy protection enough? Harper, his teeth gritted, takes the stair with his right hand braced against the wall, struggling to remember any war in Ihrne’s history necessitating such an aptly-named barrier. His legs shake harder after every step, and by the time he reaches the largest crumbled-away gap, each shallow pant stabs like a stiletto thrust between his ribs. He halts again, eyeing the ragged maw formed by cracked and fallen stone. One jump over that gap—one he’s made hundreds of times!—puts him past the halfway mark. All he need do is trust one open eye…
No, no. Not him!
Harper ponders retreat, but the pound of descending feet gives him desperation if not courage. He straightens, lurches over the gap and snatches the wall for balance before taking the next few steps. He’s fine. A bit of blood, a few bruises. The need to watch how he places his feet. Little that can’t be washed off and powdered over, once he’s gotten past the shakes … and acquired the nerve to face Mama. Fine!
In no way does he avoid looking up at Nevolin ein Yinne from fear of red.
“What … what happened?” Grey trousers and scuffed shoes stop before Harper; a long, callused hand clad in a sleeve of washed-to-grey wool grasps his shoulder. The familiar scent of plain soap, musty books and fresh sweat tickles his nose. “Harp…?”
“Father Lusseli’s goose,” Harper says, taking another step without looking up, “and an ill-advised decision to climb on a pile of crates made while it chased me.” He tries to shrug without jarring his side or moving his head, loathe to reveal the terror provoked by Nevo’s question. “I fell off the crates. But I’m fine.”
A second step brings Harper’s face level with Nevo’s belt.
Nevo, alas, doesn’t move backwards. He rests his free arm on an ivy-swathed section of the wall, and between his wide limbs and torso, occupies the width of a stair upon which two normal-sized people pass without difficulty. Nevo, by the gossips’ reckoning, is one of the Boneyard’s more unfortunate denizens: an awkward, short-sighted giant uncomfortably occupying a shopboy’s shoes, clothes and spectacles. A giant out of scale with both the world and the presumptions levelled at someone of his considerable musculature. “Like fuck that’s fine! What happened?”
Nevo, despite his being raised by a man who employs profanity with the frequency others use in employing verbs, seldom swears.
Falsehood needs little thought to spring from Harper’s tongue, but now he wonders: does Nevo need to know? Folks laugh at his shyness—he’s never managed to talk to a woman for long enough to pretend to court her—but never has Harper heard anyone opine queerness the cause. Nor has he heard speculations linking Nevo to any man that isn’t Harper; bigoted rabblerousers only reference the activities—sordid in a city fearing the wrong kind of sex—they presume he must desire. Why increase Nevo’s burdens when he isn’t a target, just a convenient owner of anatomy that, when paired with Harper’s insufficient masculinity, justifies Ragen’s hatred? Why lose Nevo’s friendship by revealing a concern that must then require him, in the name of safety, to eschew Harper?
Careless lies, in Harper’s experience, present fewer unbearable consequences than careless truths.
Even should Nevo fail to raise his own hand in defence, he possesses more protection than most Boneyard queers. He’s safe. Ragen never spews such bile around Desh ein Yinne, for money and cosy relationships with the constabulary don’t bring folks back from the dead.
Not even in Ihrne.
“I told you. Goose, crates. Move, Nevo.”
“Do you … do you even know how bad…” Nevo drags in a gasping breath. “Harp—”
“I’m fine. Move.”
“Fine? You need Mother Lielen! Where’s Seili?”
Harper’s knees, as though deciding it safe to now outsource the business of standing, buckle; only Nevo’s grip on his coat keeps Harper from tumbling backwards. Funny, that. Before, he wanted, craved, someone’s compassion or even recognition; now, Harper owns only exhausted frustration. Of course the one man who shouldn’t know what happened is the one man who cares!
“We’re going back down. I know you can’t pay a proper doctor, so Mother Lielen—”
Harper, willing his knees to restore their proper functioning, searches for a reason, a justification, an excuse, anything. Lips parted but words halted, he knows nothing but the terror-fuelled certainty that, although he risked Lielen’s treatments in the past, he’ll never again do so …. even if she agrees.
A gay man shouldn’t don red, shouldn’t join an audience of gawking Traditionalists, shouldn’t turn away from Harper after his beating. Can Harper blame Sopha, however, for reading the Boneyard’s mood and, instead of clinging to vain idealism, choosing disguise—choosing sense? Can Harper blame Nevo for doing the same? Today, it isn’t at all improbable that Nevo can be both named as queer and display affiliation with a movement predicated on loathing his existence. It isn’t at all improbable that Nevo denies the terror wrought in Lielen’s fluttering ribbons.
“We can’t stay here—”
“Bitch wears red.”
Silence, marred only by the whisper of a chattering city and Nevo’s deep breaths, rings through Harper’s aching ear.
“And … and she watched and walked away.” His voice catches. He expects Ragen to be, well, Ragen. He didn’t expect a woman who made her baker son gift his left-overs—so Harper may save more of his pay to see a doctor or magician about his hands—to turn her back on her prior kindnesses after a few uncivil insinuations. “From the goose crate-incident, I mean. After I fell off the crates. She wears red. Like heaps of folks in the Lane.”
He waits, his gloved palms sweat-slick, his scaled fingers stinging.
“Fuck.” Nevo’s growl belies his hands as he, crouching, wraps Harper’s arm around his broad shoulder. Close up, the barest suggestion of lavender infuses Nevo’s fraying coat. “And Seili?”
Harper owns a hundred thousand reasons for avoiding Mama, all seeded within a tangle of secrets and falsehoods. How can he expect Nevo’s understanding when Harper conceals his history and scars as carefully as his skin and chest? Nevo sees only one truth: Harper’s possession of a generous, protective, unfaltering mother. That’s the problem! The difficult conversations and guilt-provoking pleas take place behind closed doors, leaving Harper yearning for a parent possessed of Desh’s indifference … if not his drunken rages.
“Would … would you go home to Desh? Before you cleaned up?”
Nevo mutters something unintelligible, but those nights slept on Mama’s kitchen floor keep him from arguing otherwise—at least for the moment. “We’ll go up. I was just in the tower, anyway.”
Relief’s reeling giddiness makes more difficult Harper’s quest to lift and plant his feet, even with Nevo’s hunched-over, sidling help. If Harper doesn’t trip or jerk, he won’t reveal the growing pain in his side. A swollen-shut eye and a cut to his face or head won’t provide reason for Nevo to ponder the rest of Harper’s body … if he’s careful. If he doesn’t misjudge the distance between his foot and the stone beneath. If he navigates the world without flinching, gasping or grunting.
Isn’t pain just another secret best kept close? Another tangle of lies?
“Who punched you, Harp?”
“Who what…?” Belatedly, the question’s meaning reaches his mind. “I fell off the crates. Because of the goose. Like I told you.”
“If you’d fallen off crates,” Nevo says, his gruff voice unwontedly soft, “then I’m puzzling out why you’ve got blood down your face and your hair at the back, ‘cause that looks like someone punched you and you smacked your head against something when you fell.”
“There’s blood?” Did Harper’s head hit the cobblestones? He doesn’t remember. How many pains can someone feel all at once? “I landed face down, and crates fell on me, like a pile of crates do when you … disturb them. It can’t be that bad, anyway. Doesn’t hurt.”
Nevo snorts. “I suppose that’s a … what’s that word you use, the one where everything comes together sort of like it’s glued?”
“Well, that’s a cohesive lie, so I guess your thinking is … fine.” Nevo steps up onto the parapet in the gap between merlons, halting. “Did you throw up? Or black out?”
The chill breeze teases Harper’s hair. He takes that last step, turns to lean against the left-hand merlon and stares out towards the Way—a tree-lined avenue running in a straight line from Widewall’s First Gate to Highwall’s Third before passing townhouses and estates on its now-winding route to the Eyrie, the towering home of the Iteme royals. Temple spires, chimneys and slate-roofed tenements block much of Harper’s view, but odd gaps show the packed crowd gathered behind rows of sky-blue bunting. Latecomers flow down interconnected lanes and streets to resemble a felled tree laid flat, the boughs of downwall streets extending from the thickening trunk, but the Way itself awaits traffic.
Their section of the wall, by contrast, stands empty. The ivy-encrusted watchtower, bulging out from Highwall’s flanks like a bubble on water, looms above a bricked-in sallyport too far distant from Third Gate to attract stationary onlookers. Further down, those hoping for a better view than the backs of folks standing in front swarm the parapet, stairs and even the roofs of the Third Gate watchtowers and stables, and he almost laughs. Below, Harper faced a raging herd defiant in pink and red; above and distant, he looks upon tiny splashes of colour stark against brick and bluestone, no more dangerous to him than a single wasp.
Do Ihrne’s angels watch the populace pouring into the streets the same way children marvel at frenzied bull ants exploding from a hole in the ground?
Do once-warring princes and queens expect to pass scarlet-hued hordes unharmed, confident in the protections ensured by title, soldiers and necromancy?
Red spots, as bright as the sun climbing into the cloudless sky, flicker before Harper’s eyes. Grunting, he slithers down the merlon onto the parapet, his trousers poorly shielding his legs from the bluestone’s icy kiss.
“Harp? Where are you hurt?” Nevo kneels, resting one heavy, oversized hand on Harper’s shoulder. “Was it Ragen?”
Nevo’s wideset brown eyes rest upon Harper’s face like a pigeon winging home, and Harper can’t look away.
Despite hiding away in the watchtower, Nevo dressed for the occasion: festival-best grey trousers and grey waistcoat trimmed with a blue-striped scarf trailing down his chest. He still hasn’t fastened his cuffs, leaving them to flap open whatever the weather, and one side of his collar sticks out over his coat. Sable leather shoes, worn but polished to a shine, can’t hide the grey wool stockings showing beneath too-short trousers. Mama offers to adjust, ease and let out Desh and Nevo’s clothing as much as her own work allows, but Nevo shies from accepting such generosity; both men more often suffer second-hand shirts straining at the shoulders.
Harper sews the long seams, sitting on his mattress with a candle so that Mama keeps both the window and time for paying labour.
This, too, isn’t something he tells Nevo.
“I told you it was crates,” Harper says, sitting against the merlon. No red. No pink. Just Nevo’s fair, freckled face, his lower lip caught beneath his sticking-out front teeth. Just a gaze intense enough that Harper thinks himself an ant beneath a magnifying glass, unable to flee its smouldering doom no matter how fast he scurries. “Why do you think Ragen?”
A pathetic misdirect, as verbal trickery goes, but between the breeze and the bluestone, Harper can’t still his shivering.
“Why?” Nevo, blinking, passes a hand over his bestubbled jaw before pushing the bridge of his spectacles higher up his nose. Shaggy honey-blond hair, rough-trimmed by a man indifferent to both good hairstyling and sharp shears, flutters about his ears. “‘Cause he hates you? And he knows you can’t punch him back?” He hesitates, swallowing. “Did you say anything … well, smart?”
Witticism’s many ghosts parade over Harper’s tongue, but pain lends his final offering more bitterness and less levity: “If my supposed words made someone punch me, they can’t have been all that smart.”
What should he have said to Ragen? A sudden turn to fawning would have delivered nothing after two years’ mutual antagonism: Harper spent too long licking noble boots to so oblige a downwall brat with no more authority than he. Pleading would have brought him nothing but mockery and shame. He could have disavowed Ragen’s accusations … but even were they truth, Harper quails at the thought of validating such hatred by proclaiming innocence. What good would harming his own do, anyway, when Ragen cares only for justification?
He isn’t Sopha. He isn’t sensible.
Perhaps the throb in Harper’s face and neck impairs his reason, but hindsight offers only the obvious: a man with too stiff a spine to kneel, too glib a tongue to grovel and too weak an arm to fight has no business making himself available to those wishing harm.
Mama told him to stay home. When Prince Paide and Queen Zaishne establish their regency, when bones again lie dusty in the crypts, when the city recovers from war, when the Traditionalists see that a trans heir doesn’t halt the sun’s rise—then, Harper may risk some shapes of normality.
He presses his lips together, resting his hands atop his stone-bulging pockets.
Harper must always toe the line, balancing queerness against the Boneyard’s expectations for a downwall man. He powders his face and flattens his chest, his quest to mimic cis, straight masculinity an unspoken compact made with the city: he’ll be less himself if Ihrne lets him be a man. He’ll obey the social order, burying his history and experiences, if Ihrne lets him ignore the rule that requires people endowed with tits and cunts to accept womanhood.
A simple contact, really.
One he creased in testing, tiny ways until Ragen, in the Horseshoe’s passageways, whispered his first slur at Harper’s back: fag. One he crumpled in an intoxicating rush of pettiness by sashaying his way to and from Ragen’s table, for Harper’s validation lay beneath cruel denigration. One he tore, piece after piece, until Ihrne’s cobblestoned streets demand his blood—for no amount of glue unmakes his disregard for his own safety.
Harper fights to stopper the scream in his throat, to ease his arms and legs, to draw even breaths, to still his shaking, to be anything other than what he is: a beaten man on the verge of falling apart.
A simple contract.
What has he now?
Being targeted as gay isn’t better than being targeted as trans when the Traditionalists rage against the priesthood and the constabulary won’t protect all the Boneyard’s citizens. Harper may work his next shift untroubled, but what of his walk home from the Horseshoe? Will be arrested on account of someone else’s accusations? Will he become a body abandoned on the street, the source of a matron’s early-morning startle? Or will he vanish, his unclaimed bones stowed in the Eyrie’s cavernous crypts as a necromancer-queen’s plaything?
Nor will Mama be safe if his body becomes gossip and the Boneyard’s Traditionalists see her as conspirator: shouldn’t she know the child to whom she gave birth? What then? Mama, provoked by Harper’s wounds, relinquished her first shroudname, her station and her connections to become a downwall seamstress. She still relinquishes all niceties so that he may live and work as her son. How cruel must he be to ask her to start over a third time?
How can he do otherwise?
Two years of pain, struggle and secrets have now become worthless because Harper, brash and idealistic, didn’t listen—didn’t want to listen—to the woman who sacrificed everything for his happiness.
He doesn’t lie as much as slither down onto the parapet, set by the vicious knowledge that if he doesn’t rest his head against a flat surface, he’ll throw up or pass out.
A pathetic whimper escapes his clenched jaw.
“I’m fine. Just … lying down to watch the parade.” Harper rests his hands by his side, clenching his fingers between the flagstones in a likely-vain attempt to still his upper body. Surely, he’s passed the acceptable time for feeling woozy after a couple of punches? In that case, why can’t he stop shaking? “Everyone lies atop a … uh, a freezing wall on parade mornings—here I’m wondering why you’re still kneeling! Don’t you know this is an ancient Ihrne custom established by the third Iteme king to celebrate his placing Highwall’s last brick? It’s your history, man!”
The wide-eyed, bemused expression on Nevo’s long face—followed by his inevitable fussing with the arms or bridge of his spectacles—is something Harper oft revels in provoking. Now, though, he finds no pleasure in Nevo’s gawking attempt to respond to historical inventiveness—just ridiculous words as fragile as glass and as useful as gemstones. Just another pathetic attempt to plaster over failures with falsehoods and distractions.
Harper can’t be this man who gets himself into messes only for everyone else to sacrifice in fixing his mistakes.
He can’t do this again … and Mama won’t let him.
Why should she? No matter how much he powders his bruises, even the most casual-sounding rendition of this morning’s events must shatter any last trust in him. He repaid her love with arrogant carelessness, proving himself nothing but a child who hasn’t learnt not to stick his scalded fingers back into the fire. She’ll demand that he stay home, take more care with his dress, avoid social interactions, keep his cursed mouth shut … and even thinking about a life so restrained makes his stomach roil, for Mama’s vision of safety encloses him like a velvet-lined cage.
Yet it won’t end with his bleeding in the street, free thanks only to Olinne’s unwarranted kindnesses. It won’t end with Mama’s sacrifices rendered void in saving him from dangers of his own making. It will end, as all stories should, with a son taking care of his mother … so he’ll clean up and return home, swearing his obedience by the one name that matters. He’ll tell her that he’s learnt his lesson. He’ll tell her that he knows his recklessness needs a taming leash and he’ll submit to hers. He’ll promise her that, this time, he’ll do whatever she thinks needful.
Harper can’t keep behaving as though he lives in a world that doesn’t yet exist.
“We should get you inside,” Nevo says, frowning down at Harper—one bushy eyebrow raised slightly above the other, thick creases wrinkling his brow. “I’ve got my bag in there. Water. I can help you up … or carry you.”
Surrender brings both relief and nausea, but Harper nods.
How can he do otherwise?