Content warning: Possible trigger material. “Convictions” includes a rape scene of sorts (staged but most don’t know that) against a background of violence primarily against women (mostly, not entirely, off-stage). The good guys win, of course, but if this subject might be an issue for you, please skip this one. ~Steph
Four guardsmen of the Galimont City Watch, their distinctive raspberry-coloured tunics covered by theoretically less-striking pine-green capes, turned from a main street onto a quieter one.
One, a tall man with dark hair and dusky skin, looked around doubtfully. “Are you sure we want to eat anyplace around here?” he asked, interrupting the ribald joke one of the others was telling. “I prefer to know what’s in my food is actual food.”
“Hey, you’re getting a free meal out of it, thanks to the new sergeant here,” another, tanned and chestnut-haired, said dismissively. Like the other, he wore wrist-guards and belt of brown leather with a single row of copper studs, a sturdy truncheon swinging at his side.
“Ease up,” laughed the sergeant in question, who was shorter and slenderer and possibly younger than any of the others, light skin a sharp contrast to black hair. His belt and wrist-guards were dyed green, with a triple row of studs; his uniform alone included a short sword instead of a truncheon, hung from a baldric across his chest and attached to the belt. “Have faith, Igon, the food is good. You will like it.” His accent was strong, an unfamiliar one locally, though intelligible.
“If you have any taste at all,” said the fourth, burly and sandy-haired with a scar down one cheek, a corporal whose belt and wrist-guards were green with two rows of studs. “Which isn’t a given.”
Their goal was an unassuming wooden building partway down the street, crowded in by others on either side; like all windows in this neighbourhood, the two that flanked the door were both protected by bronze bars against intruders.
The sergeant opened the door and waved the other three in with a dramatic flourish.
Across the back end and behind a wooden counter was, presumably, a food preparation area, though colourful semi-sheer curtains obscured what lay behind from the four square tables, each with four rough stools around it. One table held a trio of locals, rough men in the sturdy clothing of labourers, eating single-mindedly. Despite the windows, with dusk gathering outside the interior wasn’t bright, but glass-and-metal lamps of the local omnipresent fish oil were spaced along the walls in hanging holders and on strategic surfaces, dispelling the gloom and turning it cozy instead.
Behind the counter was a tall man, his skin light and his hair dark and rather shaggy, the lines of his face strong but subtly different from the natives of Galimont, dressed in a distinctly foreign style: unlike the mostly drab colours and woollen cloth typical here, he wore a shirt of some fine fabric, woven of topaz yellow and sapphire blue in a bold sinuous design, and loose trousers of the same fine stuff but of blue alone; wide worked copper bands confined the long sleeves at the wrist, and a matching belt circled his waist and supported an ornate knife barely short enough to be legal within the city.
“Welcome,” he greeted them, with a warm smile. “It is always an honour to have our city’s protectors grace our home.” He had a faint accent, though unlike the sergeant’s, and spoke the local language easily and fluidly.
“Four bowls of stew,” said the sergeant, claiming a stool at an empty table. “And eight pastries. And a pitcher and four cups. Make that two pitchers. This is a celebration. Come sit, Igon.”
The nervous junior guardsman joined his superior, aided by a friendly shove from the scarred corporal.
The man behind the counter vanished out of sight briefly, then returned with two pottery pitchers and four mugs. “The food will be served in a moment, my wife will warm the pastries for you. May I ask what you are celebrating?”
The scarred corporal filled a mug without hesitation, and held it up in a salute. “Our new sergeant’s promotion. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have in command over me.”
“Hear, hear,” said the chestnut-haired guardsman. “I’ve lost my partner but gained a superior I trust. Not a bad trade.”
“Wonderful!” their host said. “Please, accept the compliments of my wife and I, and consider the ale on the house.”
“Thank you,” the new sergeant said, inclining his head, and filling his mug with what was, as always, a more than passable beer.
“They brew, too?” dark Igon asked, as their host departed.
The scarred man shook his head. “Beer comes from over on Barley Street. Ezkurra from the Acorn. Can get Kaveri’s pastries there sometimes, but they’re best from right here at the source.”
“Baked fresh this morning,” said the brightly-dressed man cheerfully, returning with a tray that held four generously-large wooden bowls. A stride behind him was a woman with a second tray, her appearance even more exotic than that of her husband. Her ankle-length full skirt was made of fine fabric of countless shades of rose, and the skin-hugging shirt she wore, short of sleeve and low of neck, matched. Over the shirt was laced a corset of deeper rose that drew in her waist and accentuated her breasts to such a degree that it seemed a wonder she could move or breathe, a far more extreme version of the simple local bodice. Copper and silver bangles adorned both wrists a third of the way to her elbows, heavy ornate copper earrings dangled from both ears, and a worked copper tiara of sorts held in place a transparent veil of pale rose over her dark hair. Her eyes, always downcast, were lined heavily with black, and her lips tinted berry-red, strong contrast to her milky skin. Those curves might have been created entirely by the clothes, or might have been natural and only enhanced by them—presumably only she and her husband knew which—but they seldom failed to draw attention.
“Igon,” the scarred corporal said in an undertone, warningly. “Treat the lady with respect, you understand? Or I’ll teach you how.”
“Easy, Joseb,” said the sergeant. “We keep the peace, remember.”
“But, Tyrel, the way he was looking at her…”
The lady smiled, her eyes still low, but said nothing as she set a circular platter in the centre of the table. Neatly arranged on it were four rounds of heavy bread and eight palm-sized semi-circles of stuffed pastry; four had stylized chicken-tracks scratched on them, four had a different design that might have been rabbit ears.
“Eat and enjoy,” their host said. “No offence taken. I’m a lucky man, hm? A beautiful wife who is also an excellent cook and seldom speaks?” He laughed, and ushered his smiling wife back behind the counter. “If there is anything else you wish, you need only ask.”
Two men who probably lived in the immediate neighbourhood came in, and requested pottage and bread. With the same cheer, their host served them each a bowl and a round of bread, and accepted their small coins in return.
Igon’s first bite of stew made his eyes widen. “Oh gods.”
The sergeant chuckled. “Told you. Eat. Enjoy. Ander, Lorend wants you to train a new recruit, since you will not be keeping me out of trouble.”
“Let’s hope he’s less inclined to charge to the rescue against crazy odds,” Ander laughed. “The number of times you’ve gotten us into situations…”
“And out of them again,” Joseb pointed out. “With minimal harm done to anyone but the criminals themselves.” He frowned. “If the judge would just… Ah well.” He took a long drink of his beer. “Igon, you won’t find a better place to eat anywhere in our ward, especially at the prices they charge. Guardsman’s pay isn’t much, but come in here and you can actually afford real food. If nothing else, there’s pottage from anything left—cheaper, not as good as the stew, but it won’t give you the shits like some places in this city.”
“I’ll remember that,” Igon said. “I wasn’t looking forward to crossing half the city to where I used to eat. What are the pastries?”
“Four chicken, four rabbit,” Ander pronounced after brief contemplation. “Chopped up fine with whatever else the lady has available today, but it’ll be good.”
The quartet made a merry meal of it, lingering over the second pitcher. Labourers came and went, staying only long enough for a meal and perhaps a mug of beer before leaving; many of them were returning to rooms where they lacked any facilities for cooking, or a woman to do the cooking for that matter. They greeted each other at times, but said nothing to the four guardsmen.
The new sergeant paid the bill, which was low enough to make Igon blink in surprise again.
“I hope we’ll see you again soon, sergeant,” their host said. “Your promotion is a blessing to everyone in Galimont who loves peace and justice, I think.”
The four guardsmen parted ways, Igon and Joseb going one way, Tyrel and Ander the other. The men on the streets ignored them.
A couple of blocks away, Tyrel paused. “Do you hear something?”
“No,” Ander said amiably, “but you do. What are we checking out?”
Tyrel closed his eyes, listening intently. “Mirren again. Not a big crowd, but starting to turn restless.”
“So let’s go rescue her from herself. Honestly, that woman is going to get herself killed.”
“She only wants people to admit something is wrong in Galimont.” Both lengthened their strides, not running—running guardsmen only made people uneasy—but increasing their speed significantly.
A woman stood on a raised doorstep, before a dozen or so of the labourers from this part of town. She was taller than average for a woman, even here, her curvy body hard with a lifetime of physical labour; honey-coloured hair was escaping its respectable braid to curl in long tendrils around a face too strong to be pretty and too drawn by grief and anger to show its natural handsomeness. Like most working-class women, she wore the same kind of shapeless woollen trousers and plain shirt with a drawstring neck the men did, though under her heavy shawl she also wore a laced bodice that gave her full breasts some support. Passion vibrated in every word.
“How many women are raped in a month in Galimont? Ten, fifty, we don’t know because the people who should be keeping records dismiss it or tell us we asked for it, until we don’t bother reporting it anymore! It doesn’t matter what the number is anyway—it happens over and over, until we’re afraid to leave our houses! Telling us to stay behind locked doors unless we have a male escort is no solution! Would you lock your wives and daughters and sisters in prison? Being confined by bars or confined by fear, it’s the same result! When did being a woman become a crime? If you love them, your daughters and wives, mothers and sisters…”
The two guardsmen paused on the edge of the crowd and exchanged brief glances, and Tyrel interrupted the woman there. He’d heard this speech before. “Enough! Go home, all of you.”
Most were just simple people who wanted no trouble, and probably stopped to listen from sheer curiosity; they scattered immediately. A handful looked rebellious and resentful, but the two guardsmen advanced, and they gave ground, finally leaving with angry-sounding mutters.
“We weren’t hurting anyone!” the woman said hotly.
Tyrel sighed. “You upset people, Mirren. You have had things thrown at you. You have been threatened.”
“I’m a woman in Galimont, every day is a threat, with no end in sight.”
“I know. Ander, Osann will be waiting for you. I will see Mirren home safely.”
Ander hesitated, torn between his sweetheart and his loyalty, then nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to be seen home,” Mirren said. “I will do as I please.”
“Mirren,” Tyrel said patiently. “I do not want to see you come to harm. You know you have my respect for your courage and your intelligence. Let me walk home with you, so I know you arrive safely.”
Mirren looked at him wearily, and sighed, and nodded.
Tyrel waited for her to start, and fell into step beside her. “Thank you.”
“Nothing is going to change. No one wants to take a stand. Everyone is only thinking about protecting themselves, no matter what the price is.”
“You cannot be angry with them for that,” Tyrel said gently. “They are afraid. Women bear the worst, but everyone is at risk.”
“I know,” Mirren said sadly. “But it’s only going to get worse.”
“Ametza and her husband finally sold the shop, but they had to do it at a fraction of what it’s worth. They did it anyway because they’re desperate to get their daughters out of Galimont before they get any older, but they’re going to have a very bad time starting over somewhere else. Sorna is trying to convince her husband that with one daughter already and another child on the way, they need to leave Galimont, but two years ago they bought a house when he believed they’d never be able to afford one, he doesn’t want to give that up. That some people are so desperate to leave that they’ll sell what they own for so little is bringing out the worst in a lot of people.”
“I know of two households where the outer door is locked at all times, and the male head of the household has the only key. Their wives are captives. They say it’s to keep them safe, because women have been raped in their own homes, but their homes are now a prison. It was a reaction to three more rapes, all in a single night, and another woman vanished the same night.”
Mirren told him her name and her home. “Eighteen years old, and with a singing voice to charm birds from the trees. Pretty, and obedient to her parents. Well, for as long as she can recall, she’s been told she has to obey her father so he can keep her safe.” She gave him a pleading look. “The Watch are supposed to protect the people of the city. Why is that failing?”
Tyrel hesitated, then sighed. “Because we do not know who is behind it all. It is someone with a great deal of power and influence. Because there are those in the Watch who are weary and have come to believe they can do nothing. Because this has been happening a long time. People are afraid but many have forgotten that things can be different. Mirren, please. Have faith. Do not put yourself at risk. Some of us search for the head of the viper poisoning Galimont.” He half-smiled. “Do not tell anyone I said that.”
“I won’t. But I can’t promise I won’t keep talking to people. They aren’t thinking, they’re just reacting like sheep. If I can get anyone thinking, I have to.”
“Please be careful.”
“I try. My father and uncle do their best to help me practice what you taught me about defending myself so I don’t forget. I don’t want to get hurt, but I’m no good at lying to myself.”
Tyrel stayed with her to the end of her street, and stayed at the corner to watch until she was inside the small house where she lived with her widower father and unmarried uncle. Only then did he go on his way.