The man from the Ille left first and Edam finally let her jaw unclench. She had never encountered one of their members in person, but she had heard enough stories to know that they were not men to be called on casually. They preferred things to be subtle – for their name to rarely be said with the proper weight – and so bringing one to such an open meeting felt like a recipe for violence. He scarcely said a thing before taking his leave.
Ana, who seemed just as troubled by his presence, leaned and whispered a question in her ear as she watched the man take his leave.
“What’s the deal with him? I’ve heard the name Ille before, but…”
“It’s not a name, exactly. It just means… I guess ‘guild’ would be the right word, but ‘organization’ would also work. It doesn’t mean anything sinister unless you’re in the wrong company,” Edam whispered back.
“I just didn’t think that they had spread this far south.”
“What’s their business? Protection?”
“Whatever they get their fingers into,” said Edam, “That’s the whole point. They’re just an organization. What the organization does and how it does it varies from place to place, but the meaning is the same when you intone it right. They’re the law below the law.”
Ana sighed. Despite Temari’s protests the Dzhima took their leave as well. The remaining two parties – Dzhate’s and Temari’s – looked at each other tensely. Temari kept muttering back and forth to her lieutenants. Sol and Varna approached them slowly.
“How’re you holding up?” Asked Sol wearily.
“Not as good as I could be,” said Ana, “I had more than a few close calls last night.”
She held out the bandages over her fingers to emphasize it. Edam touched her back and tried to comfort her a little.
“I’m frankly more worried about her. Kept me up half the night worrying. I’ll be fine.”
“Listen,” said Sol, “The riders being involved is bad, but we might be able to manage it. Four is bad, but not unsalvageable.”
“What’s the salvage here?”
“We make it out alive with as few people dying as possible. I’ll put feelers out to keep track of them, see if they’re doing their jobs. I doubt it’ll be all that hard. I’ll drop by your place tomorrow afternoon to give you a report.”
Varna nodded in agreement.
“I’ve heard of this type. They’re the opposite of subtle. Keeping a step ahead of them in terms of information is going to be an advantage.”
“Where do we fit into this?” Asked Ana.
“You’re both good muscle, and not horrible tacticians either,” said Sol, “If it comes down to a fight – and I wouldn’t hate the idea of putting these people in the down – which means that we need to have you two rested and ready. Go home. Clean your guns. Sharpen your blades. Keep alert for a night raid. The usual. I’m going to talk to Temari about how we might recompense the bastards.”
He sighed, and walked away.
“Good luck,” added Varna, “Hope you recover soon, Ana.”
Varna retreated as well, and soon enough Ana and Edam followed out of the warehouse. Ana put a hand around Edam’s shoulder and walked with her through the tightened and inbred corridors of Blackwood. Before, the sheer squalor of the quarter was palpable, oppressive, but it was often in the open where it could be seen by all. The beggars, peddlers, prostitutes, pickpockets and true homeless among them would move along the main streets and byways without fear or shame. It was only when the guard came that their insecurity was brought to an ugly indignity, and they scrambled into the cramped and leering spaces between the buildings where their less-savory trades could not be seen and could not be heard over the din of the city. They walked through the living sea, and Edam felt a deep tinge of sympathy somewhere in her. At her chest and above were those strong and well enough to stand, who asked for her money and left her to say, sadly, that she had none to spare. At her feet were those even worse off; those too old or infirm to work, and without the family to take them in. Ana held her close as a vise as she did her best to maneuver between them.
She wanted to hold a sign of blessing over them. That, at least, she could have once offered to them, alongside sending them to the nearest church for shelter. Now she was excommunicated, and it keened on her that she could not offer them even a blessing in the eyes of the Sepulcher. Eventually they made their way back to Seonya’s little tenement.
Edam breathed a sigh of relief. She sucked it back in when she saw Seonya.
Seonya was waiting for them. Edam immediately knew something was off – even moreso than this morning when she came in all beaten. She still had the bruises, but her demeanor was entirely different. She sat at the kitchen table with a tense expression, her eyes mostly hidden by her long hair. She drummed her fingers on the table as Ana closed the door and Edam approached.
“Seonya,” she said, “Is something wrong?”
“Who, me?” She asked dryly, “I’m doing great. Where were you two off to?”
“Work,” said Ana.
“That’s funny,” she said, “Because ever since you moved in with your girlfriend, there’s been a lot of posters all around for an Ana Metremte and Edamosfa-Iforfit Miaza. You said you worked as a courier, right? Who exactly are you sending messages for, again?”
Ana frowned contemptuously.
“Are you accusing me of something?”
Seonya finally looked up at Ana.
“Accusing you? No. I already know that you’re involved in some criminal shit. Everyone down here is. I knew from the wanted posters over the past few weeks that you were in it with the Church. What makes me upset is that you didn’t tell me, and now the law is carpeting the city and I can’t work anymore, and we might be raided for it.”
“Well, that’s hardly my fault,” said Ana.
“Hardly your fault?” Asked Seonya, pointing at Edam, “She’s an escaped prisoner! You broke her out, or sprung her somehow. You owe me that sort of information, don’t you think? Especially if I’m taking her in under my roof.”
“Well, you know the extent of it now. Any other questions?”
“Why keep it from me?”
“I thought it would keep you safer to not know. You’re one to talk about keeping things from people.”
“Listen,” said Edam, “I’m sorry to have kept it from you. We should have told you-”
“What did you mean by that, Ana?”
“You know exactly what I mean.”
Seonya cracked a smile – a bleak, awful smile.
“You’re lecturing me on that?”
“What of it?”
“Oh, that is rich, coming from you,” said Seonya as she stood, walking towards Ana, “Lecturing me on – let me ask you something. Does she know?”
She gestured towards Edam.
“Hm? Does she?” She asked again, “Of course not. Because you’re a coward.”
There was a terrible flash of anger that came over Ana’s face. Edam couldn’t even find the words needed to interrupt.
Whatever the word was that Ana was prepared to hiss, she never got the next syllable out. Seonya had been ready for insult and had slapped Ana upside the face so quickly that Edam barely saw her hand. Ana seemed equally unprepared for it, stumbling backwards and to the wall of the kitchen where she hissed in air. Edam ran to her side, looking at the red welt quickly growing there. Seonya leered.
“If you insult me like that again, I will have you on the street.”
She looked at Edam, and back to Ana.
“Tell her. For your own sake, Ana, because this whole game you’re playing? It ends worse the longer you keep it up. You’re lucky I’m not calling for the guard now.”
Ana slowly recovered as Seonya went to her room and slammed the door behind her. She sat at the table and breathed heavily, and Edam sat with her.
“Fucking saints,” swore Ana, “That stings.”
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” she said, “Just hurts. Sucking in that air pulled on the stitches, but I don’t think anything opened up again.”
Edam took Ana’s hand and let her rest for a moment as she tried to untangle what had just happened. The immediate thought was obvious – that she had somehow been unfaithful. That added up for how heated it was. She wanted to dismiss that as a possibility though. Ana had stood by her through more than most people would endure, and she trusted in that. Ana wasn’t moving to answer any of her questions preemptively, though. Edam watched her closely as she slumped back in the chair and seemed to relax a little.
“You know you know I have to ask,” she said, “What was she talking about when she said you were keeping something from me?”
Ana grimaced, tensing up again.
“I’m not angry,” Edam said, trying to reassure her, “Really, I just need to know because she’s clearly in a horrible place right now, and I ought to apologize to her because we’ve been lying to her. Even if she knew, even if it was obvious. We treated her like she was a fool.”
“Shouldn’t I be the one to do that?”
Edam shook her head.
“No. Not right now, at least. Firstly, you need to rest. Secondly, you just fought. Even if you mean it earnestly, she might find it insincere. All I want to know is what she was talking about there, so that I can apologize to her properly.”
Edam gave her a smile.
“I promise I won’t be mad.”
“Fine,” Ana said, “If you want to-”
She stopped herself. Edam could feel it for a moment, that she had gotten frustrated and that now she was bringing herself back down as she softened her voice.
“I haven’t been honest. I need you to promise me something, though. I can tell you about my history with Seonya, but I need you to not treat her any differently. She’s had it rough – lately, and since she was little. And I need you to not treat her any differently. I need you to treat her the same as you did before. I don’t care if you don’t want me after what I’ve said, but she doesn’t deserve to be treated worse for what I say.”
“Of course,” said Edam quietly, “I know you’ve been friends for quite a while. Whatever it is, there’s a way to mend it.”
“It’s not so easy. When we were kids, we were kind of joined at the hip. I had bounced around a lot, and one of my last chances was where I met her. I was… thirteen? Fifteen? She said twelve, but I’m not so sure about that. Then about. Instant friends, from the day I met her.”
“Did she mistreat you?”
“No, no,” said Ana, “You’re getting the wrong idea here. There wasn’t any betrayal. Not really. I’m just- I’m having a hard time saying it.”
Edam put her hand on Ana’s again, uncertain of what to say, pulling her thumb over the palm of her hand. Ana sighed.
“I was going to have to tell you sooner or later. Seonya – she was a boy then. It’s an ugly word, but she’s a transvestite. And I – I was her friend, and I was just a kid. I mean, it wasn’t that I didn’t know better. They were teaching me right about the Sepulcher, about what I was supposed to be. And I still shared my clothes with her. Because she was my friend. And I wore hers.”
Ana looked away, and Edam was silent. She kept speaking before Edam could collect her thoughts.
“And it wasn’t like we were doing anything malicious. We were just kids, you know. Sweethearts. And you have to understand – you have to understand that when she wore a dress it was like an entirely separate person walked out of her skin. The boy I knew then was just utterly gone, and someone new and wonderful was there. It was the happiest I ever saw her. And I can’t let you mistreat her for that. I can’t take that from her.”
She wasn’t just asking. Edam felt it. Ana was pleading.
“It ended badly,” she said, “Because sin is self-defeating. Because there was no other way it could’ve ended. We mostly did it in our rooms – swapping clothes. I mean, it wasn’t just that, if I’m being honest. We liked kissing. It was like I said, that teenaged sort of love. The deadbolts were always shoddy. A boy walked in looking for her, and he told one of the teachers.”
It was Seonya’s idea, but I couldn’t let them know that. I just couldn’t do that to her. We were both going to take a beating for it, not to mention everyone at the orphanage knowing. I told them that it was my idea before she could give an answer, that I thought up the whole thing, that I forced it on her, even. They bought it. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Ana’s mouth twitched as she paused.
“They stripped me, and made me put my old clothes on. And then a few of the older ones made me run the course.”
Edam paused, trying to process what she was saying.
“It’s an old military punishment, mostly pre-Revolutionary. The loyal soldiers stand in two rows, with one at each end. The disobedient one stands between them and runs from one end to the other, and back. The loyal ones beat him until he’s been sufficiently punished or dead. When I-”
“They kept beating me when I fell. I thought I was going to die. And that set me right on what I was supposed to wear and what I wasn’t for a long time, I suppose.”
She lowered her head, defeated. She seemed hollow, like a clay pot that drummed out the words as an echo more than something she was saying herself. Edam took the time to embrace her. Ana didn’t reciprocate and instead let her arms go limp. Edam could have sworn that Ana was going to start to cry – her breath had gone very ragged and soft – but she never did. Eventually, when she felt that there was nothing else she could do to comfort her physically, she pulled away. It pained Edam to do it.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “Nobody should have to go through that. I- I need to go talk with Seonya. You think you can handle getting our things ready?”
“Good. Do that and rest your head a bit. You’ve gone through too much lately.”
Edam stood and watched as Ana staggered back to their room. She waited a minute more before deciding that she’d given Seonya his time. The apology was necessary, certainly, but more important than that was making sure that Seonya was on their side and wasn’t looking to go to the authorities. She carefully knocked on the door, and she could hear Seonya’s muffled invitation through it. Seonya’s room was almost as sparse as theirs. Edam had never seen much of it before. There was a little window where the late morning light was pouring in from outside, a meager dresser and a well-worn trunk at the foot of her bed. On top of the dresser was the half-finished project of a seamstress. Seonya, for his part, was at the window, silently looking at the street from a rocking chair.
“Seonya,” she said.
“Edamosfa-Iforfit, is it?” said Seonya quietly, “That’s what I saw on the poster. It’s a mouthful.”
“Edam,” she said, “Edam is fine. I prefer it, really.”
“So, I take it you two finally had a talk?”
Edam leaned on the doorframe.
“Did she tell you she’s a transvestite, or that I am?”
“Well, she did tell me what you are. What… what happened back then. And she wants to apologize to you, but I thought that was a bad idea right now. And I’d like to apologize too. ”
“I see,” said Seonya, “You’re probably right. I might have gotten angry with her again.”
“May I come in and sit?”
Seonya nodded, and Edam sat on the bed. Now that she was closer, Edam could clearly see that Seonya had been crying.
“I know that you’re feeling conflicted. I just need to know if you really do intend to sell us out. I’d understand if you did. There’s a price on our heads and it’d buy you safety. All I’d ask is that you give us the head start.”
Seonya shook his head.
“No. I might have been angry with Ana, but I wouldn’t want that for her. Certainly not for you either – you were just caught in the middle between us. I’m sorry for that.”
Edam breathed out heavily.
“Okay. Good. I’m sorry to have to ask.”
“If I’m being frank I’m more worried about Ana than anything,” said Seonya, “I suppose you know that she’s not acting, not anymore.”
“The crossdressing. I suppose that’s why the uniform must have appealed to her. I figured that she had gone into the military, or else some local guard’s forces. Anywhere where she’d be expected to ride a horse regularly so that she could avoid dresses and those affectations at being a woman.”
“Well, she told me it was an act, to throw people off of her. And the thing that was between you back then – that was just her being nice. People that young can get confused easily.”
Seonya laughed very suddenly.
“Yes, and you-”
“You think she’s confused? That I’m confused? I spent years of pain and loathing, years at sea and in debt and abroad to get to where I am today. No, if anything it was certainty that got me to where I am today. Ana – she’s got that too. I know. She told me when we were young that we were the same sort of animal. Call her a transvestite if you want. That’s the only good word for it, not that there are any good words for it. Call her a sinner if you want – that’s what the Scripture says. Confused? That’s an insult. She’s grown, and she makes her choices of her own free will.”
Edam went silent. She didn’t know what to say. She was still fairly certain that it was just an act. As long as there was no sentiment behind it, like the pagan rites of old, there was no real sin there. A disguise, to throw the authorities off her scent, and nothing more.
“I’m not saying that she is a transvestite, because she isn’t.”
Seonya shrugged in defeat.
“Then what is she?”
“A woman on the run from the law. And besides, a lot of her clothes are cut for women, or at least both women and men, and really it’s the hair that makes her look like a man.”
He cocked his head.
“Are you afraid of her being that?”
Edam shook her head.
“No, because she isn’t a man. I’ve seen enough of her to know that.”
“And if she’s a transvestite, then?”
“The Scripture says-”
“And you say?”
“The Scripture says that it is a sin, as do I.”
“A lesser one,” he noted dryly. He lightly crossed his legs as he pushed back in his chair.
“Sins demand repentance,” she said without even thinking about it.
Her voice caught in her throat. There was a list – once memorized in her head – of the suggested punishments for sins under the Machevin Rite. Transvestism was to be treated with ten lashes to the back with a whip, or five strikes upon the chest with a mallet. It was burned into her mind. Her uncle, of course, preferred to go on the harsher side when he was commanding punishments. She looked at the person in front of her. He was soft, quiet, unassuming. He didn’t menace her; didn’t speak in pagan tongues or even try to quarrel with her for saying that what he did was a sin. There was no anger or sadness in his eyes – just concern and weariness. Even if Ana hadn’t made her promise to not treat him differently, depriving him of the small comfort of what he enjoyed wearing in such poverty and squalor and sadness seemed deeply cruel. It would be doubly cruel to punish him for it. She thought of Ana, and thought of the lash again and-
She couldn’t bear the thought anymore. Her hands shook.
“I can’t. She isn’t what you say she is. She isn’t like you. I’m sorry again. I just want to say, we may have to leave soon anyways. If there’s any way that we can repay you, I’ll find it. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Thank you for apologizing. It’s appreciated. And- and tell Ana that I’m sorry too. That I shouldn’t have said what I said. It was a mistake.”
Edam picked herself up off of the bed and went to the other bedroom. She waited for a while in the kitchen and breathed in deeply to steady herself. It was a few minutes before she felt confident enough to head back to her own room. Ana was waiting for her; she heard her sharpening something before she entered. Ana was waiting at the foot of the bed. She had taken an inventory of what they had. Ana’s gun and powder sat off to one side, freshly loaded with a pouch of ammunition beside. In a neat set were all of Edam’s foci that Ana had captured, taken from their hiding place under the bed, and a small collection of what remained of Ana’s. She was carefully using a whetstone on her sword, with a sort of meditative focus.
More striking than that was her clothes. She had taken the opportunity to change into an old dress, as wrinkled and gray as it was. It occurred to her that this was the first time that she had seen Ana in a dress since the party. It looked awkward and ill-fitting on her. She had always claimed that dresses didn’t fit right on her, that they itched, but now for the first time she felt like she saw the real difference. If the uniform suited her appropriately, and the androgynous clothes suited her as a disguise, then this was what it looked like when something did not suit her at all. The proud, tall woman she knew was somehow diminished by it; the geometry of her body crammed into a dress that fit her but was somehow still too small and too large all at once. She stopped her sharpening.
“Edam, are you alright?”
“I- yes,” said Edam, “Are you?”
“I am,” she said stiffly, not meeting her eyes, “Well, my whole body still hurts. But I’m fine.”
Edam nodded, and noticed pulled out some of the cases to hide away everything that wouldn’t be immediately useful, the tools and the like. She also started packing some of the essentials – a change of clothes, two blankets and a tinderbox to start, in case they had to leave much more quickly than expected. She then proceeded with the work of hiding her foci where they could be quickly accessed, her mask in the dresser, her flail in a nook above the doorway. She stretched up to reach the nook, and silently looked back at Ana as she sheathed the sword. She finally managed to look Ana in the eye.
She looked miserable. With her chores done, their things packed to leave a home they barely had moved in with at a moments notice and crammed into an ill-fitting dress, Ana looked totally helpless and lost. Edam sat by her side.
“Ana,” she said, “Peron. Talk with me. You look even more awful than before.”
“It’s nothing,” she said, “Just exhausted.”
Edam could tell it was more.
“I know it was hard for you to talk with me earlier,” she said softly, “You know that I love you, right? There’s still hope for us yet. We’ll pull through.”
“And- and Seonya spoke with me.”
“I don’t want to say this too harshly. She told me that you’re a transvestite.”
“I’m not,” said Ana.
Edam nodded, relieved.
“I’m glad. I know you don’t like dresses. You don’t have to force yourself into one for me, alright? The Scripture clearly denounces dressing as the opposite sex, but it never delineates what dressing as the opposite sex actually constitutes, so ultimately the crime of transvestism only makes sense as an active statement, I suppose. And your getup as a man – it’s really good. Keeps us safer when we’re out on the street. It’s not your fault if other people mistake you for a transvestite. Plus, that dress clearly doesn’t fit. You don’t have to wear it for me.”
There was more to it than that. It was the misery on her face that did Edam in more than anything. The cloth was practically an implement of torture on her.
Ana smiled weakly.
“Yeah. Thanks. Sorry, I think I just panicked a bit.”
She started to undo the ties on her dress, before pausing.
“And if I was a transvestite?”
Edam went quiet again, trying not to think about it.
“I don’t know. You’re a witch. I’m an apostate. It’s just- I couldn’t say, because you aren’t.”
“Right,” said Ana, “It was just an idle thought.”
Ana slowly removed her dress until she was entirely nude, and Edam permitted herself a moment to admire Ana again. She packed away the dress, and Edam quietly shuffled over on the bed. Her heart pumped in the old familiar way, following the flow of Ana’s thighs and only stopping at the fresh stitches under her breast, not even a day old. Edam didn’t want her wounds to suddenly reopen while they made love, so that would have to wait for a little while longer. She sighed and watched as Ana dressed herself in some pants, leaving herself topless.
“I’m going to take a nap,” she said, clambering into bed and leaning back, “It’s been a long day, and it’s only noon.”
“Not like we could go out,” said Edam, joining her and cradling her head, “I’ll keep watch. Sleep well, peron.”
She watched as Ana drifted off to sleep, uncertain if her musing was so idle after all.