ʞ / fiction / Spirals / War /

Dinner at Mom's

from a serial by Lexi Summer Hale

Out of habit, Jasmine flicks a few copper pennies in the direction of the alley altar as they come up on her most recent childhood home. The coins clatter as they join others in the bottom of Khata’e’s chariot, right at the feet of the Star-Mother herself. It’s the same altar Jasmine went to the night before she finally admitted her feelings to Sashuan; the altar where she asked the Matron of Beginnings for her favor and left two gold talents in the chariot — and then went back the next night to leave a third after Sashuan said yes.

It’s always been understood that Khata’e never comes and collects the money in person. That she always leaves it there for the poor who actually need it, but showers the generous with her blessings all the same. The Chariots are overflowing, though — the old Imperial coins are so thoroughly worthless that the drug dealers won’t touch them and even most desperately and stubbornly homeless, who’d rather starve on the street than give their names and prints to the Greens, are scorning them now. There’s not much left to do with all the pennies and marks but leave them at a shrine and hope someone out there appreciates the token — or stockpile them against a day when the Empire retakes the city.

Maybe I should leave some MREs instead of coin next time, Jasmine thinks to herself. Maybe that would be more in the spirit of things.

The little altars and shrines that dot the streets of Khmai neighborhoods are one of the odd little exceptions to the stiflingly selfish miasma of life in the Empire. Whenever the paint gets a little too faded, someone sooner or later will come by with a fresh bucket and touch it up without ever being asked. If one of the Seven Sons loses his head to game of zhiang-ball, someone will come along and cement it back into place with a glob of due jeņ and no expectation of payment or favor. Nobody ever really admits to doing it, of course; it would spoil the illusion to announce that mere human hands had put the pieces back together.

Sashuan breathes a heavy sigh of relief as Jasmine unlocks the front door of the apartment complex and they step inside. She’s been glancing behind them every third step since they fled the alley. But if anyone pursued the two women, they’ve kept their distance, and now the threat, if any, has passed.

“I should have been more careful,” Jasmine says quietly.

“Don’t. Don’t blame yourself for this.” Sashuan shakes her head violently. “It’s my own damn fault I couldn’t keep it together long enough to get us here. Besides, we’re— we’re okay, nothing came of it. We’re fine.”

We got lucky, Jasmine thinks, but she doesn’t say it. She nods silently, and squeezes Sashuan’s hand.

They climb the rickety flights of stairs to the second floor, and Jasmine knocks sharply on the door to 206. From inside, she hears indistinct voices, shouted words, and footsteps, before the door finally unlocks and swings back. A boy half her height stares up at Jasmine, before throwing the door wide and hollering, “Baraaa’! Tajule je! Sashuan je!”

There’s a clatter from the kitchen and Lily barges out into the hallway. As soon as she sees her daughter and Sashuan, she breaks into a huge grin and throws her arms wide.

“Tajule! Sashi!” she exclaims, grabbing them both in a bear hug. “Merae ta’a jukara to nimekhta je!”

“Jare nimekhta, bara’,” Jasmine replies. Good to see you too, mom.

“Come in, come in!” Lily steps back, beckoning urgently. “You’re just in time, we were just getting supper started.” She turns to the hall and cups her hands around her mouth. “Rose!” she bellows. “Come and say hello to your sister!”

“I said I’m coming, mom!” Rose peeks around the corner, an anxious look on her face. Jasmine waves.

“Over here, kiddo.”

Rose’s expression lights up. “You brought Sashi!”

“Love you too, sis.” Jasmine rolls her eyes as her sister runs up to Sashuan, hugging her tight. Rose is wearing a tight black tunic and Jasmine’s train of thought is derailed by the sight of the teenage girl’s visible ribs. She glances back and forth between the rest of her family — they’re… thinner than they should be, but not nearly that bad.

…I’ll check in with her when I get a moment alone.

“Sil a iur, Sashi!” Rose says to Sashuan as she reluctantly lets go of her. “Is… is that right?”

“S’aiur, Lisui.” Sashuan grins at Rose. “Rihit vade; your pronunciation is getting better.”

“Sister, you trying to steal my woman?” Jasmine asks, possessively taking hold of Sashuan around the waist. Sashuan giggles at the mortified look on Rose’s face.

“I— I’m not— I didn’t mean—” she stammers.

“She’s just messing with you, kiddo.” Sashuan pats her on the shoulder and tousles her hair. “Give your sister a hug already.”

Cheeks still red, Rose glares at Jasmine as she reaches up to hug her. “Ha ha, very funny, Jaz. You should have told me you were bringing Sashi over, I would have worn my new dress!”

“What, your big-shot sister isn’t worth a new dress?” Jasmine teases.

Rose scowls at her. “You’re barely worth a ratty old tunic.”

“Where’d you get a new dress, anyway?”

Rose beams. “I sewed it myself! I’ve been collecting scrap fabrics nobody wanted, and they even let me use one of the machines at work!”

“That’s so cool. Still plenty of time to go get changed, you know.”

“Right. Yeah. I will.” Rose smiles up at Jasmine, then flashes a salute at Sashuan as she backs away, before turning and beating feet toward her room.

Sashuan steps up behind Jasmine and hugs her around the waist. “You sure have her trained well,” Jasmine remarks, turning and resting her arms lightly on Sashuan’s shoulders.

“Just wait ’til you see what I brought her.”

“Oh, you’re bringing my sister presents now?” Jasmine leans forward. “And not your girlfriend?”

Sashuan nips her on the lip. “Gosh, what presents should I get for my girlfriend? Maybe, I don’t know, permission to visit the Surf District so she can join the Cabinet and have practically unlimited power to shape this city’s future as she sees fit?” She reaches down and grips Jasmine’s wrists tightly, effortlessly pinning her hands in place and digging her fingernails into the spot just left of the vein where she knows Jasmine’s most sensitive. She smirks as her partner’s delicate fingers slacken under her grip, the muscles in Jasmine’s arms straining ineffectually. “Do you think she’d like something like that?”

“I— ah— I think sh-she’d love s-something like that, honey.”

“Correct answer,” Sashuan murmurs playfully, her lips brushing Jasmine’s earlobe as she reluctantly loosens her grip. “Sharuen vali vinantite~” she whispers, enjoying the blush that immediately spreads across her partner’s cheeks and kissing her gently on the neck. She looks up as Rose steps nervously back into the room.

“W-what do you think?” she asks timidly, clasping her hands behind her back. The silky black dress runs from her shoulders to her thighs, with a tangle of embroidered roses stretching down one side. Jasmine instantly recognizes the embroidery as her sister’s own handiwork.

“…you made that all on your own?” Sashuan murmurs. “Out of scraps?”

“Y-yeah, I did—”

“It’s gorgeous. Bet that was a nice break from sewing the same fatigues over and over day after day, yeah?”

Rose giggles. “Y-yeah. That was kinda why I started out on it— was afraid I’d forget how to sew anything else if I didn’t.”

“Dinner’s ready!” Lily’s voice booms from the kitchen. She steps out, oven mitts on her hands and carrying a huge bowl. “Jazzie, Rosie, you go and fetch the rest, now. Laurel! The table doesn’t look set, now, does it?”

“But mooom—”

“No buts. Go! Shoo!” Lily waves a spatula menacingly at her son, who grumpily departs the tiny cloakroom.

Jasmine kisses Sashuan on the forehead and pats her rear as she backs away. “You go wait for us in the dining room!”

“Coshvin, san~”

Jasmine quietly closes the door to the kitchen as Rose steps inside. “Hey,” she murmurs, walking over and touching her sister on the shoulder, as the younger woman tries to fit too many plates and bowls into her arms.

Rose looks up. “I’m— I’m really sorry, Jaz, I really wasn’t trying t—”

“Hey.” Jasmine squeezes her shoulder. “It’s not about that. I really was just teasing you; I’m super happy you and Sashi get along so well, okay?”

“…you’re using your serious voice.”

“Heh.” Jasmine looks down. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

“Sis, what’s—”

“Put those down a minute.” Jasmine takes Rose’s hand as she nervously replaces the platters. “Rosie, what’s up with you?”

“…w-what do you mean?”

“You look like you’re starving.”

“W-wh— it— I’m fine, I’m—”

“Rosie.” Jasmine squeezes her hand. “I ran a homeless shelter for six years. I know better than anyone your ribs aren’t supposed to stick out like that.”

Rose is silent for a moment, looking down. “I’m sorry,” she says finally.

“‘Sorry’!? What in Haven for?”

“…it’s just not enough.” Rose looks up at Jasmine with tears in her eyes. “I had to.”

“Had to what? Starve yourself?” Jasmine looks appalled.

“I’m not— I’m still eating, Jaz, I am, I swear, I just—” She shakes her head wildly, grasping for words. “It’s— Laurel and Daisy and Aspen, they’re— they’re young and they’re vulnerable, they need more than we’re getting. So I skip a meal here and there. And it’s fine, it’s—”

“This isn’t ‘skipping a meal here and there.’” Jasmine takes Rose by the shoulders. “I’ve seen this before. Too many times. This is ‘going days in a row without a full meal.’ Khata’e’s tits, I can’t believe mom is letting you do this! Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t have enough rations—”

“Nobody has enough rations!” Rose looks up at her, teary-eyed. “They’re stretching the reserves so far to feed everyone in the city and all the soldiers, the farms are still fucked from all that sabotage, we’re heading into winter— I don’t want someone else to starve for my sake; would you?”

Jasmine’s hands are starting to quiver and she feels the corner of her eyes burning with tears. “…R-Rosie…” she manages, her voice unsteady. “Please. You’re not gonna be okay if you continue you like this—”

“The kids—”

“You are one of the kids!” Jasmine bursts out. “Rosie, you don’t have to… to sacrifice yourself just because you’re older—”

“Yes, I do. Because I’m old enough to understand why this is happening. Why we have to suffer like this.” Rose fixes her eyes defiantly on Jasmine. “You try explaining a war famine or whatever to Laurel or Daisy. Try explaining that they have to go to bed still hungry because a bunch of people far away are shooting at each other.” She shakes her head violently. “You know what it’s like listening to your sister cry herself to sleep at night. You better than anyone.”

Jasmine backs away, leaning heavily against the counter. Her lips move wordlessly for a moment, but before she can speak the door clatters open.

“Here, you two, what’s taking so—” Lily begins, and then stops midsentence as she sees the expressions on her daughters’ faces.

“Rosie’s not eating, mom,” Jasmine manages, looking up at Lily blearily.

Lily swallows hard, pushes the door shut behind her. “I know, darling,” she says quietly.

“You’re letting her?”

“No!” Lily exclaims. “I’m not letting her, but what do you want me to do, force-feed the poor girl?”

Jasmine shakes her head. “She’s starving. She’s not okay. I’ve seen this so many times— can’t you talk some sense into her?”

“Do you really think I haven’t tried, love?”

“She is right here, you know,” Rose complains.

Jasmine takes a deep breath, slowly turning back to Rose. She reaches out, touches her on the cheek. “Please. Just… will you just eat one full meal with us tonight? Just for tonight?”

“I don’t need—”

“Do you want me to bring Sashi in here and ask her what she thinks of this?”

Rose stops in her tracks. For a moment, the only sound to be heard is the ticking of the cheap wind-up clock on the wall.

“…okay,” she murmurs finally. “Just tonight.”

Jasmine hugs her tightly. “Thank you. Thank you, sis.”

“Here, let me help you with those dishes.” Lily expertly loads a few into her arms; a bowl full of piping hot makhare sauce barely seems to stir as she moves it. Jasmine pats Rose on the back and withdraws, joining her mother at the counter to bring out more dishes.

“I wish I’d thought of that,” Lily murmurs ruefully to her as Rose leaves the kitchen. Jasmine cracks a smile.

“Tell me next time? She’s my sister, after all.”

“It’s just… you have so much on your hands, I didn’t want to bother you with… with silly family quarrels—”

“It’s not a silly family quarrel, mom. That kind of malnutrition…” Jasmine just shakes her head, swallowing hard, unable to make herself say the words.

Lily nods. “Alright, dear. Next time — if, God forbid, there is one.”

“Thank you.”

But Rose, Jasmine realizes as she surveys the food set out for them, is right. Even counting the big bowl full of rutukhe soup… this isn’t enough for a family of five, let alone a table of seven.

She’s suddenly grateful Sashuan decided to share her rations.

Sashuan’s fiddling with her napkin when they come out of the kitchen. She pulls out chairs on either side of her as the three women unload the bowls and platters, and pats the seats encouragingly, smiling at Rose. The rest of the family crowds around the table, filling plates and bowls as Jasmine and her sister take their seats. Jasmine can’t help but notice Rose scoot her chair just slightly closer to the Green.

“Oh, Lily, before I forget—” Sashuan reaches for her bag, and pulls out the sack of food. “I brought some rice and MREs for you and the family; do you want me put them in the kitchen?”

Lily puts a hand to her chest, eyes widening. “Sashi! Oh, you’re simply too kind, I— we couldn’t possibly take your—”

“Of course you can!” Sashuan exclaims. “I’ve been eating over here for months, the least I can do is make up for everything you’ve given me.”

Lily clicks her tongue. “Really, Sashi dear, you needn’t— you’re family to us, you know, we’re only too happy to—”

“And you’re family to me,” Sashuan responds. “And you’ve got kids to feed. So let me at least even us out.”

“I— well, if you insist,” Lily replies. “I just— I don’t want you to feel obligated—”

“Obligation or not, I care about you all and I’m happy to share.” Sashuan rises from her seat. “I’ll just go stow these away, shall I?”

Lily inclines her head. “Do pardon the mess in there!” she calls as Sashuan leaves the room. “It’s frightfully—”

She’s interrupted by a sudden, loud rap at on door. Jasmine’s pulse instantly skyrockets, adrenaline surging as she turns to look down the hall. Visions of greycloaks storming the little apartment fill her mind unbidden for a moment before reason restores itself — they’re gone, they’re gone, the Society is here, that nightmare is over—

Lily scoffs in exasperation. “Oh, I never! It’s that damnable Sablecrest woman again, you mark my words— Jasmine, darling, won’t you go and see her off? You always know just how to deal with people!”

Jasmine takes a deep, shaky breath, closing her eyes for a moment. “Yeah. Sure, mom,” she says, and gets to her feet, heading out towards the hall. “Be right back.”

There’s another knock on the door as she approaches, louder this time, and she swallows hard. It’s just a shitty neighbor, she tells herself. Nobody’s going to hurt Rose. Nobody’s going to hurt Mom.

Nobody’s going to hurt Sashi.

She plasters a fake smile on her face, throws back the bolt, and opens the door— and her expression changes instantly.

The woman standing outside the door is not Pelican Sablecrest, infamous spinster and neighborhood crank. In fact, she’s young, younger than Jasmine. She’s Kaparttu, possibly mixed, dressed in the brown leather cuirass of the Sisterhood, but with a messenger bag over her shoulder in place of a bandolier and holstered gun. Black armbands encircle her bare upper arms, the emblem of the regime on one and one Jasmine doesn’t recognize on the other. Behind her, at a respectful distance, is another woman in a Sisterhood uniform, older — and armed.

The woman at the door gives Jasmine a friendly smile. Is this the residence of Lily Spring-Dahlia and family? she asks politely in fluent Khmaira — Khmaira that sounds far too slick and practiced to Jasmine’s keen ears.

Acting on a deeply-embedded instinct, Jasmine steps out into the hall, pulling the door shut behind her. “I’m sorry, can I help you?” she asks, in equally practiced tones, sizing up the two women as she speaks. The younger one can’t be older than her early twenties, and she’s a bit smaller than Jasmine. Her skin is fair and unblemished, free of scars, bruises, or telltale tattoos; her arms are slim, with little in the way of muscle. Her ungloved hands look soft and uncallussed. In fact, the uniform is the only intimidating thing about her. Not a fighter, Jasmine concludes. I can take her if I have to.

The woman behind her is a different story. She’s bulky, well-built, with what looks like a bullet scar on the right arm. The all-too-familiar tattoos running down the side of her neck instantly tell Jasmine she’s dealing with a seasoned professional, almost certainly an ex-merc, to say nothing of her stance or the way her eyes never stay pointed in the same direction for more than a few seconds at a time. The woman catches Jasmine’s gaze, and Jasmine hurriedly looks away.

Deep breath. Stay calm. Focus. Stick to the rules. Step number one— figure out what they want. She tallies the possibilities in her head. Maybe someone’s in trouble. Did Rosie do something wrong? Did Mom? Maybe it’s a shakedown. What for? Money’s no good. Rations maybe? Or— no. Oh no. No, no, please, God…

Not after what my sister’s been through.

…I’m sorry, I should introduce myself. The younger woman holds out a hand, interrupting Jasmine’s train of thought. You can call me Faith. I’m a commissar with the Sisterhood, here on behalf of the local government. Can we step inside for a moment?

Political officer. That explains the physique. Jasmine has to stop herself from gritting her teeth; something about the woman’s voice is grating on her, like she thinks she’s talking to a child. Jasmine cautiously extends a hand. Faith’s is warm and soft; her grip light.

Nice to meet you, Jasmine replies, keeping her tone neutral, her eyes fixed on the younger woman’s face, searching for any hint of her purpose.

Oh, likewise, mistress! Faith lets go and indicates the door. May we step inside for a moment?

I’m sorry, why?

Faith blinks. Her eyes narrow just a fraction, and she reaches for her messenger bag, removing a slim black ledger. Who did you say you were again? she asks as she flicks through the pages.

I didn’t. What’s your business here?

Faith glances at a page in the ledger for a moment, then up at the address plate by the door. She snaps the book shut. Mistress, is this your place of residence? she asks, and Jasmine can hear an undercurrent in her voice that she’s heard too many times before. The Sisterhood thug heard it too, and her attention is now aimed directly at Jasmine.

Jasmine steps back. I’m sorry, but you need to leave, she replies, fighting to keep her voice level and calm through the rising panic. She reaches for the doorknob, but the commissar moves to stop her, putting a hand on her arm.

I’m afraid I need to see some ID, mistress.

Slowly, Jasmine turns her head to look Faith directly in the eye. Take your hand off me.

Mistress, I’m going to have to ask you to calm down—

The commissar cries out in pain as Jasmine, acting on pure instinct born of too many adolescent fistfights, seizes the woman by the offending arm and forces her down in a brutal wristlock. By the time Jasmine realizes what she’s done it’s too late; the thug has her weapon drawn and Jasmine hears the safety click off as she advances, keying her radio with her free hand and barking an order in Ukapaci.

Back off! Jasmine shouts, her voice frantic. Back the fuck off—

On the ground! the thug roars in response. Release the commissar and get on the ground. Now!

Don’t take another fucking step—

On the ground or I will use— The thug is interrupted by the sound of a door crashing open, and trails off, eyes wide.

What the fuck is going on!? Sashuan demands, her Occupation badge clenched open in one fist and a sharp blade glinting in her other. Put away that gun or so help me Khata’e I will have you shot!

M-ma’am, the thug stutters, this woman, she assaulted a—

Now.

The woman steps back, holding up her hands and switching the safety back on. Slowly, she returns the weapon to its holster and clasps her hands behind her back, standing uncomfortably at attention. Sashuan exhales, and touches Jasmine gently on the back.

You can let go now, Jaz.

Hands shaking, Jasmine reluctantly releases Faith, who gives a gasp of relief and stumbles backward as she gets to her feet, rubbing her shoulder and flexing her trembling fingers as if she’s afraid they won’t work. Her eyes, glittering with tears in the low evening light, go wide when she sees Sashuan, and she immediately stands at attention as well. M-ma’am! she exclaims fearfully. I— I’m so sorry, ma’am, we didn’t— we didn’t mean to disturb you, I had no idea you—

Quiet. Sashuan glares at her, putting an arm protectively around Jasmine’s waist. “Hal iene, miran vali?” she asks gently.

Voice still shaking, Jasmine aims an accusatory finger at the commissar. She laid hands on me, she replies in Ranuir. She was demanding I let her in the flat and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Are you alright?Ash seshenan? Sashuan touches her gently on the cheek. Jasmine closes her eyes for a moment, the comforting softness and warmth of Sashuan’s familiar body calming her frazzled nerves like water on hot coals.

She didn’t… hurt me or… or anything, I just — she crossed a boundary.Ar… ar ana ammaco ve, na… masieno ve, an — ar ani hesha cusho vashe. Jasmine glances at the thug. She called for backupTirin peshparo vade suhat.

Sashuan nods. I’ll deal with it.Val cemesh. She turns her gaze back to Faith, her demeanor shifting sharply. Name, rank, and serial, officer, she demands in Ukapaci. Jasmine flinches at the raw aggression and dominance in her voice and body language.

I—I— K.S. Commissar Faith First Dune’s Mercy of Three Mills Chapter, badge two-four-two-one-five-six— uh, m-ma’am, Faith blurts, and Jasmine can’t help but relish the fear in the young woman’s eyes. That’s what you get for trying to fuck with the people I love.

You.Umitiki. Sashuan points at the thug.

Yes, ma’am, K.S. Sergeant Patience Third Savannah’s Charity, Patience responds with considerably more discipline; badge six-six-three-two-five, ma’am!

Alright, Patience, call off your attack dogs. Sashuan indicates the radio. Report that Liaison Sashuan Solnadi Vanteni has responded and the situation is under control.

Both women turn white as a sheet. Y-you’re— Faith splutters, disbelieving.

Sashuan holds up her badge again.

…oh, God. Faith looks pleadingly at Sashuan as Patience makes the call. I… ma’am, please forgive us, we are so very sorry to disturb you, we had n-no idea you—

Did I say you could talk, soldier? Sashuan interrupts, glaring at the commissar. Faith looks even more mortified and slowly shakes her head.

That’s right. Sashuan glances between the two Sisterhood women. IDs, she orders. Now.

After a few moments of fumbling with bags and pouches, Faith extracts a slim, leatherbound booklet and hands it quickly to Sashuan. Patience follows suit, though with obvious reluctance. Sashuan goes through both booklets thoroughly, scrutinizing paperwork and holding identity cards up to the light. Finally, she replaces the cards and hands the booklets back. They’re legit,Masin rafto ve, she tells Jasmine quietly, switching back to Ranuir.

I mean, I figured. That doesn’t explain why they’re here. That shosshar wouldn’t tell me and she was trying to get in.Han, anlavo sege. E anarit amar sashes nar dalo ve. Nara paro shosshar masi cere na sola assasho vite. Jasmine glowers at Faith.

Sashuan squeezes her arm reassuringly. You’re right, it doesn’t.Hante, nar dalo ve. She beckons to Faith who nervously steps forward. You. Explain.Khuja. Rasha makhira mo.

Ah, ma’am, um—Uje, jakhmesho, je— Faith swallows hard. We— we’re just here on a routine welfare check— I’m the commissar assigned to this neighborhood, and—J-jokhura— jokhura jaran je merae mo mekhita inakure— ebi ja mairishmeshora shikata—

‘Welfare check’?‘Merae mo mekhita inakure’? Jasmine interrupts. What’s that supposed to mean?Na rakhota kuku'e?

They’re glorified dorm inspectors,Amar sollasha rushinte, Sashuan murmurs.

Well, there’s, um. Faith clears her throat. It’s just standard, we go door to door, verify people’s registrations, make sure there’s no fraud going on, of course, but also we make sure everyone knows what they’re eligible for, what services the Sisterhood is offering, so people don’t end up, you know— working themselves to death in spite of a disability. And we check if people need to be referred for medical care, or if children or spouses are being abused, things like that. Only you attacked me for no reason—

Sashuan glances at her partner. Jaz? she says gently. Why did you do that?

Jasmine bristles, stepping back. Are you— she— you’re taking her side—?

Sashuan quickly moves closer, putting a hand on her neck and an arm around her waist to keep her from backing away. Jaz, honey, no. No! I’m just trying to figure out what happened, is all. I’m not blaming you; I know you must have had a good reason. I’m just trying to understand.

Jasmine looks away, exhaling raggedly, her shoulders slumping a little. I told you, she mutters, deflated. She— I was just trying to go back inside, but she got really aggressive and grabbed me. I told her to let go, and she wouldn’t… She trails off, shaking her head. She never said anything about a ‘welfare check.’ Just ‘who are you, let me in, don’t you dare walk away from me.’

Commissar Faith? Would you care to explain?

Faith bites her lip, turning slightly red. I… I’m sorry, she’s right, I didn’t— She forces herself to look up at Jasmine. Y-you’re right, ma’am. I didn’t tell you why we were here, I… I’m sorry, it’s just— the way you were behaving— there were just a couple big red flags, like coming out and shutting the door the way you did, and you sounded kind of… kind of suspicious, and then I looked at the manifest and I saw nobody your age registered as domiciled here… I thought something was— was wrong. She glances at Sashuan. Ma’am, she adds nervously.

Jasmine takes a deep breath, meeting the commissar’s gaze with difficulty. It’s dinnertime. People have guests sometimes, you know.

Faith nods meekly. You’re right. I overreacted. I’m sorry. I just—

If I may, ma’am, Patience interjects, stepping forward and glancing irritably at Jasmine, what the commissar is trying to say is we have been shot at twice in the last fortnight alone. There’ve been stabbings, shootings, assaults— this is a dangerous job, especially in this neighborhood—

Especially in this neighborhood? Jasmine blurts. Why, because it’s the Khmai part of town? And we’re all violent, lawless brutes or something?

Patience clears her throat. Ma’am, I did not say that—

You didn’t have to. You’ve been glaring daggers at me this entire time. I’ll bet you were just itching for an excuse to shoot a snowhair, am I right?

Jaz! Sashuan exclaims. Jaz, honey, slow down; I know you’re upset, just, listen for a minute, okay? She puts an arm around Jasmine’s shoulders, pulling her closer. If there really is something remotely racist going on here, I will absolutely have them punished for it, okay? You have my word. Just let them explain themselves, okay?

Faith pipes up quickly. Please, I— please understand th-that I say this with the utmost sincerity and respect for your people, mistress, she says; I’ve lived in Khmai neighborhoods, I grew up around people like you; I mean, Ngart'ĩka’s sake, my girlfriend of five years is Khmai and I speak your language better than my own. We absolutely aren’t trying to imply anything about your race. That has nothing to do with it, and I’m so, so sorry it came across that way. It’s just that this was a… well, a very poor neighborhood before the Occupation, and when people are trapped in poverty, sometimes violence and crime is their only chance of getting out. Khmai, Kapa, or Zyahua, sometimes it’s their only chance to survive. We’re not passing judgment at all, I promise you, we wouldn’t be with the Sisterhood in the first place if we were that kind of people, it’s just… a lot of people are suspicious, a lot of people here are really used to the state mistreating them, and tensions are high. It’s nothing to do with race, it’s nothing to do with whether anyone’s a good person — it’s just how it is. That’s what we’re here to try and start fixing.

You’re doing an awfully good job of it, Jasmine mutters.

I know, I know, I screwed up. But it’s not like you let me get much of a word in before you resorted to violence—

Jasmine gives a hollow laugh. God, do you have any idea how many times I’ve been shook down by greycloaks and that den dua ṕing justiciar’s pet thugs? I ran a homeless shelter, woman; do you have any idea how often people come into harass the staff or plant evidence or abduct the people we were trying to protect or try to squeeze me for money or— or how many tried t-to— She shakes her head violently, swallows hard. Do you know what fucking happened the last time someone fucking grabbed me like that?

N-no, mistress…Baja meir, jakhmesho…

I barely fought her off. Had to hold my skirt up all the way home because it was so badly torn. God, that wasn’t even the worst thing someone tried to pull when we were going door-to-door for donati— Jasmine stops midsentence. Wind in the rafters and the idle creaking of the old building are all that can be heard for a long moment.

…oh, she says very quietly.

Sashuan holds her close, hugging her tightly. Turning to the Sisterhood officers, she says coolly, I think it would be best if you came back another time.

The commissar nods quickly. Yes, ma’am. I agree completely.

I’m— I’m sorry, Jasmine says, in a voice that’s almost a whisper.

Faith touches her fingers to her forehead, inclining her head and closing her eyes. As am I, mistress. I— I will endeavor to ensure that we— that I do not make this mistake again.

Jasmine nods distantly. Stay safe out there, she murmurs as the Sisterhood women head out, unable to look Faith in the eye.

Sashuan leads Jasmine gently back inside, shutting the door. For a while they just stand there, and Sashuan holds Jasmine tight as tears trickle down her cheeks, until Lily finally comes to fetch them back to the dinner table.