The stool Sashuan’s kneeling on creaks reproachfully as she rummages through the overhead cupboards. “You don’t have to do that, you know,” Jasmine says, perching on the back of the couch and tugging her old winter coat on over her shoulders.
“Yes, I do.”
“You’re family, Sashi. They want to share what’s theirs with you.”
“Everyone’s strained right now and I don’t have four growing kids to feed,” Sashuan replies briskly, setting a small parcel of flour on the counter. “Besides, I get extra rations anyway.”
“Yes, because you need them,” Jasmine shoots back. “You’re Randani, you have nutritional needs we don’t.”
“And that’s what I have the titanium supplements for.” Sashuan slips down off the stool and grabs a messenger bag, slinging it over her shoulder and quickly filling it with foodstuffs. “I am in no danger of malnourishment, hon. I’m not going to take advantage of your family.”
“It’s not taking advantage—”
“It is. Jaz, I’m the one whose military is occupying their city. I personally have the ear of the Director, the Popular Front and the Sisterhood are both falling over themselves fighting for my favor, and I’m not going to take food I don’t need from a family that’s already struggling to make ends meet. That’s just not right.”
Jasmine purses her lips. “Alright,” she says softly as she slips down from the couch. “Just… I just want you to know you don’t have to.”
Sashuan pushes the stool back under the counter and turns to Jasmine, caressing her cheek and kissing her one final time.
“I know,” she says softly. “I am choosing to.” She offers Jasmine her hand. “Shall we?”
Before the Occupation, Sashuan mostly got her clothes from a little Kaparrtu boutique at the edge of the Three Mills district. She had a few pieces tailored here and there but most were readymades at the small end of their size range, like the skirt and tunic she’s wearing now. They’re still slightly too big for her small frame, hanging off her casually and giving her an air of calm, cute, unassuming confidence Jasmine can’t help but find really, really hot.
They set off together from the apartment building hand cautiously in hand. Sashuan’s always alert when she’s out in public but Jasmine notices something shift whenever they touch — her lover’s eyes darting to and fro, her muscles tensing, her breath quickening. The fear gets to Jasmine too, but without her partner’s military sensibilities, she has no outlet for it. All she can do is leave it rotting in the back of her mind, letting off a dark, oppressive miasma that only disperses when they’re secure in friendly territory.
—Well, okay. Maybe she’s picked up a bit of Sashuan’s thinking here and there.
They pause, as they always do, at the corner of Shferkale and Riverview, right at the edge of the Takhmeje level, where you can see the understreets below winding out into the light, and the majestic curve of the Sunchaser, whose polluted waters glitter brightly under the glare of the orange evening sun. Far below a tram trundles along the river, one of the more typical ones, drawn by a team of tame pien şai. Some of the rail routes in Havenrun, Jasmine vaguely remembers having heard once, are older than the Empire. Not for the first time, she wonders if it’s true, and if so, who built them. And when.
Between the low evening light, the shadows of the mouldering shops, now either converted into emergency housing or abandoned altogether, and the pillars for the Shrike’s Way overpass that connects the level above to another across the river, there’s little need to fear the suspicious gaze of bystanders or the cries of “collaborator” and “den dzèiņ.” Standing at the edge right up against the railings, the two women kiss, briefly but passionately, the thrill of it setting both hearts pounding. For all the hazard it would bring them, Jasmine almost wants someone to see, wants someone to bear witness to their clandestine love. Almost.
Sashuan breaks away reluctantly, again scanning for threats, again finding none. Jasmine strokes her neck, gazing at her longingly, and Sashuan kisses the palm of her hand, giving her a sad smile. They continue on, down a flight of stone stairs to the Boulevard, and there to the stop for the A4 Local.
The “A4 Local.” The trams have names now, even the old-fashioned ones. Where once people navigated by memory, street smarts, and intuition, there are now little maps pinned up at each stop, detailing the route and the routes it intersects with in angular, computer-painted lines. Jasmine can’t help but feel a slight pang of loss for the old city — the city where you’d wander along the rail line until either you got where you were going, or a tram came up behind you and you’d whistle to the driver to flag her down.
No more of that. Now they only stop in the places they’re told to, the places where it’s safe, where it’s allowed. When you’re cruising along at ten times the speed of a horse at full gallop, it’s hard to slow down fast enough to pick up someone waving at you from alongside the track.
All the same, she’s still glad, when the tram approaches, to see that it’s one of the motorized ones. There’s something to be said for the smooth, steady speed of the new machines. It’s a local line, so there’s no soldiers to check IDs and keep watch for troublemakers. Just an older Zyahua man sitting at the controls, with friendly eyes beneath his oversized spectacles and tufts of age-blackened hair poking out from under his flat cap, who waves them on board as the tram pulls up.
A few dozen or so people trickle out of the car, mostly exhausted workers just off their afternoon shifts at the steel mills. The mills have been running all night, every night since the occupation began, at four shifts a day — whatever the Greens are up to, they must need a lot of metal for it. Jasmine pats the driver on the shoulder as she steps up the stairs.
“How’s life, Possum?”
“Never better, young ladies, never better.” He tips his cap to Sashuan, who waves back. “Where are you two off to tonight, then?” he asks, as he deftly flicks the switches to shutter the doors and get the tram moving again.
“Just up Silkmarch to mom’s. You sure got the hang of that new system fast. How’s it treating you?” Jasmine catches hold of a pole to steady herself as the tram speeds up; Sashuan seems untroubled by the inertia, keeping her footing without any visible effort.
Possum laughs. “Better than the damned horses ever did, I can tell you that for certain! Just a push here, a push there, and off you go! Marvelous, really. It’s like an intercity liner but with a locomotive you can just stick in a little box. Takes all the stress right out of my job. Well,” he adds conspiratorially, “all the stress that doesn’t come from those young Popular Front rapscallions. You know how they are!”
“Are they acting up again?” Sashuan asks plaintively. “Do I need to order another round of floggings?”
“No, no, not to worry.” Possum waves her away. “I think they got the message last time, they’re not nearly so rowdy nowadays. Still, they are a touch excitable. Give a boy a uniform and it’s bound to go straight to his head.”
“If they give you any trouble, you tell me straight away, you hear?” Sashuan leans against the old farebox, now covered up and disused, a look of concern on her face. “I don’t want any more business like that shit went down up at Yellow Hill.”
“Indeed not.” He inclines his head. “Never fear — you, mistress, shall be the first to hear if anything goes amiss.”
“Comrade,” she corrects him teasingly. He clicks his tongue in dismay.
“Comrade indeed! Old habits die hard, as they say.”
“So what’s the word out there these days, Poss?” Jasmine asks, her eyes fixed on the scenery flashing by outside.
He frowns. “Hm. Since you ask— well. Perhaps it’s nothing, there is so much fanciful gossip. All the same.” He keys a contact, and a switch in the line ahead of them shunts to the left, diverting the train down Windroost. “On the balance, I’m quite fond of the new management myself, even if things are a bit… well. My darling niece, you see, she lives across the river, and, eh, you know how it is, I haven’t seen her once since they cloistered off the wards. Still, you won’t catch me rabble-rousing like some of these people— absolutely incapable of gratitude, honestly; no sense of proportion at all—”
“Rabble-rousing?” Sashuan asks. “Is someone trying to start shit?”
“Looks to be that way, I’m afraid. Whispers here and there. You wouldn’t happen to know young master Ash, now would you? Sweet little Khmai boy, from over in the Brookdale tenements?”
Sashuan glances at Jasmine, who shakes her head. “I don’t think I’ve met him.”
“Ah, well. He’s been working to support his family, you know, the poor dear— ever since Poppy had that terrible accident and had to leave the steel mill. Well, word is—”
“Hang on,” Sashuan interrupts. “How old is he?”
“Just turned seventeen, I think.”
“That’s— he shouldn’t be—” Sashuan shakes her head forcefully. “If his mother’s disabled, she should be getting food and things delivered; a child shouldn’t have to be… be working for her rations, that’s not—”
“Oh, believe you me, I tried to tell him.” Possum sighs. “Well, Poppy, you know, she’s so afraid of winding up in all the lists, so she won’t collect what she’s due. Ash has always been such a brave, selfless young lad, he just didn’t think twice before signing up for her old shifts at the mill. That was, what, two years ago? I hear he’s covering shifts now for the other workers. Since the changeover, that is — for a share of their rations, you see.”
“A seventeen-year-old shouldn’t even be allowed in the steel mill; that’s a dangerous goddamn job!” Sashuan exclaims. “Oh, fuck me, I need to fix this. I’ll— have him taken off the rolls, and—”
“I’ll go,” Jasmine says, gently interrupting her with a touch on the arm. “People know my name around here; I’ll see if I can’t get Poppy to register and sort this out without… you know. Getting the Occupation involved. There’s no need to scare them any worse than they must already be, love.”
Possum nods, looking slightly worried. “Yes, it’s rather… that job, it’s really all he’s got, you know? I’m sure he lied about his age to keep it when the changeover came around, but all the same— well, he’s been riding my route for years now, I’ve watched him grow into a fine young man, and he just cares so very much for his family. I know the mills are no place for a child, but it’s the one thing that’s kept them all going for these last few years. The one thing that’s still under his control. He’d just feel helpless if you took his job away now, like he couldn’t do anything to protect his kin.”
“I… right.” Sashuan looks deflated. “I’ll… I’ll follow your lead, Jaz. What was it you were saying about rabble-rousing, Poss?”
Possum seems hesitant for a moment, like he’s now afraid of what will happen if he opens his mouth. He glances at Jasmine, then nods slowly. “Y-yes, there’s been— well, Ash tells me there’s been… talk, you know?”
“…what kind of talk?”
“About a… oh, a secret resistance cell or somesuch rubbish. He even told me someone approached him the other day, this woman he knew from the job, saying, well— saying some quite unreasonable things about our, er… new comrades in Ward One. Implied she knew people, people who were planning things and… knew how to get things. Well, Ash is a good lad, you know, told her right quick to take her nonsense elsewhere,” he adds hastily, seeing the alarm in Sashuan’s eyes. “But you know, that’s the kind of thing that’s going around. All this change, it certainly is frightening some people.”
“That’s sedition,” Sashuan says quietly. “People are just openly… openly talking sedition on the job? The foremen should have reported it; we should be digging this rot out already! Did Ash tell you that woman’s name? Where she—”
“Sashi,” Jasmine murmurs.
“Jaz, this is serious!” Sashuan exclaims, rounding on her. “Do you have any idea how important this city is to the war effort?” Without waiting for a reply, she jabs her finger in the direction of Three Mills. “Havenrun has the most developed smelting infrastructure of anywhere in the Seven Systems,” she hisses, lowering her voice. “Steel from the mines here— it winds up everywhere from our tanks to our hardsuits to our starships! And I don’t just mean the Society’s; I mean our allies’ too! Those mills are some of our most vital strategic assets — lives are riding on them, Green, Red, Free Khmai, Sisterhood, Merekhna, all of us, and now I’m hearing — from a goddamn tram driver instead of the people whose job it is to watch for these things — that there’s a conspiracy spreading among the steelworkers themselves! Do you have any idea how many people could die if they were to sabotage—”
“Sashi.” Jasmine grabs her by the shoulders. “These are the fucking steelworkers we’re talking about, for Khata’e’s sake. I know these people, you know these people! They’ve spent their lives poor and afraid and being shat on by everybody, and you’re going to what, have them rounded up and thrown in a gulag over a rumor? Wren, Oak, Eagle, Daisy, Bobcat, Constance, Carnation, Wolf, all of them? You remember them, don’t you? All those people who didn’t have anywhere beside the shelters to come home to after breaking their backs all goddamn day for years on end, for maybe six marks a week if they were lucky? You’re better than this, Sash. You’re better than this. What has gotten into you all of a sudden?”
“I — I do hope you won’t be too harsh on them all,” Possum stammers, in the voice of a man who’s only just realized the chain of events he’s set into motion. “A lot of them, well — most of them are impressionable youngsters who don’t know what’s good for them, hardly traitors or anything the like — hasn’t got a malicious bone in his body, little Ash, and I can hardly imagine the others do either…”
Sashuan looks frozen for a moment. She glances back and forth between Jasmine and Possum, her eyes wide and her expression oddly fearful, before suddenly her shoulders slump and she lowers her head.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs. “You’re… you’re right, both of you, I’m— I’m sorry. I don’t know why— I shouldn’t have— I— that wasn’t…” She trails off, shaking her head, unable to find the words she needs. “I’m sorry,” she says again finally. “Thank you for… for reminding me, both of you. I… I’ll dig around a bit on the down-low before I pass word up the chain. If I do; I’m not saying I will, I probably won’t. It’s probably nothing. I don’t… I don’t want to hurt a bunch of vulnerable people any more than they’ve already been hurt.”
“You, er…” Possum adjusts his spectacles nervously. “I can’t help but notice, Mis— er, Comrade Sashuan,” he corrects himself, “but you’re, well— you seem a… a different woman lately, here and there, in bits and pieces. Not quite the Lark I knew, if you’ll pardon my saying so. Not always.”
Sashuan nods. For a moment, there’s only the sound of wheels on rail and the muted evening bustle of the city outside, as she stares pensively at the floor.
“It’s a long way to go,” she says finally. “From being the underdog to suddenly… suddenly being all on top. Lark… Lark lived by such different rules. Then all of a sudden Sashuan came back, right in the middle of it all, all the way back from where I left her on Mirtan. And now I’m trying to be Lark and Sashuan at the same time and…” She trails off, shaking her head.
“I do hope you don’t feel too poorly for my saying so,” Possum says hurriedly, “I didn’t mean anything by it, truly, just—”
“No. No, you were right.” Sashuan straightens her back. “I needed to hear that. I’ve been… I’ve been avoiding thinking about it. I need…” She rubs her forehead, takes a ragged breath. “I need to sort my head out. Thank you, Poss. For… knowing when to say this shit.”
The stop is a few blocks away from Jasmine’s mother’s apartment, but Possum stops a bit past where he’s technically supposed to, to drop them as close as he can. They wave goodbye as the tram accelerates down the track and curves quietly out of view.
“You told me,” Jasmine says after a while, “the day you— the day you told me, you said… you said I’d always been dating Sashuan. That she and Lark were the same all along.”
“I don’t think I even realized until now that they weren’t,” Sashuan replies softly.
“Tell me about Sashuan, then.”
Sashuan’s eyes are distant. “She grew up on a beautiful world,” she murmurs. “Full of light and trees and comfort and peace. Where everyone was kind and trust was easy. Where the rules only were there for her own good and she always did as she was told. Where we were never afraid to submit to our leaders, because we knew they cared about us, and we saw so much good that came from their rule. Sashuan would have died to protect her nation, her People, her Society; would have given everything to protect it from the kind of people who’d tear it down. Sashuan never disobeyed, because she never, ever wanted to.
“Then she came here. A place where the rules were meant to keep people down and afraid. Where people were used up and thrown away, where everyone was scared of each other, where the people in charge were her implacable enemies. Lark learned to break things, to disobey, to tear people down, to take away their power and defy their laws and heal the people they hurt. Lark lived in the margins and never did what she was told. And she became a destroyer.”
She looks down, wiping tears from her eyes. “Sashuan forged bonds,” she says finally. “Lark… Lark broke chains.”
“And now your Society is here,” says Jasmine quietly. Sashuan nods, tears dripping from the corner of her eye.
“It’s like… I go in to work in the morning and it’s like I’m home again. Surin a surin anara pasto se. We’re all comrades again — I hear my language, I wear my uniform, they call me by my name, by my real name, and that warmth… that warmth and trust and love that I didn’t even realize I’d learned to live without, it’s back all around me, like I’m just plunged into this pool of peace and calm and it’s like I can relax again, can feel okay again. It’s like I’m home.
She looks down. “And then I come home. And then I can’t even kiss you in public. And I’m so afraid, constantly so afraid, and one minute Sashuan is holding you in her arms and the next Lark is screaming, no, no, not here, they’ll see, they’ll hurt her, and the only place we have for… for us is that… that tiny little apartment and…” The tears are streaming down her cheeks now; she looks away in embarassment, clutching at her head. “I f-feel like I’m being torn apart. I want to be with my people again, I want so badly to be with my people again and feel safe and be able to walk outside and sit under the trees and kiss whoever the fuck I want and know that there are hundreds of strong, caring people all around who’d rush to my side in a minute to protect me, even if they’d never once seen me before. But then I don’t have you. I feel alone when I’m among the People because I don’t have you, and I feel alone when I’m with you because I’m not with the People, and…” She stops, leaning heavily on a telegraph post, her small body shuddering with the force of her sobs. “Shose, shose, shoses shos, masina riho ve, riho vo se. Vo se, vo se! I can’t do this anymore, I can’t—” She lets out a bitter laugh as Jasmine wraps her arms tightly around her. “Elena risash; fuck me, God, rihveshi narit risesh. You deserve better than this; all I had to do was fucking keep it together for one dua ṕing den wè night for your family and—”
“Shh. Shhh, no, shh.” Jasmine kisses her on the lips, right there in the middle of the alley, squeezing her even tighter. “No, no, no, babe, no. Stop. Don’t do this to yourself, you’ve done nothing wrong.”
“It’s like it all just fucking hit me all at once.” Sashuan’s knees are going weak and Jasmine puts an arm around her waist to try and steady her. “How long have I been keeping this bullshit buried?”
“Hey. Sashi.” Jasmine touches her cheek, brushes the tears from her face and pushes her hair out of her eyes. “What if we move to the Surf District? Could we do that? Would it help if you didn’t have to choose, if you could have me and your people right there at the same time?”
“…y-you…” Sashuan coughs, clearing her throat, staring up at Jasmine with hesitant eyes. “You’d… really do that? You’d move all the way to Ward One just to… just to help me deal with this stupid—”
“It’s not stupid!” Jasmine kisses her again, rubbing her thigh softly, touching her in the ways that always seem to help Sashuan calm down. “Of course I’d do it, Sashi, of course I would, I love you, I don’t— I don’t want to see you hurting like this— God, I had no idea—”
“But… but what about your family? Your friends? The shelter? It’s all here—”
“I could still visit. They’ll let me travel, right? Once I’m inducted? I can visit my family whenever I want, but you—” She shakes her head. “Sashi, I want to build a life with you. If we can’t do that here, then there is nothing for me here. Get me into Ward One and you won’t have to choose anymore. You won’t have to leave your people every day. You won’t have to feel alone anywhere. We can fix this.”
Sashuan clings to her, her shaking, rapid breaths calming as her racing heart begins to slow. “Yes,” she whispers. “I… I will. Thank you. Thank you, Jaz, you have no idea—” She stops. Her eyes widen.
“We need to go.”
She grabs Jasmine’s hand and Jasmine just barely has time to turn and glance in the direction Sashuan was been looking before she’s being tugged away from the abandoned storefronts and toward the stairs at the end of the alley.
Behind them is a young woman in a battered wool coat, short white hair blowing this way and that in the wind, a sack over her shoulder. Probably on her way home from picking up a ration allotment. She’s stopped in the middle of the street, facing towards the alley, and she’s too far away for Jasmine to make out her expression.
But she’s staring directly at them.