The Sockdolager

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from the Winter 2016 collection

The Moons of Zaaros

by Andrea Tang

Jala never figured herself a sucker for the bonds of childhood friendship. Friendship was an over-generous word, frankly, for what she and Willhemenia had. It was the sort of descriptor people forced upon you because they expected girls coming of age in the same place at the same time—thrown together by nothing but galaxy-driven circumstance—to be friends. As if all girls needed in common was their mutual girlhood.

And girlhood—difficult, cantankerous girlhood—really was all Jala had in common with Willhemenia, back in the rocky, adolescent years of the Inter-Orbital Alliance. Jala, at twelve, spent more time antagonizing Lyr’s newest allies than following in her diplomat parents’ footsteps, and Willhemenia wasn’t much better. By Jala’s count, most Inter-Orbital diplomatic incidents that ensued were at least fifty percent Willhemenia’s fault anyway, so Jala didn’t see why she always got stuck shouldering all the blame.

Willhemenia had the same skinny legs and pasty-pale coloring of all her people, Southie-blond hair like anemic corn imports, and Southie-blue eyes like cloudy river water. She possessed a tremendous set of lungs for such a lanky thing, and—as Jala discovered the hard way—disturbingly wicked aim with a broom handle. Jala could no sooner dump a bucket of worm-infested Zaaros-blossoms into Willhemenia’s straw-like hair, than the Southie girl would be chasing Jala through the courtyards of the Inter-Orbital Embassy—“Get out of here, you Lyran bully!”—and taking truly terrifying aim at Jala’s shins with her broom.

These antics inevitably led to strong words from Jala’s parents, which was just so embarrassing, followed in short order by soft, disappointed words from Commander Duchivix, which was even worse. The collective guilt-tripping cocktail always spurred Jala into ducking her head and running out to the riverside launch base to mumble grudging apologies at an inevitably sniveling Willhemenia. Jala never understood how Willhemenia could snap from red-faced, shrieking rage to quiet, stifled weeping in the span of ten minutes. In childhood, Jala had chalked it up to just one more thing that made Southfall folk so strange.

“It’s not our place to judge their ways,” Jala’s father would say, in what Jala privately thought of as his Ambassador Voice: steady, measured, and rehearsed. “Bickering over cultural differences distracts from common ground. Lyr and Southfall are the largest moons of Zaaros. Without our commitment to each other, the Alliance crumbles, along with our chance at fending off invasion. Zaaros has already invaded its innermost moons. Lyr and Southfall will be next—unless we stand together.”

The Southies were undeniably weird, though. Southfall men at the embassy—Commander Duchivix, most notably—all knew their way around piloting a mech or wielding blade-and-blaster, but they kept their women off the battlefield entirely.

“Men and women occupy separate spheres back on Southfall,” Duchivix said, when Jala asked. “We aren’t Lyrans, my dear. Certain things simply aren’t done.”

“But you fight alongside Lyrans,” Jala pointed out, more puzzled than offended. “Lyran women are soldiers, same as our men. We all have to do our part to defend the commonwealth of moons, don’t we?”

“And so we do, and we are grateful for your martial skill.” Duchivix smiled, pale green eyes bright over laugh lines that crinkled his curious, Southie-pale face. “We respect the homegrown traditions of our Lyran allies, just as you respect ours. But Southfall’s women play a different role from their Lyran counterparts. They become diplomats, doctors, even scholars—any number of crucial occupations to the defense effort. But bloodshed is left to the men. So has it been, for all the years of our moon’s rotations.”

More likely, thought Jala, Southie women just weren’t cut out for fighting. Violence seemed against their very nature. Willhemenia and her ferocious broom-wielding ways aside, the Southfall girls on base were almost alien in their delicacy. They painted their faces with pretty little palettes and wrapped their bodies in gauzy, silk-spun gowns. They slipped through embassy corridors on dancer-light feet, like newly bloomed Zaaros-blossoms, bearing tea services and biscuit platters and tittering behind small, manicured hands. Everything about their existence was so far removed from the sensible, militant sturdiness of Lyr’s women that Jala could hardly believe they shared the same species, much less the biggest landmark treaty the hundred moons of Zaaros had seen in generations.

So the years of the Inter-Orbital Alliance crawled by, and Jala kept to her blade-and-blaster drills with the other Lyrans, while the Southfall governesses spirited Willhemenia off to perfect her afternoon tea ceremony graces, or whatever it was that Southie girls learned to do in adolescence. It was, Jala figured, the natural course of things.

* * *

“Hey, Jala. You read the latest Tale of Gnor issue?”

Jala stopped twirling her training dagger for a second, squinting up at her accoster. Sagara was one of the bigger, better-looking Lyran boys training at the base camp, popular with Lyran and Southie girls alike for the newfound, summer-grown breadth of his shoulders and the habitual smile flashing against the smooth, dark copper of his skin. He had that smile trained on Jala now.

She returned it, pulse climbing. “Don’t tell me you’re reading that guilty pleasure escapism too.”

Sagara shrugged those well-cut shoulders. He had a torso like an upside-down triangle. “Who said anything about guilty?”

“Well,” Jala allowed, flipping the dagger from one hand to the other. She hoped the motion came off as casual and sexy, and not just sloppy and vaguely murderous-looking. “We did disarming drills at morning grappling today, so at least I know I could take Gnor in a knife fight now.”

Sagara’s expression seemed skeptical. “I don’t know. He’s like, a blademaster.”

“Yeah, but what’s a blademaster supposed to do without blades?”

“But he always carries blades.”

“Not if you get rid of them.”

“He’d pull another. He hides them all over his body.”

“Yeah, but those are throwing blades, not fighting blades,” said Jala, and realized about a millisecond too late that she’d just admitted to actually reading the comics. Well, if she was stuck taking this stand now: “His weapon balance would be totally off.”

“Gnor would make do,” insisted Sagara, with absolutely infuriating confidence.

Jala dropped her dagger and glared at him, unsure whether the heat boiling in her belly was animal attraction, irritation with Sagara’s lack of faith in Jala’s theoretical combat prowess, or most embarrassing of all, actual worry over whether or not Sagara thought she could take a terribly-written fictional character in a fight. She really hated those comics. “Please. Gnor was created by some hack who wouldn’t know the pointy end of a blade from its handle.”

Sagara’s grin returned. “Struck a nerve, have I?”

“Are you guys arguing about Tale of Gnor again?”

Jala redirected her glare at Willhemenia, who’d loped up behind them like a little cat. She’d knotted her pale hair into a messy updo that the Southfall governesses no doubt despaired of, and sported very definitively non-regulation men’s trousers. “I keep trying to tell Jala,” Willhemenia continued, in clipped, slightly pretentious tones she’d probably learned from Self-Important Southie Lady class, “The point of the Tale of Gnor comics isn’t the fight scenes. It’s their message. Elene Cole believes in Southfall, and defending the commonwealth of moons. She’s a patriot.”

“Elene Cole is some precious Southie damsel who’s never seen combat in her entire life,” Jala shot back. “I don’t give a damn what secret propaganda message she’s trying to send with her comics. Her details are all wrong, and an insult to real soldiers. Maybe she should write stuff she actually knows something about, like floral arrangements or whatever.”

Two bright spots of red bloomed on Willhemenia’s pasty cheeks. “I don’t understand you,” she bit out at Jala. “Everyone keeps saying what a promising cadet you are, and what a credit you are to the Alliance, but you’re just so ignorant about everything our treaty stands for.”

She spun on her heel and ran off before Jala could think of a good comeback.

Sagara shook his head in good-natured confusion. “Crazy Southie tempers. Pity they don’t let their women into battle, huh?”

Jala snorted. “You’re crazy if you think girls from Southfall could take a hit in light-contact sparring, much less actual combat. Have you seen them? It’d be like crushing Zaaros-blossom petals.”

“Ha! Big talk from a girl who claims she could beat Gnor in a fight.” Sagara winked. His teeth flashed again. “Want to test that theory on me?”

“You’re on. See you in the sparring ring, loser.”

* * *

Jala won. Sagara congratulated her with a kiss. They had fun for a while, messing around the sparring ring, but low-key annoyance kept distracting Jala from Sagara’s excellent abdominals, which was a damn shame.

Still, though. Jala was a soldier. A good one. She wasn’t ignorant.

* * *

“Have you seen that little Southie training at the base camp?”

Alvara’s right cross nearly took Jala’s head off. Jala twitched her shoulder up to protect her jaw, glaring. “Hey, watch it!”

Alvara shrugged, unapologetic, fists still raised. Slim-framed and risk-averse, Alvara was neither the strongest nor the fastest among Lyr’s latest crop of cadets, but she threw distractions at her opponents with the same sort of devastating precision that bigger fighters threw rib-smashing power punches, and she felt no shame about pressing the advantage. “Learn to slip faster, soldier.”

Jala faked a jab at the younger girl’s eye, then uppercut with the opposite fist. It connected with a satisfying thwap. “Back at you, soldier. Which Southie did you mean? In case you haven’t noticed, the Inter-Orbital Alliance brought us a whole moon-full of them. Jemeny? Rafe? Mikhael?”

The Southie cadets, Jala had to admit, were shaping up to be decent comrades-in-arms to their Lyran counterparts. Quiet, unobtrusive Jemeny had a near perfect shot with his blaster rifle. Lithe, long-legged Rafe kick-boxed better than anyone on base, as quick and merciless with his feet as his fists. Mikhael could take anyone to the ground in close quarters, blades or no. Alvara could have been talking about any of them, or any number of their fellow countrymen.

“Don’t be a dunce.”

“Well, don’t be coy!”

Alvara danced out of Jala’s reach, then paused to rub gingerly at the new bruise on her chin. She glowered. “Willhemenia, obviously.”

Jala frowned, stripped off the sparring gloves, and began unwrapping her hands. “What about Willhemenia?”

“She’s been training.”

Jala snorted. “Funny.”

“It’s not a joke.” Alvara’s eyebrows climbed. “You didn’t know? She was practically your shadow when you guys were younger.”

A funny, unidentifiable feeling shot down Jala’s spine. “How long has this been going on for?”

“Do I look like a Southie-sitter to you?”

“How long?”

“Stars, I don’t know! A few months, maybe. What’s it to you?”

“Nothing,” snapped Jala. “I just—she’s a girl, you know?”

Alvara snorted, unlacing her gloves with her teeth. “What are we, launch rockets?”

Jala punched her sparring partner’s shoulder, bare knuckled. “A Southie girl, dimwit. They’re not like us. They can’t fight. That idiot kid’s going to get herself hurt, and old man Duchivix is going to find a way to blame it on me.”

“In that case, you might want to check out the bridge by the launch base before shit gets out of hand.”

“Why?” Jala asked suspiciously. “What’s happening?”

“Willhemenia’s sparring your boyfriend. People are placing bets on—hey! Where are you going?”

“The bridge!” Jala yelled over her shoulder, breaking into a jog.

“You planning on killing Willhemenia or Sagara?” Alvara called, sounding amused.

“Both, obviously!”

* * *

A small crowd had already gathered at the river’s edge by the time Jala arrived at the bridge. Excited murmurs rose over the clash of metal on metal. Jala shoved her way to the front of the audience, just in time for the smaller of the two helmeted figures to whip a blunted training weapon straight through the bigger fighter’s guard. Sagara tugged his helmet off with a whoop. “Nice shot, Southie! Didn’t know you had it in you!”

“Thanks, Sagara.” His opponent removed his—her—helmet in turn. Willhemenia’s wild, straw-like hair curled sweat-mussed in all directions like a haphazard halo. Her pale face was ruddy with exertion. She bowed, of all things, neat and formal, mouth curled at the corners. “I appreciate the lesson.”

Jala stalked right up between them. “What in hells is going on here?”

“Jals!” Sagara clapped her on the shoulder. “I wish you’d gotten here sooner. You should have seen Willhemenia going at it. I told her it was a shame you Southfall folk keep your women off the battlefields,” he explained to Willhemenia. “Didn’t I tell you it was a shame, Jala?”

Willhemenia wasn’t looking at Sagara. Instead, she’d fixed Jala with the most incomprehensible expression, river-water eyes gone large beneath furrowed brows, her mouth pulled tight. She looked half triumphant, half braced for a blow from one of the discarded training weapons.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” said Jala.

Willhemenia’s lips parted, a flash of surprise, before habitual Southie disdain took over. “That’s not any of your business!”

“It is when I’m a cadet who reports directly to Commander Duchivix!” hissed Jala. “Who’s a Southfall military representative, by the way, your military representative, so even if you won’t respect my word, you could at least respect his.”

Willhemenia lifted her chin. If her eyes really were buckets of river water, they’d be boiling. “Is he the one who sent you here? Did he tell you to send me away?”

Jala crossed her arms, irritation climbing. “Sparring equipment is off limits to non-cadets,” she pointed out, instead of bothering with an answer. “Who gave you that helmet?”

I did,” said Sagara. His hand landed soft but firm on the crook of Jala’s shoulder. “Jals. Could we have a word in private, please?”

Jala resisted the impulse to shrug off his fingers, still matching Willhemenia glare for glare. The other girl’s eyes screwed shut, and for one horrifying second, Jala—remembering most of their interactions at age twelve—thought she was about to cry. Then Willhemenia unstrapped her helmet. She tossed it at Jala’s feet. “Here you go. Enjoy.”

The crowd parted to let her pass. Jala redirected her glare at Willhemenia’s abandoned helmet, hating that Willhemenia, just by walking away at precisely the right moment, could leave you feeling like you’d lost a fight you should have won.

* * *

“What in hells were you thinking?” Jala shouted. It was a good, loud shout. Too bad the intimidating effects were probably mitigated by the height difference between shouter and shoutee.

Sagara, the shout-ee in question, stared down with maddening, unashamed benevolence at Jala. “Willhemenia wanted to learn how to fight. So me and some of the other Lyrans taught her. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“The big deal?” Jala shoved a finger up against his—still distractingly well-defined—chest. “The big deal is that this goes against our entire treaty with the Southies. We’re supposed to respect their ways, same as they respect ours. And their women don’t fight.”

Sagara shrugged. “Well, Willhemenia does. That’s her choice, isn’t it?”

“Duchivix will be furious!”

“Duchivix hasn’t said anything yet, and it’s been months. What’s so wrong with Willhemenia educating herself, just because she’s Southfall-born? No one’s suggesting we send her to the front lines. We’re just teaching her a few tricks.”

“So she can dabble around for a bit, get herself clobbered, get us all in trouble with the paper-pushers at the embassy, only to quit and move on to her next whim?”

“I don’t think Willhemenia’s like that,” said Sagara. He sounded thoughtful. “You hear the way she argues. All that stuff about being a patriot, and Alliance this, Alliance that. Girl’s got a one-track mind, and it’s pretty much one hundred percent focused on defending her home. Makes sense she’d want to learn a thing or two about like, actual defense, right?”

“She’s not learning anything, if you and the others just go out of your way to humor her.”

Sagara blinked. “You really think—” He chuckled suddenly, all his teeth showing. “No, no, you’ve got it all backwards, Jals. Most of us, we thought the same thing you did, the first time she asked for fighting lessons. Waste of time at best, diplomatically dangerous to the Alliance at worst. We all tried to drive her away the first time she sparred with us.”

“So why’s she still training with you?”

“That’s the thing, Jals.” Sagara shook his head, still grinning. Something gleamed behind his dark eyes. “She’s actually good.”

* * *

A couple of weeks later, Jala received patrol orders for a tour of duty through the hundred moons. Alvara whistled low and impressed when she heard. “Congrats, cadet. Looks like the Inter-Orbital brass has finally decided you’re a real soldier.”

Sagara drew Jala into an amicable bear hug. “You’re the best of us, Jals. Always have been. Raise some good old-fashioned Lyran hell for us on those outer moons, you hear?”

Willhemenia didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t actually say anything to Jala at all. Which was just fine by Jala, truthfully. They weren’t really friends, after all, and whenever Willhemenia did say things to Jala, it always seemed to end in a fight.

But the day Jala boarded the departing ship for the outer moons, this was the last she saw of the embassy grounds: an unmistakable streak of pale hair and gangly limbs scrambling along the rickety old bridge by the launch base, as if Willhemenia thought she could outrun a K8-class starship on her skinny, little legs. Through the distorted lens of the window, the girl running down the bridge could have been twelve years old again, still chasing after Jala, brandishing a broom like a sparring weapon.

The ship moved. The lonely little figure grew smaller and smaller. On a whim, Jala saluted through the window. She couldn’t be certain, but in that final remaining second before lift-off, Jala thought she saw Willhemenia return the salute.

Then, Jala drew the curtain and turned toward the future.

* * *

The tour spanned seemingly countless moons. Life beyond Lyr and Southfall unfurled in a heady, quicksilver revelation: the exhilarating heft of fresh-forged weapons in joint exercises, the booming laughter of brothers- and sisters-in-arms, foreign-cooked foods and foreign-brewed ale intoxicating Jala’s tongue.

And men, too. The men of Zaaros’ outer moons loped through Jala’s life in stunning, seductive variety. They teased and flirted, all taut muscle and hard planes cast in sharp relief against the distant sun, smelling of rare and smoky wine. Jala lost herself to the bruises of a blaster rifle recoiling into her shoulder by day, and the supply of wine-tongued men filling her bed by night.

Four years passed.

* * *

The latest batch of cadets at the Inter-Orbital Embassy—a mix of Lyrans and Southies ready for a propaganda poster—stood at attention for a startlingly youthful Southie drill instructor.

Jala, three days returned from tour and fighting off space-lag, leaned back against the training yard fence, lazily drinking in the pretty young Southie man. He looked and moved more like a dancer than the soldier he was, tall and lithe-limbed, his hair a fair, silky fall he’d roped back into a high ponytail that whipped over his cheekbones with every slice of his training blade. He was so lovely to look upon, he’d have seemed breakable, save the razor-quick, expert flash of steel in his hands. Jala hummed quiet appreciation. Beautiful men who could devastate a battlefield were her absolute favorite.

The young man, as if sensing her lecherous gaze, turned at that exact moment, ice blue eyes snapping toward Jala. Jala choked.

The young man was Willhemenia.

* * *

“Oh, Will?” Four years hadn’t changed Sagara much. His skin had gone a little browner, his shoulders even broader, but he wore the same habitual, pearly grin. “Yeah, she’s great at coaching the new kids.” Before Jala’s eyes, he clapped an arm around the lithe, blond soldier from the training grounds.

“You haven’t forgotten me already, have you?” asked the soldier. It was a deeper voice the one that lived in Jala’s memory, yet unmistakably the very same that used to shriek insults at her over showers of rotten Zaaros-blossoms. “Four years isn’t that long. I’m Will, remember?”

Jala stared. “What was wrong with Willhemenia?”

Will-formerly-Willhemenia shrugged. “It’s a mouthful. Going by ‘Will’ is easier. That’s all.”

Jala eyed Will up and down: the tailored men’s trousers and loose, open-necked white shirt clinging to her lean-muscled torso.

That definitely wasn’t all.

* * *

“It works,” said Alvara, four years older and resplendent in a black captain’s tunic. “Will’s a great teacher, and a better fighter. She’d make a solid captain herself some day.”

Jala sighed. “Don’t. She’s –”

“A Southie girl? Yeah, we’ve all noticed.” Alvara’s hand darted out, lightning quick, and caught Jala’s wrist before the other girl could walk away. “Want to hear something extraordinary? The Southfall boys, the cadets, they all call her sir.”

* * *

A new Inter-Orbital task force was to be assembled for defending the outer moons. To no one’s surprise, the assignment fell to the newly returned Jala. “This isn’t just a military mission,” said Commander Duchivix, green eyes ancient and serious. “It’s also about diplomacy, and outreach. To defeat a common enemy—to truly win a war before it starts—you can’t rely on brute force alone. For real victory, you must also win hearts and minds.” He smiled. “Allies.”

As if to prove his point, the embassy held a ball the following week to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Inter-Orbital Alliance. Jala grumbled, tamed her hair as best she could, and arrived at the ball in military dress whites. The red-flowing wine bar immediately left her torn between deep longing and acute fear.

She risked one glass of red, and nearly spat out her first sip when Willhemenia walked through the door. Gone were the trousers, haphazard ponytail, and illusion of the handsome young Southfall soldier. You couldn’t mistake this girl for a man if you tried. She’d pinned her hair into a tumble of star-kissed curls at the nape of her swanlike neck, which disappeared into the deep blue bodice of her ball gown. A hint of kohl called attention to the lighter blue of her eyes. She’d painted her mouth red.

Jala’s tongue felt dry, despite the wine. It’d been one thing to see Willhemenia as Will, the young soldier, and find him beautiful. This gowned and painted Willhemenia—and her effect on Jala—was something entirely new. Yet the girl in the gown was just as much the obnoxious, broom-wielding shadow of Jala’s youth as the young soldier the Southie cadets called “sir.”

Willhemenia raised her eyebrows toward Jala. “It’s rude to stare agape at a lady, even the belle of the ball.”

“I wasn’t staring at you,” Jala lied irritably.

An opaque, close-mouthed smile slipped over Willhemenia’s candy red lips. “I meant Alvara.”

Jala twisted her head. Sure enough, Alvara stood a few feet away in dress whites of her own. Jet-black curls hung in glossy waves down the back of her spotless uniform. “She’s dressed as a soldier,” Jala pointed out.

Willhemenia’s eyebrows climbed higher still. “So she can’t also be the belle of the ball? A curious opinion.”

Jala sighed explosively. This older Willhemenia left her feeling even further off-kilter than the younger one had, yet Jala still couldn’t seem to walk away. “I never said she couldn’t be both. I just made an observation. The belle of the ball can still be beautiful in dress whites, can’t she?” Jala, winking, smoothed the cuffs of her own white jacket. “Or aren’t we still talking about Alvara?”

She had the satisfaction of seeing Willhemenia color faintly beneath the delicately applied makeup. “Some of us don’t have the same choices.”

“Really? That Southie soldier-girl called Will, with the man’s name and man’s clothing, she sure seems to be making a choice.”

Willhemenia’s mouth set. Even lip paint couldn’t disguise childish stubbornness. “I do what’s necessary to defend Southfall. To stand by the Alliance. You know there are parts of space where empires control entire planets? Without the Alliance, Zaaros could snatch up two moons like a kid taking candy. I won’t let that happen to my home. To our homes.”

“Well,” said Jala. Her mouth was inches from Will’s. She wondered if Will had noticed. Jala swallowed. “We have that in common.”

* * *

Jala had strange dreams that night: a girl who was sometimes a woman, sometimes a man, painted mouth and blade in hand, fair hair tumbling curtains around Jala.

Jala woke sweating.

* * *

A month passed in relative peace, as Jala pondered selections for her task force. Then Willhemenia disappeared from the training yard for a week.

“You haven’t heard?” Alvara’s eyes were knowing. “Her parents arranged a marriage for her. She’s engaged.”

“Oh,” said Jala. The world shrank around her, cold and brittle. “Oh. Cool.”

* * *

Being twelve years old was a lifetime ago, but Jala’s ears still knew how to follow the sound of stifled weeping under the bridge. “Hey.”

Will lifted red-rimmed eyes from her knees. She wore trousers, but a hint of kohl had smeared beneath her long lashes. “They say he’s nice, at least,” she announced without preamble, thick-voiced. “My… fiancé.”

Jala stared. Will stared back.

Think of something useful to say! screamed a completely useless voice at the back of Jala’s head.

Instead, Jala leaned forward and kissed Will on her parted mouth.

Oh, shit. That wasn’t useful. That was the opposite of useful.

Will went very still. Then she dug her weapons-callused hands into Jala’s hair and kissed her back, kissed her like she was drowning, and Jala’s mouth might contain her last gasp of air.

It solved exactly zero of their actual problems, but at least the voice shut up.

* * *

“Did you know,” Commander Duchivix mused over tea one day, “that people sometimes turn out to have the wrong genders? Or indeed, more than one?”

Jala choked, spitting tea all over the Commander’s nice wooden table. Duchivix, unfazed, produced a handkerchief and mopped up the spill. “Take myself, for instance,” he continued. “When I was born, my parents mistook me for a girl. Rather silly, isn’t it? Reducing womanhood or manhood down to component physical parts, like a starship engine. I didn’t figure out I was really a boy until later in life, which caused no end of ruckus, but ultimately, you can see we sorted everything out.”

“Sir,” croaked Jala. “Thank you for confiding in me, but um, I’m definitely a girl.”

“I’m aware, soldier.” Amusement danced through Duchivix’s green eyes. “I wanted to discuss Willhemenia.”

Jala blinked. “You think Will’s a boy?”

Duchivix smiled. “No. Will’s a little different from me. She doesn’t mind her girlhood.” He shrugged. “Of course, she doesn’t mind boyhood either. At day’s end, she’s as utilitarian with gender as anything else. She doesn’t care if you call her girl or boy, so long as you also call her patriot and soldier.”

Jala stared at her knees. “Her fiancé might care. And her parents.”

“Engagements can be broken for military duties to the Alliance. Young Southfall men do it all the time. Speaking of which, several soldiers, from Lyr and Southfall alike, have recommended Will for your task force.”

“I’m not going to pick her just because we share a bed,” Jala said bluntly. “That breaks about every code of honor there is, Southie or Lyran.”

“Your bed is the least of the Alliance’s concerns,” said Duchivix. “Can you honestly say you’ve met another soldier more committed to the cause? Men of Southfall fight, and women of Southfall practice diplomacy. Will, thanks to her particular circumstances, has learned both. I told you, this task force isn’t just a military one. You’ll need her.”

“You’re the one who told me Southie girls couldn’t fight.”

“It seems this one does. Embrace that for what it is.”

“I won’t play favorites.” Old doubt tugged at Jala. “I can’t put her in danger unless I know she can handle herself against a real fighter.”

“Well.” Duchivix’s gaze gleamed over the rim of his teacup. “I believe there’s an easy fix for that.”

* * *

A blunt-edged blade cracked hard across Jala’s ribs. She darted sideways, then closed in for a takedown. Instead, steel kissed her throat.

Will grinned across the blade, panting. “Remember when we were kids, and you said you could beat Gnor in a fight?”

Jala snorted, dropping her weapon in surrender. “I still could. You’re a different story. A better blademaster than anyone Elene Cole could write.”


“Commander Snob to you, now.” Jala saluted over the weapon’s edge. “Welcome to the Inter-Orbital Alliance task force.” As the blade fell from her throat, she offered a hand. “What do you say, soldier? Will you stand by me to defend the homeland?”

Will’s fingers closed around hers, smile growing. “When’s our flight?”

For the first time in Jala’s life, losing tasted like victory.

Andrea Tang is a DC-based writer, recovering liberal arts graduate, and professional international affairs nerd, whose word-wrangling has appeared in various venues and various forms, some more fictional than others.