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A note from Sara Mullins

Hello!

Since not everyone will be familiar with neopronouns (I certainly wasn't in the earliest drafts of this story), in particular the ze/zir set that's prominent in the narrative, I'm going to include a link. A quick guide though that got me through when I was first getting accustomed: ze=he/she, zir=her/him, zirself=him/herself (roughly speaking). 

https://www.mypronouns.org/neopronouns 

Thanks so much for reading! 

“Thea!” A call, businesslike but still jovial, snapped her from her thoughts. Without waiting, the door to her house opened and slammed shut, and a long shadow soon passed over the bed where she had lazily spread out to await her companion.

She rolled over, book slipping from her stomach to smack the floor, and waved lamely. “Sharkie.” She’d known it was her friend based on the familiar brisk but heavy clomp of zir boots on the chilled stone floors of the narrow halls. Besides that, no one else usually visited.

Shark Olyen grinned at her, flashing two rows of sharp teeth that glinted as brightly as the spark of mischief flicking within deep-red eyes. “You ready to go?”

Dorothea groaned and threw her hands up with false dramatism. “If I must.” She opened and closed her hands, fingers making light smacking noises against her palms. “Help me up please.”

Shark laughed but complied, grasping her soft hands with calloused ones and pulling. “You’re so lazy.”

“I’m tired,” Dorothea corrected. “Tired of having the same conversation again and again.” She smoothed the formal dress she wore, a hand-woven article of myriad blues in thin stripes, and buttoned a white shawl to her throat.

Shark smoothed her hair where it had become mussed in the back, smirking. “For such a mess of a person, you clean up good.”

“For a trashy goblin, so do you.” She straightened zir collar, fingers sinking into the fur that lined it. Keeping her hold, she continued softly. “We have to keep neutrality, Shark. I don’t want to fight. The Sirpoans came here so we wouldn’t have to war with the rest of them. What will happen to our people if we have to fight or get attacked?” With a shaking breath, she started to voice the thought truest to her heart. “I don’t want to die like –”

“It’s okay,” Shark interrupted firmly, not letting her fear continue to spread through the air with her quivering voice. “It won’t happen. Nothing will change.”

Dorothea took a deep breath and nodded, smiling weakly to convey her appreciation. With her mind made up and expression fixed in a forced, stern frown without a trace of agitation, she stepped into the razor-sharp cold to head towards the meeting hall.

No biting winds lashed at them today, and that was something to be thankful for. The constant frigidity that locked around the village of Equin made for a people that moved efficiently when there was work to be done and very little when things were calm. The skilled hunters that helped sustain the people huddled out in batches, bundled with thick furs and equipped to bring in large hauls from the lakes teeming with prey that the first Sirpoans had strategically settled by. Their lanterns would go on to bob and flicker in the distance. There had once been a time, Dorothea thought, when she had watched for that bobbing light through her window for her father to come home, but…

“I’m focused,” she whispered as she and Shark entered the meeting hall. In the beginning days of Equin, it had stood in the direct center of the village. Further construction as the population had increased had pushed it towards the right, however. The place was but one room with a complete lack of furniture and an appalling color scheme of red and purple. A maroon rug with golden filigree designs that could absorb one’s feet entirely in its plushness was dangled over by royal purple curtains that cast the room into sleepy shade.

“Garish,” Dorothea muttered as she knelt at what was considered the head of the circle all council members would form with their bodies.

“I think it’s classy,” Shark whispered from zir place lounging behind her. Though Shark wasn’t a council member, it had been made clear whether anyone liked it or not that ze tended to be with Dorothea wherever she went. In the six years the former Sacerian had been living in Sirpoan territory, ze and Dorothea had been glued at the hip almost from the beginning.

As soon as everyone had arrived and was seated, Dorothea called out the standard greeting of the church of the Pantheon of Old. “Blessings be to all, as all are blessed.”

“We share our blessings,” the believing council members replied in unison.

“Greetings to all who find faith within themselves,” she continued, giving credit to the secular members.

“Faith is found in many places,” they chimed.

Now that that was out of the way… “There’s nothing to do but get straight into it,” Dorothea declared, mustering as much authority as she could in her tone. “We’re here to once again debate our neutral position.” With that, she paved the way for the show to begin.

“It’s impossible for us to lend aid to either army,” one council member stated calmly. “We have an established history of neutrality, and breaking it puts all of our lives in danger. Even if it is just providing supplies, we would technically be taking a stand, and that opens us up to the side we don’t assist having grounds for attack.”

“I agree. Picking one side means making an enemy of the other.” A man with spectacles perching on a finely pointed nose nodded sagely.

“Not allying ourselves doesn’t guarantee we won’t get attacked!” Another laughed, flicking wild golden curls over her shoulder. “However, we would gain the protection of whichever army we sided with.”

“Stop ignoring the most important issue, please.” Another woman sighed after speaking flatly. “Lady Dorothea would be expected to fight. For one, that’s our village’s only protection.” She motioned to Dorothea with a limp flick of her wrist, and jingles bubbled from golden bracelets that went all the way up her forearm as they collided with one another. “We should count ourselves lucky that we haven’t already been dragged into the conflict regardless, even if it seems that most people believe the Atlin line has died out for good with Ophelia’s passing. Revealing Lady Dorothea is a death sentence for her. Our hypothetical allies would use her until she died, without question, and then we’ll just have another loss like Ophelia’s on our hands. So, if that’s what you want, feel free to vote to abolish neutrality.” The woman smiled coolly as appalled shock jolted through the room. “What? Too soon?”

It seemed as if all counterpoints had been quashed until a man lifted his hand slowly. This was Sil, the man who had taken care of Dorothea when she’d been younger and the only council member whose name she’d bothered to remember. He was a consistent holdout in appealing for a change to Sirpo’s position. “While I respect the legacy of the Atlins, that isn’t the only issue here. Why are we only considering our own protection?” He glanced at Dorothea and was clearly made even more nervous by her blank expression as she eyed him. “Um, we’re putting practicality over morality, and I understand how this might be seen as the best idea in wartime, but it’s not right to ignore the conflict for our own sakes. People are dying on both sides… Even if we pick one and provide minimal aid, that’s some deaths prevented.”

“It’s fine as long as we survive,” another scoffed after hacking out a laugh that dripped with derision. “They chose to get themselves locked into a war, and we’re choosing not to get involved, simple as that. A war was fought and won decades ago so that we could have a separate place where former Ghurians and Sacerians could live peacefully together under the name of Sirpo. We’ve earned our neutrality through sacrifice already. Aren’t both sides down to their last reserves now anyways? We can wait for a winner and then assist with recovery efforts, if you want to feel better about yourself.”

“How can you be so callous?!” Sil demanded.

The woman with golden bracelets turned on him with a sharp glare. “It’s war! There’s no room for wishful thinking. Some of us in this room know that firsthand.” She shook her head and offered a sad, sympathetic smile. “Call me cruel if you want. I’m just being honest. The war is cold now. They’ve almost whittled each other’s armies down to nothing and are just fighting to see who’s left in the end, especially now that the Sacerian population is beginning to regrow after the epidemic. The only good reason to be involved now is to ingratiate ourselves with the winning side.”

Sil still wouldn’t relent. “But we can’t just –”

“If I may…” Dorothea spoke underneath the rising heat of the conversation, and silence fell instantly. “Everyone is suffering, Sacerians and Ghurians alike. We don’t have the supplies to assist both, and it’s clear they’re well past the point of calling a truce. I’m going to strongly maintain my neutral stance.” She glanced at the woman who had spoken of her mother. “I’ll also say that this isn’t about me. It’s about what we as a people want to do. Whether or not we pick a side, I don’t intend to fight. There’s no point in it, so don’t factor it into your argument.”

She shrugged. “Respectfully, I don’t trust either side to let time magic slip through their fingers if they get a chance to grasp it.”

Dorothea pursed her lips in a thin line. The truth was that she agreed, but such a tactic clearly designed to dissuade the other council members from voicing their opinions couldn’t be allowed. “Even so,” she murmured to break the silence.

“Ophelia Atlin would have offered assistance without hesitation,” Sil snapped suddenly. “And while I appreciate what Mischa Atlin did for us in the War of Blending and think his sacrifice should be honored, I think it’s high time to call into question the tradition of leadership of Equin being passed down through the Atlin family line.”

“We should finish discussing one issue before you pose another, don’t you think?” the man with glasses and the pointy nose said, laughing awkwardly in a futile attempt to defuse the situation.

Sil’s fist beat on the floor, but the impact was muffled to the point of making the gesture humorous and pathetic, like a child’s tantrum. “It’s all interrelated! Our stance is heavily influenced by her leadership. It’s time to make a change, don’t you think? We listen to her because we feel sorry for her, but –”

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About the author

Sara Mullins

Bio: Hi everyone! Hope anyone who reads this is doing well and taking care of themselves. I love storytelling and aim to become better and better as I continue to write and practice. In terms of what I like to write... In truth, though it's what I'm worst at, the goal is just to get to the fluffy romance scenes. The obstacle is only what lies before and between. Alas. Again, take care, all.

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