“Show me your hands,” commands the officer at the gate. I oblige, proffering my wrists, thrusting my hands into his full view, palms up, fingers slightly uncurled.
“Take her pack,” he says, maintaining his authoritative air. There is a rustle behind me; another soldier lifts my bag from my shoulders, and raises it over my arms, which I adjust to avoid inconveniencing him. I spread my fingers, showing that I still hold nothing. There is a grateful grunt as the man behind me lowers the bag to the grass and unclasps its every mouth, searching through the scant supplies. Can’t be carrying anything beyond that which is rationed.
“Your business?” the officer continues, staring down over his crooked nose from beneath tangled black eyebrows at me. I straighten, so we are at eye level. In such frumpy clothes, it is hard to recognize how lanky I am. While it does little for intimidation, it reduces the intensity of others’ disdain.
Nothing of interest, I wish I could mutter.
“Seeking an apprenticeship,” I say. “I’m here to gain entrance to an industry—undecided,” I add, noting his deepening frown beneath his bristly mustache.
“Why not?” he says gruffly.
“My family has no trade, sir,” I say. “Nor does my hometown.” I see a flash of scorn trail over his face. “They’re nomadic,” I admit. The officer’s mustache wilts with a thin, contemptuous smile.
“Horsefolk?” asks one of his inferiors, scoffing in what I imagine is disbelief.
“No, sir, we travel by foot.” Their pale southern eyes swivel past my face and over my clothes, baggy, men’s clothes, worn, and mud-spattered. “I am an apt student, I intend to buy my way into academia,” I say, squaring my shoulders, rising to my full height, battering away their doubts, their amusement. Tradeless peasant, no chance at success, trying to claw her way into the city. How naïve.
Of course, they wouldn’t know what it is like to live off of some relative’s odd jobs, with no future, while everyone has to scrap in to survive. They’re military. And they’re gatekeepers—getting a cushy job like that needs connections, a family history. They weren’t drafted, they were born into a set path, effortlessly placed into their positions. When did they need to fight?
I won’t stop fighting. A life of hard seasons and harder-won escape, I entirely reject surrender. I’ll be courteous, I’ll follow the law, but no one can stop me from getting away from the life I didn’t choose, the one my parents forced me to endure.
Look. My hands are empty.