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"Ahhhhh! I never have any privacy!" The girl's wail was not an uncommon sound at the farm. Ressa rolled her eyes, intolerant of her younger sister's complaint. None of them had any privacy - it was a side-effect to being one of a dozen siblings.Author's Notes
"I wish I'd been born in a city," Tedra groused, flouncing out of the bathing room they all shared. "Maybe mama and papa wouldn't have been able to get the child license to have us all and I could have some space for once."
Tosara, closest in age to the girl, unsympathetically said, "Well, we all wish that they hadn't bothered licensing you."
Tedra burst into tears and fled, slamming the door to their room behind her.
"You didn't have to be so mean," Ressa chided. As the oldest, she felt it was her job to keep the peace when she could, even when she agreed with Tosara a tiny bit.
"She suggested it first," Tosara said without pity, edging into the bathing room that Tedra had abandoned. The door shut with a little click, and Ressa sighed.
After only a moment, Thlam joined her in the queue, shuddering and scratching behind his shoulderblades. "Horrible, wretched, awful, gross things."
At first, Ressa thought he meant their sisters, but he picked a long-legged stickleg out of his shirt, and squashed it on the tile between them.
"Are they bad?" she asked. She was finishing second form, and excused from working in the fields to study in return for the Empire providing a laborer to do her share of the work. She couldn't say she exactly missed pulling weeds and turning dirt, and at thirteen, was not as strong a worker as the Empire's man, but she missed the smell of dirt and being spoiled by the other workers. Working fields was easier than memorizing and figuring - in some ways Ressa preferred it. This spring, a plague of frail-looking, voracious creatures had invaded from newly discovered land to the north, and they were making quick work of the crops that had only just sprouted. Papa said they'd come from other famers who had imported plants (and their cargo of bugs) with licenses that turned out to be mistakes - someone in the licensing office had stamped something they hadn't meant to. A paperwork mistake meant their farm and crops for miles and miles around were being eaten to the ground.
Thlam didn't answer, which was answer enough, and found another one of the things in his sleeve, which joined the corpse of the first quickly. Ressa's skin crawled, and she was grateful for the bath to come, even as she decided her brother needed it worse.
"The chemicals didn't work," she said, more statement than question.
Thlam shook his head. "They took a dose that would knock a cricket flat and kept munching. Burned the west fields this morning." Burning was their last choice, destroying the infested fields in slim hope of keeping the healthy fields safe.
"The scientists are working on it," Ressa said in a very small voice out of proportion to her height. She believed that scientists could figure out anything, she just worried that they might not figure this out until it was too late. She could see the defeat in her father's broad shoulders, and in the hopeless words her mother reassured him with. No one said the word 'famine,' even if most everyone was worried about it. This was exactly how the great famine of 1296 had started, she had just learned in school: a massive earthquake, a new kind of bug, and a famine that had killed thousands of people. The earthquake had destroyed one of their barns and interrupted the nearby rail for two months while they repaired things. The scientists who had come to their farm and were now living in their barn (and using their second bathingroom) assured her family that a crop failure would not be fatal, that they had stores of food in fancy new time crystal storage facilities that could feed them, and that the Empire would see to their safety. But papa didn't trust time crystals, and mama was afraid of them, so the reassurances were empty to Ressa, who was sensitive to their doubt.
A shriek from the bedroom she shared with her sisters split the air, and she was running for the door before she could think, Thlam at her heels.
It was only another one of the bugs - but to listen to Tedra, you'd have thought it was an army of them. Ressa calmed her down, while Thlam rolled his eyes and snuck into the bathingroom Tosara left behind.
"Is everyone alright here?" One of the scientists, a lanky woman with a long, plain face, poked her head into the room through a window. Her name was Reimi, Ressa remembered, and she had a tendency to turn up everywhere. As invasive as the bugs were, the scientists felt more underfoot.
"Just a case of terminal stupidity," Tosara assured her dryly, toweling her mousy brown hair.
"We're fine," Ressa said more diplomatically. "Tedra just got scared by one of the sticklegs."
Tedra wept, and didn't seem consoled by the corpse Ressa presented her. "Do you need more samples?" she asked Reimi.
Reimi shook her head. "Not unless you find they've died of other causes. Those might be helpful. And I could use a hand separating sub-species if you aren't doing something else before curfew."
Tosara pressed her lips together, unwilling to volunteer, and Tedra sniffled and shook her head. "I will," Ressa offered. "If it will help."
She chose to postpone her bath until after she'd sorted bugs, knowing that the skin-crawling sensation would only return once she'd worked with them, and was glad she had when she saw that the other scientists were there, working at the other end of the room set up as a field laboratory. They sometimes paid too much attention to her, commenting on her height and features, and she was glad to have grubby skin and dirty hair to downplay her looks.
"You're almost done with second form?" Reimi asked, as she showed Ressa the characteristics they were sorting for. These were live specimens, and even knowing that they weren't directly harmful to humans, Ressa found herself fighting back irrational fear of them. She had to still her instinct to flinch when they jumped, and it put her on edge.
"Yes," Ressa replied politely.
"Have you thought about what you want to do next?"
It was a topic Ressa kept close to her heart, a source of conflict that she wasn't sure she felt comfortable talking about with a virtual stranger. "They want me to go the city," she said softly, not sure how to politely avoid answering.
"The carnal guild?" Ressa suspected it was envy in the scientist's voice. Every girl wanted to be tapped into the carnal guild and live a life of pampered richness. "You have the poise for it."
Ressa nodded, wishing she felt that way. It wasn't that she thought it would be a bad life, she just wished people wouldn't assume it was what she wanted. She like boys, and was interested in the tantalizing secrets of adulthood hovering just out of reach... she just wanted something more interesting sounding.
"It's an honorable invitation," Reimi said needlessly. Their conversation was low enough to be unheard by the others, and Ressa was grateful for that, at least.
"I know," she said, flipping a specimen into the bottle. "I just... I want to go to third form. Maybe be a scientist, someday."
"Do they offer third form out here?" Reimi asked, capping the bottle behind the stickleg.
Ressa shook her head. "I'd have to go to Affamarg for that." Affamarg was closest, anyway.
"Lots of options, in Affamarg," Reimi said, and unexpectedly, she winked at Ressa. "You don't have to say exactly why you're going, you know, or make up your mind before you get there and look at the choices."
Ressa looked at her in astonishment, surprised by the idea. Reimi didn't want to convince her that she should be flattered and jump at the chance to join the Carnal Guild. She returned to sorting bugs, chewing on her lower lip.
"I'm not good at taking tests," she admitted, waiting for Reimi to change her mind.
"There's a lot more to being a scientist than taking tests," Reimi said, instead.
"This one has purple on its back legs," she said after a moment, presenting the odd stickleg. "Not on the front."
Reimi hmphed over that, and put it in a third bottle.
"Do you like being a scientist?" Ressa felt bold enough to ask, carefully cataloging another stickleg.
Reimi's plain face creased into a smile. "I like having options," she said. "I wanted to be a potter, when I was your age. I apprenticed in the Pottery Guild a while before deciding it wasn't for me. Noviced in the Merchantile Guild, too. Took four different topics in fourth form before deciding on biology. But when I was in second form, everyone wanted me to go into the Music Guild. I played harp, and everyone said I was good, that I was great, that I was a fool not to follow that calling."
"But you didn't want to?"
Reimi shook her head. "Playing harp was something I was really good at, but it wasn't something I wanted to do as work. It would take all the joy out of it."
Ressa felt like a light had just come on in her head. "That's what I'm afraid of," she confessed. "What if it's... like washing dishes? Something I have to do because it's my job, not because it's fun?"
Reimi smothered a laugh. "Well, I doubt that it would be exactly like washing dishes," she chuckled. She added quickly, "But, I do know what you're saying. And you shouldn't go into a Guild you feel like everyone else is making you choose."
Ressa frowned. "I want to help my family, though," she said. Was it selfish of her not to do what would make them all the best life?
"There are a lot of ways to help things," Reimi said sagely.
The sticklegs had been sorted, so Ressa rose to her feet. "I should get my bath before curfew," she said politely. One of the other scientists, coming to check their progress, made a quip about keeping the beauty from her sleep, and Ressa smiled and laughed as she was supposed to, then fled to the bathinghouse and a lukewarm bath before bed.
One of her littler brothers burst in on her bath, giggling at her nudity and running away when she splashed him. Before retiring to the room she shared with her sisters, Ressa stopped at the table where her parents sat.
"I want to go to Affamarg," she said firmly.
They were all smiles, as she knew they would be, and gave her hugs and praise. Mama cried, and papa vacillated between pride and distress, and they made plans for applying for her travel license on the spot.
"What made you change your mind?" Tosara asked, as she dressed for bed. Tedra hollered at Thlam to get out, that they didn't have any extra pillows, and Thlam beat on the door in protest.
Ressa smiled wide. 'I'll have choices,' she thought to herself. But all she said aloud was, "I'd get my own room."
A Muse Fusion story from... erm... August, I think? Crystal Gafford and Deirdre Murphy gave me prompts that inspired it!