Any Minute Now
Much like the
gorillas themselves, the kings carriage was enormous, dark and brutal
looking, completely clad in metal and pulled by great shaggy horses
dressed in armour to resemble mythical dragons. The inside of the
carriage was warm and close, but not in a good way, furnished in dark
reds and browns in a heavy cut velvet material. The small windows
didn't provide nearly enough light or ventilation, causing the whole
thing to smell of gorilla sweat and incense.
Junya tried not to look at the Gorilla King, who sat opposite him, very obviously staring, but there wasn't much to see outside of the window besides trees, fields, and the armed gorilla soldiers walking along beside them. The king didn't speak, but was so colossal that the sound of his breathing reverberated through the thick fabric and metal of the carriage. It wasn't at all what Junya would have expected of a royal carriage – it felt more like something he would have gone to war in...
The king cleared his throat, pounding his chest a little, causing Junya to flinch. He could feel himself shaking.
“You said goodbye awfully quickly.” he noted “Were you and your father distant?”
Shit. Shit, shit, he wanted to talk! Junya didn't have a girly voice at all (or at least he thought he didn't). He clasped his hands as tightly as he could in his lap, but his shaking wouldn't stop.
“We said our goodbyes last night.” he said as quietly as possible, staring at the floor.
“Is that so?” the king replied.
Junya realised for the first time that the king wasn't wearing shoes. His stomach knotted in horror when he saw that he had another set of misshapen hands on the end of his legs instead of feet. What kind of creatures were these...?
“I notice you walk with a limp.” the king went on “Is that a family problem?”
“N-no.” Junya admitted “I broke my leg very badly when I was young. It didn't really heal properly.”
“I see. It must have made your father very protective.”
Junya leapt out of his skin when the king reached over to take his hands, easily prying them apart. He couldn't breathe from the terror as he ran his large grey fingers over Junya's palm.
“Oddly rough.” he noted “Did your servants not wait on you?”
Flipping hell... what could he say? Of course his workers hands were rougher than the young Lady's! What lie could he come up with that sounded plausible?
“M-my father encouraged me to do chores.” he settled on “He said it was important to remain humble, and understand the hardships of the peasants.”
The king looked at him thoughtfully, distractedly rubbing his palm still.
“A wise philosophy.” he thought “But I hope he didn't work you too hard.”
The king continued to stare at Junya, taking in his tense, almost solid posture, his quivering and his refusal to look at him.
“You're frightened of me, aren't you?”
“You don't say!” Junya snapped.
Oh hell. The fear had gotten too much, but that wasn't going to help matters. He literally bit his bottom lip to stop anything else coming out, not worried about hiding his shaking any more. The king seemed shocked a moment, then snorted in laughter. He released Junya's hand as he sat back.
“You have spirit.” he noted “That's good for a queen. What's your name?”
Junya's mind went blank. He wasn't good with names at the best of times, but now all the girls names in existence ran away from him. He couldn't even remember the real young Lady's name. Daring the peak around, he saw the King waiting expectantly.
“Junya.” he said very quietly, hoping he would mishear him.
“Junya?” the king repeated, evidently having very good hearing “Isn't that a boys name?”
“My father wanted a son.”
The king made that noise again, the grunty huffing noise.
“It's cruel to give a girl a man's name.” he thought.
He paused, still looking at him.
“Don't you want to know my name?”
“Does it matter?” Junya replied, an overload of fear loosening his tongue “Wouldn't you rather I call you 'your highness' or something?”
The kings brow knotted in displeasure. Junya knew he was going to die soon, it was the waiting that was the hard part: maybe if he pissed the gorilla off enough, he wouldn't have to wait too long. The king went to cross his arms, then thought better of it and scratched his stomach, grunting unhappily.
“I have plenty of underlings to call me that.” he pointed out “I hoped my wife at least would call me by my name.”
“I never asked to be your wife.” Junya pointed out.
“Don't act like this is such a surprise.” the king fired back “It's a lady's duty to marry in the best interests of her people – surely your father taught you that much, if nothing else!”
The king huffed again, looking out of the window, clearly trying not to cross his arms again.
“Just because it's all business doesn't mean we can't be civil.” he pouted.
He was pouting? Was that less terrifying, or more? As his hand was no longer being held, Junya sat properly, adjusting the uncomfortable gown. He felt calmer, but not because he was no longer afraid – perhaps he just couldn't stay terrified forever. At least the king was trying to be civil, even though he looked like he could eat Junya without much effort.
Junya took a deep breath. He had been wrong before – he shouldn't wish for death so quickly. He might yet find a way out of this, if he could keep his wits about him. He couldn't outrun anyone with his bad leg, but he might be able to do something, hide somewhere. He tried to calm himself down, sighing out his tense shoulders.
“Mind if I ask what it is?” he asked quietly.
The king looked back at him, one brow raised.
“My name?” he responded.
“Your reason for wanting to marry me. Your 'business'.”
The king huffed through his nose, still pouting.
“Having a beautiful queen will be good for my peoples morale.” he explained “And in return you get anything you want. That's always been the deal, hasn't it?”
“Won't your people care that their new Queen is a fox? That their royal line is going to be full of mixed-race hybrids from now on?”
“Gorilla's have low fertility.” he admitted “And our gene pool is getting shallow. We need to let go of old prejudices if we're going to prevent inbreeding.”
“How very progressive.” Junya muttered to himself “Still, the whole thing comes across as incredibly sad.”
“It never really occurred to me that marriage was just a business deal, like a trade.” he said honestly “The idea of not falling in love, not going through the butterflies and the queasy stomach and the fear and the joy... it just makes it seem kind of sad. But I suppose that's the price for all your luxuries, isn't it?”
The king looked at him in a new light, brown eyes flicking up and down. His nose twitched before he answered.
“That's why I say we could at least be civil.” he grumbled.
Junya never imagined that the young Lady had a burden like that. Not having anything that was worth anything, the notion of marrying for money or convenience was completely foreign to him. All he had to offer a woman was love. God knows he'd never be rich.
“So, what is your name?” he asked the king.
“Zuberi.” he told him.
“Zuberi?” Junya confirmed “I've never heard that name.”
“It's a gorilla name.” he answered shortly.
“I'm not as pretty without make-up.”
“Does that matter?” he retorted, echoing Junya's earlier tone.
For being so massive, he sure had thin skin. Zuberi... Junya snorted in laughter, covering his mouth as he imagined a black furry berry wearing a crown. The king looked back at him, raising his brow again.
“You just imagined me as a berry, didn't you?” he knew.
“Yes!” Junya admitted, still trying desperately not to laugh at the image.
“Get it out of your system.” the king sighed.
Despite leaving at dawn, the sun was setting by the time they reached the outskirts of the gorilla city. While the fox village was nestled in a fertile valley, hidden from the worst of the elements, the gorilla territory covered a vast expanse of grassy lowlands. The huge size of the gorillas meant they needed much larger fields than other clans to keep them fed, and their militaristic ways guaranteed they kept them without a fight.
It took hours for the soldiers and carriage to drag themselves through the forest, along the almost forgotten paths that went around the towns and cities rather than through them. Although a fox, even a troupe of foxes, would have no difficulty traversing the overgrown paths, the massive soldiers had to hack their way through the undergrowth, making their progress even slower.
How far away was the gorillas territory? Junya had been as far as the rabbits village on the Lords business, and that was over the mountain, past the badgers forge, the sparrows township, the sheeps vast grazing lands... It was a very, very long way.
As the convoy came clear of the dense forest, the gorillas were able to stand straight and use their full stride, speeding up significantly, and the ride in the carriage became much smoother. After sitting so long, Junya's leg started to pinch and ache again, and his uncomfortable shifting didn't go unnoticed by the king.
The biggest house that Junya had ever seen was the Lords house, but no matter how grand it may have been it was still just a fox's house, and couldn't compare to the necessary size of the gorillas housing. He started off seeing tool sheds standing beside fields, buggies parked by the side of the track and farmers wandering about with tools over their shoulders. Compared to the state of the farmers, King Zuberi was quaffed to an elegant perfection: had Junya looked so scruffy compared to the fancy man? He certainly hoped not.
After the tool sheds and fields came the farm houses and barns, enormous in scale to the point that Junya thought they must be great country estates, but no – they were working farms, complete with great beasts of burden. Junya didn't notice the king watching him as he took in the scenery, amazed by the size of it all.
They stopped at one of the farms to change the horses, the great armoured stallions tired out after a long journey through the forest. Zuberi took the opportunity to stretch his legs, the carriage lurching up unceremoniously as he stepped out of it. Junya would've liked to get up and walk around too, but his leg was pinching and pulling so badly from sitting so long that he wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't fall over.
He did use the opportunity to slip off his shoes and put his feet up on the now empty seat before him, stretching to try and warm up his muscles at least a little. Now that he could see them in the light of day, Junya was glad the long gown hid his shoes – his feet were almost twice the size of the young Lady's, so her beautifully embroidered satin shoes had to be brutally ripped apart and stitched over his own shoes. It was pretty crude looking, but Junya was sure the cobbler didn't have a lot of time to fix them.
Junya startled as one of the horses poked their snout through the window – he had been too focused on his shoes to notice, which was a little embarrassing considering how big it was. He hurriedly covered up his legs, pulling the shoes back on in case someone came to fetch the horse away and saw them. It huffed at him the way horses do, and flapped it's lips about. He laughed a little – massive as it may be, it was still just a horse.
He scratched its nose, which seemed to make it pretty happy.
“Sorry, I don't have any sugar.” he told it.
“Oi, you.” he heard Zuberi say “Get your nose out of there.”
The horse pulled its head out of the window, shaking it up and down a bit. The king slapped its neck in the way stable hands usually do before giving it a carrot.
“You okay?” he asked Junya.
“Of course.” he answered “It's just a horse.”
Zuberi looked a little surprised, as if he expected a horse to really bother him. Was the young Lady bothered by horses? Should he pretend he was? Little late now... The gorilla handed Junya a carrot, watching him oddly carefully as he fed it to the grateful horse.
“My, what long teeth you have.” the fox chuckled, scratching her nose again “You're an old girl, aren't you?”
“She's 24.” Zuberi confirmed “But she's strong and calm, so she's good for long journeys. Have you ridden many horses?”
“Not ridden, no – they're all working horses back in town, they'd buck you right off if you tried to ride them, even the sweet ones. One of the boys I grew up with got work as a stable hand, all he ever talked about was his horses. Until he got married.”
Zuberi 'hmm'd thoughtfully. Soon enough the fresh horses were attached to the carriage, and the convoy got on its way again.
The farms gradually gave way to the towns, and the first thing that hit Junya was the smell of molten metal – the gorillas prime export was metalwork: tools, building materials, nails... weapons. It made sense that their towns were industrial, criss-crossed with irrigated rivers turning giant waterwheels and colossal chimneys as big as a foxes house sticking up through the tiled roofs. The further from the fields they went, the less greenery and plant life they saw, giving way to paved roads, factories and forges. Flowers and weeds still pushed defiantly through the cobbles and on the bottom edge of walls, as they always would, but all the grass and trees had been purged from the towns streets.
The architecture here was odd – there seemed to be random doors half way up the towering walls, great logs sticking out of them, strange flat roofs... it wasn't until Junya remembered the grotesque misshapen hands on the kings feet that it occurred to him – maybe gorillas didn't have stairs? Perhaps they climbed up the outside of the building? Those logs would have to be pretty strong to take their weight day after day. That would take some getting used to.
Except that it wouldn't. Junya's sheer terror may have grown so great that it had burnt out, but that facts hadn't changed: when they discovered he was a man, he was going to die. It made a tense shiver run down his spine when he did remember, but his body had had enough of trembling and refused to do so any more.
Junya noticed something odd as they trundled through the towns – there were very few children around. Not even a in a 'bad year for breeding' sense either, but in a worryingly unnatural way. Junya kept his eyes peeled, carefully looking about the crowd after he noticed it, but none revealed themselves.
“Where are all the children?” Junya asked Zuberi “I've barely seen any. They aren't all in the factories, are they?”
The king made the grunting huff again, finally giving in to habit and crossing his arms over his chest. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“There are no children.” he confessed.
No children? What madness was that? There were always children! Was there some kind of disease? Looking at Zuberi's face, Junya saw a sadness cross him, eyes far away. He was almost afraid to ask.
The king glared at him, clearly unwilling to answer.
The Gorilla Kings castle was an imposing, brutal structure, outer walls as thick as Junya was tall and higher than he thought he could see, topped with a barely notable black line – what was it? Tiles? Metal? It was one of the few buildings with lime-washed walls, and beyond the great iron gates was actually a garden. It was over manicured, full of sand and rocks and overly fussy trees, but a garden nonetheless.
A congregation of overdressed gorillas waited for the carriage at the bottom of the stairway that lead up to the castle (so they did have stairs...). Just from the way they were dressed and the pompous way they stood, Junya could tell they were retainers. There was also an unusual amount of guards around, just milling about – hang on, that one was a gardener. Was that a washerwoman? The group at the far end looked like maids. Why was everyone armed? Not in a subtle knife-up-the-sleeve kind of way either, but very obviously, with all manner of different blades and blunt objects strapped to their backs and belts. The washerwoman had a mace!
When the carriage came to a stop, the king didn't wait for one of his soldiers to open the door for him, but threw it open himself, the whole vehicle once again rising on its axil by nearly a foot when he stepped out. Instead of marching off to his retainers as Junya expected, Zuberi stayed at the carriage door, holding it open with his shoulder. Junya wasn't entirely sure what he wanted, especially as he seemed to get confused himself. After a moment, he held up one great paw.
“Your hand?” he asked.
“What about it?” Junya replied.
“Give it to me.” the King requested.
He really didn't want to – his hand looked like that of an infant against the gorillas. He knew he shouldn't keep thinking about how much bigger than him the gorillas were, but it was far the most noticeable thing about them (other than the smell...). With notable reluctance, he gave Zuberi his hand, and the king proceeded to help him out of the carriage, lifting him clear off his feet to the ground.
It was most unusual for him – he hadn't been assisted down from something since he was a child. As he was set down, a sharp pain ran all the way up his leg, causing him to wince noticeably: he had definitely been sat down too long. Zuberi responded by putting Junya's hand on his gargantuan arm: Junya was confused a moment before realising that was the way the young Lady walked with him on the odd occasion they had strolled through town together, only reversed.
The realisation reminded him that he was supposed to be being the young Lady right now. A wave of panic hit him – when had he forgotten, and just acted like himself? Had he given himself away? The gorillas didn't seem suspicious... He held himself straighter, holding his head up and pointing his ears down, remembering what he had been told about being elegant. He didn't notice Zuberi smirk beside him.
A clearly ageing retainer, hair almost completely white from his years, hobbled over to them, leaning on a gnarled cane the width around of Junya's arms. A young one accompanied him, board and paper in his hand.
“Your highness.” the old gorilla greeted “Welcome home.”
“Staarabu.” the king responded “How goes business?”
“The skies are quiet.” Staarabu told him “It's a good omen.”
The old retainer turned his attention to Junya, who tried not to recoil: Staarabu was an ugly creature, large scar running from his brow to his collarbone, the wound having taken the sight of his eye and leaving him with a permanent snarl. No amount of fancy retainers robes was going to make him look refined. Junya had to remember his manners – it wasn't polite to stare.
“My Lady.” he greeted, bowing his head civilly “Welcome to your new home. We hope you find it accommodating.”
“Yes, me too.” Junya replied.
Until the wedding night, anyway. Wait, what should he call him? 'Sir'? Did a lady call anyone 'sir'? 'Oi you' felt unwise too.
“All the preparations are made.” Staarabu told the king “We can proceed with the ceremony at sundown.”
“Sundown?” Junya clarified “As in... today sundown?!”
“That's correct.” the old retainer confirmed “I'm afraid our rainy season has passed. Poor planning on our part, I'm sorry. Since that is the case, I see not point in putting the wedding off.”
“Is that a problem?” the king asked.
How far away would the young Lady be by now? The tide wasn't high enough for the ship to sail until after noon. She would be on the fancy man's ship by now, but how far from the coast? They still have a few more hours...
“Not at all.” Junya assured, even as his heart beat erratically in his chest “As you say – why put it off?”