In Good Company
The soldiers marched in
rank and file all through the city. Despite it only being a day since
the wedding, there were no bright signs or bunting across the streets
anymore, no grains or confetti fallen between the cobbles or to the
side of the street. Instead there were shattered windows being swept
to the side, broken furniture being thrown into tinder piles and
ominous red smears here and there that Junya couldn't bear to look
at. The people gathered in the streets wearing grim expressions in
place of yesterdays bright colours.
They didn't cheer in celebration, but in the low, aggressive tones of 'go kill those bastards' and 'show them what for!', handing the soldiers packets of food, extra clothes and weapons and a hearty pat on the back as they passed. Junya felt self-conscious, being the only one on a horse, and could feel eyes on him as they went through the streets. Many people told him to be brave, said how courageous he looked, called him their queen – all but that last one made him feel a little better.
They left the city before the morning was out, passing through a few industrial towns before coming to the wide, flat fields of the lowlands, a range of dark mountains visible in the distance. The soldiers did a good job of keeping rank this far, but started to fall apart as they got further from civilisation, gathering in lines and groups and chatting with their friends. The officers didn't seem to care, falling out of rank themselves. Zuberi stayed at the front, using Junya as his compass whenever there was a fork in the road.
By nightfall they had left the gorilla territory entirely, assuring the nervous goats that they were just passing through their hilly grazing lands as they traversed the stony paths and unpathed byways. Getting bored as they walked, the soldiers started to sing – Junya supposed they called it singing, but it was so deep in tone that his poor ears couldn't pick up a single word.
After a long march, Zuberi came to a halt before the lonely young trees and stringy bushes that sat on the edge of an old forest, examining the path ahead carefully. The sun was close to setting, so venturing into the woods now would be unwise, and the king was clearly mulling over his options. Junya could've leapt for joy when he ordered the company to set up camp for the night – he could finally get off this flipping horse! His buttocks had gone numb, his lower back ached and he had gotten so used to the smell of this thing that he couldn't even smell the gorillas anymore!
Zuberi hoisted him down, laughing when he hobbled around clumsily. The company had their shanty town of great canvas tents set up in the blink of an eye, cooking their rations over camp fires, collecting tinder from the edge of the forest and getting comfortable for the night. The hearty stew they were cooking up looked pretty good – nothing as fanciful and expensive as the wedding feast, but good all the same.
“Feeling better?” one of the soldiers chuckled, stirring the stew absent-mindedly as Junya perched himself carefully on the log beside the fire.
“I thought the horse was supposed to be better for me.” he complained “My poor back.”
“You're not very hardy, are you?” the solider noted.
“I'm plenty hardy!” Junya insisted “I'm as hardy a fox that ever lived! No-one in the whole town could put up with the cold like me! Furthermore, there's no man alive who can keep up with the foundlings the way I can!”
“That's good to know for the future.” the soldier agreed “I'm sure the king will be thrilled.”
Eep. Maybe Junya should keep his mouth shut about his proficiency with children: he didn't want to go giving anyone any ideas, least of all the king. They were technically married right now... The soldier tasted the stew, adding a few herbs to it before stirring again.
“You seem oddly at peace.” Junya noted “Considering we're going to war.”
“I am.” they admitted “Thanks to you, we finally have some hope – I want to have children myself one day. It was impossible while the Insect King was around, but now we're going to burn his hive out my sisters and I can safely become mothers. Even if I die in the fight, I'm ensuring the future of my family, as well as my clan! Don't you think that's something to celebrate?”
“Well, when you put it like that.” Junya agreed.
“You're a woman?!”
Junya clamped his hand over his mouth, realising just how rude that was the second he said it. The solider was, luckily for him, good tempered, laughing at his fluster.
“It can be hard to tell when we're all wearing armour.” she reasoned.
Junya didn't correct her.
“Don't fox armies have female soldiers?” she asked.
“We don't really have armies.” Junya admitted.
“Foxes live in smaller communities.” Zuberi informed her, startling Junya significantly as he sat down beside him on the log “More than 150 in one place and they tear each others throats out.”
“I didn't know foxes were so violent!” the soldier admitted.
“We aren't violent!” Junya defended.
“They're more vicious.” Zuberi agreed.
Junya growled at him, but he just smirked. The soldier tasted the stew again as a few more gorillas plopped themselves down on the ground around the fire, pulling off their armour and sandals and throwing them aside with groans and sighs.
“Fox women are not violent, nor vicious.” Junya defended, not willing to let it go “And they certainly aren't soldiers.”
“Don't be naive.” the king chastised “When the fight comes to them, do you expect your womenfolk to just roll over and die?”
“Of course not!” he argued back “But what kind of man would allow them to be in harms way in the first place?”
“The fight comes to us all, in its own way.” the soldier insisted “It may not be in the form of war, but you can't rely on men to come and save you when it does.”
“That isn't true.” Junya was sure.
“Uh yeah?” Zuberi challenged “So who came to save you?”
“When the fight came to you, you defended yourself.” the king elaborated “No-one came to save you, and if you hadn't fought then you'd be dead, wouldn't you?”
Junya wanted to argue that, actually, he had saved the young Lady when the Gorilla King and his troops came to call, thank you very much, but that would almost certainly give him away. And besides that, someone had come to save him when his life was on the line... it had been the Insect King, but he decided to ignore that for now.
“Say what you want,” Junya pouted “I still have faith-”
“In what?” Zuberi challenged again “The Lord who sold you down the river to save his hide? The father who did nothing to stop you being taken away?”
“My parents are dead!” Junya snapped “And don't you talk about the Lord that way!”
“Why not?” he responded “You don't honestly think he's going to come and take you back to your village, do you?”
“Of course not! I knew what I was getting into!”
“Please.” Zuberi taunted “A housemaid with no education, no family, no wealth of her own – that cowardly, conniving little Lord threw you to the tide. He probably made you believe it was your idea as well.”
“It was my idea!” Junya argued “And I was an ice seller!”
“Your idea? Really? If I had actually cared one iota about having a 'Lady' for a wife instead of a beauty, you could have been killed!”
“I was prepared to die!”
“Die for what?! For the people who sold you down the river? For the Lady willing to let you die rather than face a life with me?”
“She had a fiancé!” Junya told him “They were due to be married in a few days, 'til you came along!”
“One aristocratic husband or another, what difference does it make?”
“They were in love!”
“What a fairytale!” Zuberi snapped “That Lady knew full well she had to marry for position – you honestly don't think her father set the marriage up long before they met?”
“No, I don't!”
“And it's just a happy coincidence that her intended was a rich fox whose trade or wealth or connections is going the benefit the town once they're married? Face reality, Junya, love is for commoners!”
“Well, you're very clearly wrong again, Zuberi dear, considering I MARRIED YOU!”
Everything went a bit quiet after that. The gathered soldiers looked honestly lost, partly from having witnessed a newly-weds quarrel, partly from one of the newly-weds being their king. Zuberi snarled at Junya, clearly not used to being argued with, but the fox crossed his arms over his chest defiantly, not breaking eye contact with the silverback. Ignoring his soldiers, the king crossed his arms as well, making that grunting huff noise again.
“You didn't have to get personal.” he grumbled.
“You started it.” Junya retorted.
“How did I-?!”
“Shooould we leave?” one of the (apparently male) soldiers asked, gesturing away with his hand “Give you two a little alone time?”
“Shut up, Mijinga.” Zuberi growled.
“I'm just saying,” he went on, holding up his hands “Your wedding night was interrupted. I'm sure we can make ourselves scarce if you crazy kids need us to.”
“Shut up, Mijinga.” Junya echoed.
“Hey, something you two agree on!” Mijinga laughed.
“Something we all agree on!” the female soldier joined, banging her spoon on the side of the stew pot “Let's all start up a rousing chorus of our favourite song, 'Shut Up, Mijinga'!”
The soldiers fell about laughing, breaking the tension in the air completely – clearly this was an old joke to them. Mijinga – by the looks of it one of the younger soldiers – seemed to relish the attention, holding his arms open in a gesture of glory.
“The love of my life, ladies and gentlemen!” he said, gesturing to the female soldier “Mpendwa, marry me!”
Junya jumped a little as the whole group yelled 'shut up, Mijinga!' as loud as they could, including quite a few who weren't gathered around their particular camp fire, before falling into laughter again, the gorilla in question drinking in the attention as if it were glory. Even Zuberi seemed to lighten up, uncrossing his arms and blowing air out of his nose.
“Junya, this is Mijinga.” he introduced, a little too late “He's Hodori's brother. The one with the odd coloured fur next to him is Hudhurungi, her husband.”
“A pleasure to finally talk to you, your highness.” the husband greeted formally, bowing his head a little.
Junya wouldn't have called him 'odd coloured' himself (not to his face), but his nutty brown fur did look somewhat out of place next to the thick black thatch of his fellow gorillas, especially as the part the covered his weird domey head was almost red.
“Pleasure to meet you too, Hudhoo... Hudhera... Huddy...”
“Just 'Hud' is fine.” he laughed.
“Only his wife calls him 'Huddy.'” Mijinga teased from behind his tin cup.
“Shut it, you.”
“You've met Hodori already?” Mpendwa asked.
“Yeah, yesterday.” Junya admitted.
“'Met', she says!” Mijinga declared “While us mugginses were all over the city trying to the save the good folk from the swarm, our new queen was defending my sister and her unborn from the Insect King with nothing more than a letter opener!”
With a what?!
“And you say fox women can't fight!” Mpendwa complimented “You're brave as they come! If you were any braver, you would have been a she-wolf!”
“I never said 'can't'.” Junya mumbled.
“Is that stew nearly ready?” Zuberi grumbled.
There were enough women soldiers in the company that it took six tents (out of 15) to house them that night. Junya was surprised, actually – if there were less and less women each time the Insect King attacked, was it really wise to take any of them into battle? It seemed like the Insect King was only interested in pregnant women, though, so it made sense that they wouldn't want to get married while he was still around.
He couldn't imagine any fox women going into battle. Then again, he couldn't imagine any of his fellow villagers going to war – the blacksmith didn't have enough swords...
Since this was a military manoeuvre, Junya wasn't expected to share a tent with... and the thought made his spine go funny... his 'husband' (they did get married yesterday... good grief, he was married. He was married, and to a MAN. That hadn't occurred to him yet. What was he going to do about that?). Instead he shared a tent with Mpendwa and a few other female soldiers: it made him feel a little perverse, despite the fact that he wasn't even slightly attracted to any of them. He had the good manners to turn his back when they removed their armour to go to sleep.
It didn't take the soldiers long to go to sleep, drifting off after a little banter, but they had been walking all day. Despite his sore buttocks and aching lower back and the stench of horse that had all but fused with his clothes, Junya wasn't as tired, so lay on his back staring at the tent roof. Outside he could hear the guards shuffling around, chatting, changing shifts, a few other soldiers snoring, but nothing much else.
What the king said had been weighing on his mind all night, and it pissed him off. He hadn't been tricked by the Lord: it had been his idea to come. Who did that gorilla prick think he was? Sure, foxes were known for being tricky, but Junya was a fox too! There was no way the Lord would have tricked him. He wasn't even supposed to go to the Lords house, the priest was: did Zuberi suppose the Lord was going to try and trick him into dressing up as his daughter? Of course not!
That felt like a very long time ago, stood there in that room full of retainers, the young Lady crying her eyes out. She wouldn't have cried if she didn't love that fancy man. If one 'aristocratic husband' was as good as another, she wouldn't have been so upset, let alone given Junya her wedding dress. The two of them had grown up together, been schooled together, and he knew for a fact that she wasn't smart enough to trick him!
Fuck Zuberi. Fuck all the gorillas. Giant stinking beasts with freaky hands on their feet. Why was Junya going through with this? Why was he helping them find that living nightmare instead of running for the hills? He could do it, too: he knew the gorillas couldn't move easily through the forest, and if he left now he could be deep in the woods by the time they all woke up.
From there, he could go... he could... fuck, he couldn't go anywhere. To one side was the gorillas territory, and there was no way to get through without being spotted (and then, really, what was the point in escaping?). Not to mention any of the soldiers could catch up to him that way, even if he did take the horse. Even if he cut his hair and somehow got new clothes off the goats, he'd probably be recognised as the 'queen' when he went back across the gorillas grasslands.
And even if he did go into the forest, he had no idea what was on the other side – it might be something even worse than gorillas. It could be an endless forest full of spiders, or he could fall off a cliff and break his other leg, and heaven help him if he came across one of the few predators that ate foxes, or else he'd be someone's breakfast. Sure, the wolves were all but extinct, but there were still hoards of big cats and bears and Junya had heard stories about lizards – the Insect King was supposed to be just a story too, and look how that had worked out.
And what if he really did come across the Insect King? He had been bluffing his way around thus far, just trusting his instincts, he had no idea if it was actually the right way, and what if it was? Would drinking that monsters blood really break his curse? And how exactly would he achieve that anyway? It took everything Junya had to cut his hand off before, he doubted he was going to get that chance again. He really didn't want to go up against the king alone again.
And now he needed to pee. He sighed, feeling his back and leg ache as he threw back the rough military blanket and struggled to his feet. Maybe he could find a nice big tree to go behind without rousing too much attention from the guards – the last thing he needed was to have his cover blown because he pees standing up. His bad leg had gone to sleep, pinching and pulling as he walked clumsily along the sea of tents, trying not to stumble into them as his foot started to tingle.
Naturally, his bumbling about got the attention of the guards pretty quickly, and the poor things nearly screamed the whole camp awake when they saw the green glow of the firelight reflecting in his eyes. They seemed happy enough with his explanation of where he was going, even suggesting a suitably overgrown bush for his modesty once their hearts had stopped pounding loud enough to wake the dead.
“Need a hand?” one asked cautiously as Junya limped away.
“Nope.” he insisted, even as his leg started to twitch “I'll be fine. It's better for my pride if you don't watch, though.”
The soldiers flustered, turning back around to their fire. Was the fluster really necessary? Oh yeah, he was supposed to be a woman. No way to be elegant right now, so fuck it. Riding a horse was really a pain in the arse. Literally, ha ha.
Junya yelped in a most unmanly fashion as he was grabbed by the arm, catching the soldiers attention too, who pulled out their weapons. Zuberi grimaced at him spectacularly, hair an even greater thatch mess than ever as he held Junya up. The soldiers, seeing what had caused the distraction, put their weapons away and sat back down.
“What are you doing out of bed?” Zuberi demanded grumpily.
“Not that it's any of your business, but I need to pee.” Junya spat back “What are you doing out of bed?”
“You were making so much damn noise, I thought we were under attack from the insect horde.”
“Like hell you did.”
And for that matter, how the hell did a gorilla manage to sneak up on him?
“Piss off back to bed, I'm fine on my own.”
“Like hell you are – you'll wake up the whole camp, the way you're stomping around.”
“Now see here-!”
“Shut the fuck up and go pee!” a female soldier yelled at them from within one of the tents, making them both jump “You really will bring the horde down on us!”
Zuberi just grunted vaguely in her general direction, practically picking Junya up and carrying him through the camp to the edge of the forest, dropping him beside the trees.
“Hurry up.” he ordered, albeit quieter than before.
“I don't need a chaperone!” Junya hissed back.
“Don't wander off.”
“Don't be a creep! Turn around!”
Zuberi grunty-huffed, crossing his arms over his bare chest and turning his back to Junya, who hobbled behind the generously sized tree, ignoring the king grumbling about 'loud damn foxes' and 'flipping horse makes less noise.'
“Feel free to go back to your tent.” Junya told him, feeling too awkward to actually pee with him around.
“So you can wake up the half of the camp stumbling back that you didn't wake up already? Just hurry it up.”
“Don't rush me, I'll go when I damn well feel like it!”
Zuberi actually laughed, making Junya a little uncomfortable. He peeked around the tree, but the gorilla still had his back to him.
“What's so funny?” he asked.
“You.” Zuberi answered honestly “I can't figure out if you're very brave or very stupid.”
“Why, what did I do?”
“You're arguing with me.” he pointed out.
“Yesterday morning you couldn't speak or stop shaking out of fear of me.” he reminded him “And today you're arguing with me. I'm a silverback gorilla, not to mention a king, and you, a fox maiden, is arguing with me.”
“You were the one who made it very clear that you 'would die before you let any harm come' to me.” Junya reminded him “Last night, remember?”
Zuberi grumbled, back muscles getting a little tense.
“I vaguely recall I may have said something like that.” he mumbled.
“And we did get married yesterday.” Junya went on, sounding more assured than he felt “So that makes me a queen, not a maiden.”
“It makes you gobby.” Zuberi quipped.
“A man who doesn't want a gobby wife should marry a mute.”
Zuberi laughed again, uncrossing his arms and wiping his nose, sniffing in the night air. It was colder than during the day, but since it was still summer the night was quite warm, lit by a heaven full of stars and the fluttering zigzagging of fireflies. If they hadn't been on their way to destroy a baby-eating insect hive, it would have been a nice night.
“I'm glad you're not so scared of me.” Zuberi admitted “It's no way to conduct a marriage.”
“I can only stay scared so long.” Junya figured “Other than being massive, you've not really done anything to make me scared of you. Y'know, other than taking me away from everyone and everything I've ever known against my will to a land I've never been to all alone for the rest of my life, but other than that...”
“You got a smart mouth.” he laughed.
“Like all foxes.” Junya reminded him “You want obedience, marry a sheep.”
“And end up with fluffy gorilla children?” Zuberi laughed “What a sight they'd be!”
“Or burly sheep children.” he agreed.
They both laughed at the thought – had there ever been a gorilla/sheep mix? It seemed unlikely, if only because the result would be hilarious!
“I suppose I'll have sandy coloured little gorillas instead.” Zuberi thought, voice wistful like he was already thinking what to name them “Or big, burly foxes.”
“Gorillas with bushy fox tails.”
“Stop making me laugh!”
Junya finished his business, adjusting his robes to properly conceal himself. Talking to Zuberi without looking at him was much less frightening than having to look at his massive hulking frame and great big fangs and giant hands while trying to have a conversation. His voice even seemed less booming from behind the tree, but maybe because he was keeping quiet to let his soldiers sleep.
Junya leant against the tree, crossing his arms and watching the king. The phrase 'silverback' popped into his mind as he looked at him – Hodori had called him that before, and it was certainly descriptive. Why did they lose the hair on their backs? Zuberi shuffled about, scratching absently as he waited. He really didn't have to wait, especially since he'd walked all day, and would be walking all day tomorrow. Junya supposed it was good husbanding, though.
“You like children, Zuberi?” he asked.
“Like?” he clarified “I guess. I've not known many.”
“You don't have any siblings?”
“None. My mother died in childbirth. My father had the son he wanted, so he never remarried.”
“What about you?” Zuberi asked “Foxes are usually born in litters, right?”
“Usually.” Junya confirmed “I'm one of the rare single births. Mother raised me alone.”
“And your father?”
“I'm what you'd call a 'foundling.'” Junya admitted “My mother heard me crying during a storm, found me all alone on the temple steps. Her husband had just died and she couldn't have children of her own, so she kept me.”
“She sounds like a good woman.”
“She was. She was the young Lady's nursemaid: she was forever scolding me for the trouble I got in and for eating so much. 'Stop growing already, you're eating me out of house and home!'”
Zuberi laughed again. He had a nice laugh.
“I wish I could have met her.” he said “What about you? You like children, don't you?”
“I love kids.” Junya admitted “I want to have as many as possible. Kids like me too: I used to help the priest with the orphans that lived at the temple.”
He sighed through his nose. He probably shouldn't be admitting such things to Zuberi, raising his hopes when he was just going to run away (or be killed, whichever came first), but talking to him like this wasn't so bad. The more he learnt about the Gorilla King, the less scary he was.
“I always thought that getting married and having children would be the best part of my life.” he admitted “I'd be a part of something bigger than me, finally be able to contribute something to the clan. I'd be able to teach my children what I leant in my life, tell them about their grandmother. All sorts of things.”
“You talk like that'll never happen.” Zuberi told him.
Because it won't, he knew. He would be discovered and killed by the angry gorillas, or fall foul of whatever curse the Insect King had put on him. Either way, he'd never be a father. He'd never fall in love, never set up a home. He'd never measure his babies growth by carving notches into the door frame. He knew that. A part of him wished he had been discovered on the wedding night and killed then, rather than let him linger cruelly on all the 'never's.
“Gorillas have babies one at a time.” the king went on, bringing Junya out of his internal malaise “Rarely there's twins, almost never more. They don't grow up as fast a foxes either, but... if you want a lot of children, I'll do my best. I'm not the worst person to have children with. You can teach our children about the ways of the foxes, if you want.”
What a surreal conversation. Had Junya actually been a woman, those words would have been reassuring. As it was, he actually did feel a little better, and he felt silly for it. Zuberi wasn't a bad person, not really. Maybe Junya wouldn't hold it against him when the time came for his execution. Hell, maybe the king would even forgive him for his deception.
He could dream.
“Junya?” Zuberi called when he didn't answer.
“Just thinking.” he admitted “Life is pretty complicated, isn't it?”
Zuberi looked around cautiously, blowing air our of his nose when he saw Junya leant against the tree watching him. His posture relaxed.
“Yeah, it is.” he agreed “But don't worry – we'll break the curse on you, and we'll defeat the Insect King. We'll be able to live a peaceful life then. Even if it's the last thing I do...”
The king trailed off, eyes distant like he was looking at his own death. Perhaps Junya wasn't the only one staring his mortality in the face. Zuberi shook the thought away, turning back to Junya.
“It's late.” he pointed out “I'll take you back to your tent.”