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Mar 14, 2021

Historical Fiction

That’s the thing about this city.

Come on; I don’t really need to tell you, do I? Haven’t you seen it all yourself, even in these past few days? You may have tried to hide from their eyes with that useless silk curtain of yours, and I am sure your carriage muffled the sounds of the common rabble. The smell of shit in the street, the smear of blood or dirt on faces you tried to ignore it all. When that boy scrabbled at your door, begging for you to give him anything, you called out for him to be struck down and away. I daresay you’d have him shot if your feeble heart had the courage.

When you stepped out from your little bubble of nobility and fled home, you tried to blind yourself to the leering faces around. They didn’t leer at you, of course. Forgive me, my dear, but you are hardly such a looker without all your silks and powder. But it was the purple of your gown and the gold at your wrists and neck. It was the way your hands hovered above your waist as if lowering them would put you on the level of the dirt-grubbing peasants you despise. And it was the part of your lips and the gentle puff of your breath in the cold air, such surprise in your bearing at the chill of every working man’s normal day.

And though you soon disappeared inside, they saw you anyway.

I see you.

Do you think about it as you place roses inside that china vase? Do you remember how the calluses of my hand caught on the lace of your glove? Had I not sinned so terribly and dared to make contact, you would have been on your knees in the muck and dirt just like the rest of us.

But that is not your place. I will admit, it would give me a certain sadistic joy to see you knelt down below, no different from those who live without the gilded shackles of noblesse oblige. Perhaps then you would understand how the weight of your gaze pierces us past that mask you keep glued to your cheeks. Perhaps then you might deign to lower that chin to look at us in the eye, rather than down your nose. You could learn to see others as who they are rather than the faceless wretches who exist to serve.

But that’s just it. This city won’t change. You won’t change. The people around will not ever change. We coast in our separate circles, held there by bounds of your class propriety. Could I ever raise myself higher with enough luck and money? Of course, but none of you would ever truly accept what I had. I would be welcomed on the outside and then mocked behind closed doors and opened fans. Eyes would follow, judging, questions asked merely so they might titter at my response. And of my own wife? My children? Perhaps someday they could cast of the shame of my roots, but they would forever be lesser until they were wiped free of any bit of commonfolk taint.

It is likewise laughable at the thought of any of your class managing to work day in and day out to scratch out survival. Have you ever cooked a meal by yourself? Do you know the price of a loaf of bread? Can you haggle at a market that would eat you alive for walking there alone? Have you ever felt the grubby fingers of a pickpocket tugging at your purse?

No, this city won’t allow it.

That is my answer. No, I will not allow your request. There is nothing you could offer me that will not be ripped away by the dichotomy of our worlds. No coin. No prestige. Not even a glimpse of your soft debonair existence.

Oh, have I stung you? Does that make your hands tremble with anger? You hide it well, but as I keep saying, I see you. Your man is there, eager even, and you can order him to club me over the head or shoot me. Go on. I dare you. If you do not stop me by force, then I shall keep talking until I am done. But I don’t think you’re able to handle any more.

It’s a foolish dream you fixed upon. And furthermore, it is foolish that you would choose me of all people to try and help you on it. You said it was because I did not lie to you; well, I am still not lying to you. Truth hurts. And if you went down this route, it would hurt, and hurt, and hurt, and hurt, until you had the same rough exterior and shielded heart as the rest of us. You would lose the light in your eyes and the softness of your words. You would be broken down and beaten and you would stare longingly at the ivory towers of the life you left behind.

We are both trapped.

Why can’t you enjoy it from the side of the fence you were born to? It’s so much sweeter there, full of laughter and joy and coin. All you’re missing is the eternal weariness of existing, the sweat and dirt of survival, and the lack of rules. Is it the rules? Is it the hidden words between lines or the letters carried in a single look? Is it the filling of the dance card and the future of being a dutiful wife with her arms and womb filled by squalling babes? Is it the lonely nights of sitting up by candlelight and not daring to go to your husband’s bed unless he called for you to bear him yet another heir?

I understand chafing at the rules.

But it would only be the same in the lowest dregs of this city as it is in the uppermost reaches. Both sides have more and less freedom than the other. You must see clearly enough to seize it.

Good luck.

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