Stadtholme, Nubik.

Noya and Simen walked hand-in-hand down the streets of their beloved home as the sun began to set. The market district was especially busy today as the residents gathered for Malthusia. It was a celebration of the harvest, and while it usually began in the morning, the best part of Malthusia was when the sky went dark and the citizens danced in the torchlight. Simen wore his uniform despite technically having the day off; Commander Berholdt wanted every guard to be prepared in case of an emergency.

She wouldn’t lie; Noya also loved the way Simen looked in his uniform, although she would never in a million years say so out in the open. Such words implied she loved what Simen did in that uniform, loved the bloodlust that invariably came with it. Secretly, Noya didn’t mind the idea of violence, as long as it was in defense of creativity and beauty, and what else was a guard of Stadtholme but a defender of those things? Such thoughts, however, were frowned upon. To celebrate violence was to celebrate destruction, and there could only be so much destruction before the world fell apart.

Malthusia celebrated the creative power of womanhood, and made for a beautiful night. Torches were lit, and musicians began to play at every other street corner. Various artists brought out their paintings and sculptures, many of which celebrated the harvest, and Malthuse, the goddess who sang over the fields to make the crops strong. Vendors carried out bags or pushed out carts full of wares, most of it food. But they weren’t the only ones out tonight.

Noya followed her ears to a sole musician singing an old ballad, one of her favorites. Simen followed behind her, laughing quietly. Together, they leaned against a nearby building, tearing their cake into bite-sized pieces while the woman’s voice rolled over them like waves.

Men had their own songs, it was true, but they often lacked the cadence of a performer. All of men’s songs were dark, deep, and cold. They were sung on the battlefield, meant to encourage even the most reluctant and cowardly men to stand their ground in defense of their great nation. No man had ever put his voice to anything as beautiful as what this street performer sang, the tempo speeding up and slowing down like a wheel weighted on one side, the pitch rising and falling like the silhouette of a mountain, the words settling against her skin like the warm rays of the sun.

Noya glanced at Simen, smiling at the beauty of the music.

He smiled back at her. Then his lips parted, and the lyrics spilled out. Simen’s voice was quiet, barely audible over the crowd and the street performer, yet Noya could hear it. He matched the singer note for note, though deeper, and if Noya was in love with the ballad before, she was enthralled now. She had not thought that a man’s voice could sing of anything beyond the bloody songs, and she never would have dreamed that, turning away from the violence of that music, a man’s voice could be so beautiful.

She laughed in delight, earning a few annoyed glares from nearby listeners. Eventually, Simen’s voice died out, either because he’d grown tired of singing or because he’d forgotten the words of the next stanza. They shared a kiss under the torchlight. Then, Simen broke apart suddenly. “Would you like something to eat?”

Noya nodded emphatically. Malthusia food was the best part of the holiday. Some people spent the entire year trying new recipes to sell on this singular holiday. She passed some coins from her pocket over to Simen so he might surprise her with something new to try. Then he strode off through the crowd, finding easy passage with his uniform on, leaving Noya to enjoy the music on her own.

“You should be careful,” a voice said suddenly as an old, wizened woman sidled up to Noya.

She nearly jumped out of her skin, but Noya did her best to hide the fluster. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your man, there,” the woman said tartly, “It may seem harmless to give him free reins now, but men don’t know what to do with that kind of freedom. If you don’t keep him in line, he will turn himself into the maker, and you the destroyer, and what a terrible day that would be for you.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Noya replied, her blood growing cool in her anger.

But she did not have a chance to properly tell the old hag off, because Simen was returning, food in tow, and the other woman slipped away with only one last warning glance at Noya. The young woman cursed the old woman under her breath.

The smell of the food Simen carried was enough to bring back a grin. He carried a pastry that was brown and gold, like crops in a field, and smelled of spun sugar. Noya took the pastry greedily from him and sunk her teeth into the desert, rolling her eyes up in bliss as it seemed to melt in her mouth.

Simen smiled at her, then took a bite of his pastry as he turned his attention back to the ballad, the performer reaching the part about a great creation. Noya watched the performer, too, but the old woman, curse her, had put her on edge. She flicked her gaze over to Simen, loving him completely, wanting to prove the hag wrong, but fearing Simen would only prove her right.

He would never turn me into something so cruel or violent, Noya thought.

But the seeds of doubt had been planted, and doubt was like a weed. Where a seed fell, it took root and would stubbornly grow, no matter the terrain.


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