Monday, June 11, 2007


The sun was directly overhead when they got out of the stuffy hotel. With an effort of will, Diana resisted the urge to canter ahead for the sheer joy of being out in the open air after three hours of standing at attention while the delegates discussed water rights, land toxicity, refugees and unorganized raiding bands. Although these topics interested her on a practical level, she couldn't bear the endless discussions that seemed to be more about assuaging group egos than finding solutions. "Is that really what lawmakers do all day?" she asked Amalia, reining in her mare to walk beside her.

"They have to be thorough and discuss all aspects of a problem. It's better to fix something once and be done with it than keep fixing it carelessly over and over, making the problem worse each time."

"But they made no decisions at all."

Amalia silently agreed, but wouldn't that be a bad thing to tell a young person who was fighting for the future of representative government? "It can be a lengthy process to find a solution that satisfies everyone."

"We solve problems quickly in our unit."

"That's because we're small. Bigger groups take longer because everyone needs a chance to be heard."

"But then," Diana wondered, "Wouldn't we do better as individual towns and valleys, each making its own decisions?"

"We're stronger when we combine our strengths, such as when we all agree on access to the salt flats, the river, or the railroad. If one group made all the decisions, they could cause hardship for the others. We have to find ways to share our resources for the good of everyone."

"There must be a better way than just sitting around talking."

"When you think of something, let me know," Amalia said. "I'll be joining Patton at the table for the big meeting tomorrow."

Diana's eyes lit up with curiosity. "How come?"

"They invited me."

"I figured that. But why?"

"Don't you think I'm as smart as they are?" Amalia laughed. "Honestly, I'm not sure why, except that tomorrow is supposed to be about negotiating group rights in the area and I guess Patton figures I have some unique insight, knowing the region as well as I do."

"I can't wait until this assignment is over and I can tell Will. He'll be impressed." Unable to restrain her restive mount further, she cantered ahead.

When she reached the barn she noticed a donkey and small wagon waiting by the door. Curious, she dismounted and looked for signs of what it might mean. Restraining her natural impulses, she waited for the others, even though she knew danger would probably never come to them via donkey cart.

"I bet that's our clothes for this evening," Amalia said, trotting up on her gelding. "I wish Patton hadn’t done that."

"Seems the money would be better spent on guns and proper uniforms," Boeing agreed.

"I just hope they didn't get me anything too girly," Dell said. "If Sputnik ordered anything with lace, bows or a skirt higher than my ankles, I'm not going tonight, and you can just say I'm sick."

"You are sick," Boeing said.

"Why? Because I like some of the same girls you do?"

"That's enough," Amalia said. "Don't make me have to find you a real enemy."

"I wouldn't mind taking a shot at some of those Zunis," Boeing offered. "They looked like their faces would crack if they had to smile. And that Aryan group—"

"They were scary," Dell agreed. "I don't know why they came, since they hate everyone. I wouldn't mind shooting a few of them."

"Auntie, you just tell us which groups are slowing the negotiations and we'll take care of them,” Diana said. “That ought to shorten the meetings."

Chuckling over this tempting absurdity, everyone went inside where they found a grizzled egg-shaped woman sitting on a stool next to a stack of flat boxes. She jumped off her perch and introduced herself as "Chata Morales, costurera. A su servicio."

"Mucho gusto," Amalia said. "Let us put the animals up and we'll be with you in a moment."

Chata nodded and sat back down to wait.

They returned one by one as they finished bedding down their horses. They retrieved their boxes from the seamstress and disappeared into unused stalls to see what Sputnik had ordered for them. Boeing was pleased with his flashy striped suit, the latest fashion among the young men in town. He strode back and forth in front of Chata, asking her opinion, then paused while she made a few adjustments to a pant cuff.

Dell fussed over her navy blue dress for several minutes, satisfied with the elbow-length sleeves and high collar. She tugged at the straight skirt, which revealed more leg than she was used to, but it covered her knees, at least. After consulting with Chata as to whether there was any way to lengthen the hem, she let the matter go.

It was Diana who took the most issue with her new clothes. For several minutes she refused to come out of hiding. Amalia, elegant in a black dress with a pattern of gold leaves at the hem, expected something garish in color or so badly sized as to be unwearable. When Diana finally came out and subjected herself to their scrutiny, she was stunned. The dress was a dark rose color, cut low in front with little cap sleeves, a tight waist and a loose dancing skirt that swirled at her knees. She looked very grown up and feminine, and for a moment, no one spoke.

“It’s awful, isn’t it?”

"Uh, no," Boeing said, staring at her chest. "You look gorgeous."

"I look like a whore." Diana tugged at the bodice and turned an appealing look on Chata. "Can’t you make this a little higher?"

Chata shrugged. "Es el estilo."

"I don't care if it's the style."

"Diana." Amalia put a hand on her arm, silencing her. Then she looked at Dell and Boeing. "Why don't you two change back into your regular clothes? Let’s not embarrass ourselves by messing up our new things before the party."

After they had left, Amalia nodded at Chata. "Todo está bien. Thank you for staying." Then she led Diana to the back of the barn and the box stall they were using for sleeping quarters. "Sit down."

Diana sat on the edge of her cot.

"Okay, what's the real problem?"

"What do you mean 'what's the real problem?' This dress is totally not my style. It shows too much of everything. Did you see the way Boeing looked at me?"

Amalia had noticed, and she hoped it wouldn't mean trouble later. "You're not a little girl. Men are going to look, and there's nothing wrong with that. You’re supposed to use it to your advantage."

"I don’t like to flirt."

"Is it because there's someone you’re interested in?"

"Of course not. I’m certainly not interested in Boeing.”

Amalia suppressed a sigh. That Will might be in love with her hadn’t even crossed the girl's mind. "Do you consider it dishonest to use your looks to get a man to talk? It's something all female spies have done."

"If I thought it was immoral to trick an enemy, I'd leave Unitas."

"Well, there's got to be some reason you don't want to go out in a pretty dress that any other girl in this town would go without food for a week to have."

"I just don't want men looking at me like that."

Amalia chose her next words carefully. "Do you not like men?"

Diana's eyes widened in surprise. "Do you mean am I like Dell?"

"It's okay if you are. I love you and I would never criticize you for it."

"Thank you, Auntie, but no, I don't like women that way. I could like a man well enough if he was the right one and it was the right time."

"Then what’s the problem?” Amalia studied Diana's bowed head and nervous hands. "Don’t tell me you’re scared."

Diana's head snapped up. "I've never been scared of anything in my life."

"Oh really?" It had never occurred to Amalia that after a lifetime of treating males as her equals, Diana would be unsure of herself in the unequal games of romance. "There are ways to handle a man without him knowing you're doing it," she said. "You don't always need to beat them at their own game. Sometimes the best thing is for a woman to play by a different set of rules."

"And create another Valle Redondo."

Amalia sucked in her breath. "What do you mean by that?"

"You know."

"No, I'm afraid I don't." Oh yes, she did know. Her sister had been loved by two jealous men, and it was they who had set in motion the events that spiraled out of control and led to that horrible spring day when Strecker and his men came to their valley. Had Diana spent all these years afraid that if she loved a man, she would create a similar tragedy? "Not every man will betray you if you don't give him what he wants."

"Not every man, but one might."

"You can usually tell which men are going to be trouble."

“Your sister didn’t. Did you?”

Amalia smoothed her skirt. “We never thought he would be that kind of trouble. Most men don’t have the power to call down a military unit on a valley of peaceful farmers.” She looked into Diana’s eyes. “I know we’ve been through a lot, but be realistic. If a man looks at you and likes what he sees, you don’t have to shun him. You can be nice, dance with him and enjoy his company.”

"And try to get information?"

"Why not? How else will we find out where Strecker is? You think no one will be looking to get information out of you at this party?" She stood up. “Besides, I really don’t know what you’re so afraid of. You can defend yourself as well in a skirt as you can in a pair of pants.”

Diana stood and began unhooking her dress. “You’re right, Auntie. I’m being silly.” She stepped out of the dress and held it out in front of her. “There’s just something about being dressed up like a girl that makes me feel vulnerable.”

“It’s okay,” Amalia said, shrugging out of her gown and reaching for a loose cotton shift. “When you dress like a girl, you can’t help but feel like one.”

“I guess that’s it.” Diana hung the rose-colored dress on a peg and pulled on a pair of heavy twill pants. “I’ll take a nap in my soldier clothes. Maybe it’ll put me in a better frame of mind.”


Alice Audrey said...

In some ways they are so old fashioned.

Ann (bunnygirl) said...

There has been some regression in attitudes toward women. Unitas is pretty egalitarian, and so is Lone Star, but some groups and many civilians are starting to see women as inferior. This is in part due to the fact that in a low-tech world, physical strength is important, giving men a clear advantage. Without easy access to modern medicine, women are also less able to control their fertility. Biology has once again become destiny.

Alice Audrey said...

I see where you're coming from.