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Like the Protectorate, December Morning was twenty years old today. Out of a misguided sense of loyalty and pride, she and her father had chosen the same birthday as the government when she registered at the Academy. That date had stuck even after December’s name and family fortunes changed.
“December in July?” One of the officers laughed as he finished up her paperwork. He was a young curly haired man. He coughed when he looked up at her for the first time, and handed her a pastry with her release papers. “Happy Birthday.”
“Happy Protectorate Day,” she replied and joined the line of the released.
Most did not have the shifty-eyes and self-possession she associated with thieves and murderers. They were tired and in ill-fitted clothing with all manner of bags and briefcases, identical only in their shaved heads, which they ineffectively hid beneath hats and headscarves. A few of them gaped at her, a skinny magician in a worn black robe and a turban. She should have worn something else, but it was the only thing long enough and thick enough to hide her bumps and bruises. Belatedly, she saw that they were all clutching pastries.
The stars were still out. She had dreamed about them in her cell, but there was no relief in seeing them. You could not spend them or sell them or eat them. And seeing them reminded her of Owl.
She got in line to climb into the covered wagon, but a new guard.
“You, magician, up on top.”
She stared at the wagon, unsure how to climb up while avoiding the horses. The guard who had spoken pushed past her and she followed him, finding the footholds in the gray half light.
December’s mouth was sticky and dry from the cold, stale fried dough. She had been too hungry to care, but now the food had congealed in her stomach. The driver offered her his flask and she took a sip of watered wine. Perhaps the favoritism was due to Mina, the officer she occasionally worked with. The bank would have sent someone.
Although it was not yet midmorning, the streets were crowded with people, and not just the market streets. The wagon moved slowly through the throngs of city dwellers dressed in their colorful best. Vendors with their wares hanging from a pole, hawked dolls, masks, and red armbands. Red was the color of the Protectorate, the color of blood and the people.
The officer gestured her to say sitting as he got off. There were two more guards ran or rather walked briskly outside the prison wagon. She watched as half a dozen men and women in street clothes were hustled into a police station wedged between an inn and a restaurant. There was the smell of frying oil, tea, and wet laundry. A few bold children touched the prison wagon and giggled. The driver flicked his whip and the children darted into an open doorway.
December turned her head away from the squat mud-colored buildings packed closely together to the bright clean whites and blues and golds of the market center just two streets over.
“I heard it was your birthday,” the old driver said, his Capital accent was thick. He gave her a penny.
The men were back and the empty wagon started again, faster this time. There would be free food, drink, and festivities to celebrate the day the Protectorate seized the Capital and put an end to monarchy. They passed two puppet shows of just that. As they slowly rattled through a square, paid criers shouted that Tribune So-and-So and Aedile Someone-or-Other had paid all the fares for this bathhouse or that theater. The Protectorate had paid for bread and wine, and various temples had sacrificed a cow or two.