Two days before Hireth predicted she’d finish the portal, and three before Illius’ magic would swell to the point the scanners could find him, Hireth addressed both Eric and Illius at dinner. “I’m going out this evening—there’s a gathering at the park on 11th Street I want to attend.”
“Okay,” Eric said, cocking an eyebrow.
“It’s the twelfth of Elago,” she said.
“Is that something… significant? Is it, like, someone’s birthday?”
“It’s the day the Novidians rescued Porta Thwaites,” Hireth said. “The beginning of the war?”
“Why have I never heard of this?” Eric asked.
“Because you’re a man.” She shrugged.
“Don’t patronize me.” He shook his head at her.
“There’s some truth to it. The twelfth of Elago is a day women gather in protest, demanding their own reproductive rights. I found out about it… some years ago.” Her voice went soft.
“Can we come?” Eric asked, motioning to himself and Illius.
“Sure!” Hireth’s eyes opened a little wider. “If you want to. I’m not planning on staying too long, but they asked me to speak.”
“You’re going to speak?” Illius asked. There was still so much about Hireth he didn’t know. Clearly, this was something she felt strongly about, but she’d never mentioned it before.
“Sometimes I feel like I barely know you, Hireth.” Eric shook his head.
“Oh, I’m just an old, opinionated baker,” she said, not offering any further explanations. “Let’s get ready, then. I want to get there a bit early.”
They cleaned up dinner together, and then Hireth ran into the bathroom and came back out with black streaks across her face, covering up her red hair in a floppy cap.
“Should we, like, disguise ourselves too?” Illius asked.
“You should be fine,” Hireth said. “Put your hoods up, though. No one there wants to be recognized. You’re both already fugitives, so it’s not like we’ve got a lot to lose.”
“Isn’t this highly illegal, with curfew and all that?” Eric asked as they stepped out into the night.
“They can’t detain everyone.” Hireth shrugged. “Enforcers tend to shy away from these events, lest they arrest their own wives.”
“I can see how that would be awkward,” Eric said. As they got closer, the streets flooded with people. Each attendee had tightly bundled against the cold, wearing perhaps a few more scarves over their faces than they needed.
“Where do you need to go?” Eric leaned down to ask Hireth.
“There.” She pointed to a stage set up in the center, way in the back.
“We’ll get you through there.” Eric started elbowing a path open, with Hireth and Illius right behind him. Once they’d gotten halfway there, a speaker climbed up the steps.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your bravery in coming out against the cold.” It was a woman dressed similarly to Hireth, with black streaks across her face. “We’re gathered here to hear from some truly inspirational women and, of course, to celebrate Porta Thwaites. Wherever she may be today, we send our best wishes that she has found warmer hearts in the colder north.”
Illius stopped listening and focused on just keeping up with Hireth and Eric as they made their way to the stage. They found themselves on the north end of it, where a man and a woman embraced Hireth.
“You came!” the woman exclaimed. “And you brought friends!”
Hireth nodded. “I’m here.”
The crowd started to clap behind them, and the woman motioned Hireth to the stage. Hesitating, Hireth looked back at Eric and Illius for a moment.
“You got this.” Eric patted her shoulder.
Illius nodded, briefly squeezing one of her hands.
“Alright.” She took a deep breath and walked up on the stage. Once she got to the center of the stage, they offered her a rune to make her voice louder, but she shook her head. Her hands lit up, and the audience gasped. She drew runes in the air, and magic flew through them.
“I… wasn’t expecting to speak this evening, so I hope you’ll pardon me—this isn’t going to be as eloquent as I wanted it to be. I just… I’m leaving this country, one way or another, and… I wanted to tell you all how much you mean to me, even though I don’t know most of you.
“I have a little sister. Her name is Senia. I don’t know where she is right now, and I can’t see her anymore. I wrote her a letter and I hope that someday, when she gets older, she might find it, and it would give her a little bit of hope. I hope you don’t mind if I read it for you tonight.
“Dearest Senia… My darling, you probably don’t remember much of me anymore, but I hope you remember that I love you. I hope I don’t feel like a stranger, because in so many ways, your life was mine, and my life was millions of others.
“I remember the last time I saw you; we were out in the backyard, and you were swinging. Your dad sat on one side, and as you got closer he pinched you. You kicked your legs and cried, begging him to leave you alone. He wouldn’t, and he laughed, enjoying himself. I didn’t say anything. My mother saw it as play between a father and a daughter, but it was cruel—you weren’t having any fun. We’re taught from little on that our bodies are not our own. We’re taught that ‘no’ doesn’t mean anything, and no matter how loud we cry, no one is going to help us. Forgive me, sweet one. I thought I was as powerless as you that day.
“I thought you should know that you were right, and your father was wrong. I want you to know that our parents lied. They were people too, and they made some horrible mistakes. They were wrong when they didn’t respect your ‘no’ and your ‘stop.’ Every little girl should grow up under the protection of her parents, the protection of her body, her heart, and her anonymity.
“They lied when they said you were a bad girl. You were a child, and that was how they manipulated you. They were wrong when you gave them a drawing and they said, ‘not bad for just a girl.’ You are so much more than ‘just a girl.’ They were wrong to encourage us to be small and never try big things. Fear is an ugly color on us.
“They were wrong to tell us we weren’t pretty, that looking beautiful was shallow. You are beautiful—never doubt that. Caring about your appearance is a way of loving your body. There’s nothing wrong with you for liking the way you look in the mirror.
“They were wrong when they made you feel that you were never enough. You are perfectly enough. They were wrong to tell you that you had to give up our dreams once you married a man. Sometimes our dream is marriage, but often, people have multiple dreams, multiple desires. Live your life, dearest, and do the things that scare you the most, because that is where your heart lies.
“They were wrong that taking time for yourself is selfish. You were not meant to be a slave or a servant. To serve others can be a great gift, but taking time for your own needs is just as important. And when my grandmother asserted women could never be a part of government, she was wrong. Women have every bit as much a right to form the laws that govern them as men.
“They were wrong to think that if you just try harder, it will work out, and if you just give more of yourself, people will stay. Sometimes, the best of circumstances are upended by unforeseen things in life. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong—it just means you were human.
“Society was wrong when it made us feel that we had to hide the best parts of ourselves so people wouldn’t get jealous, or so men wouldn’t feel small. Little one, you are going to be better and worse than others at everything, and that is not shameful.
“You are not a disappointment, nor a mistake. If you are a woman, you are blessed to be so. If you love another woman, you are not strange or wrong, just awakened to the fact that love comes in many shapes and sizes; none are worse than the others, despite looking different. If you find yourself at odds with your own body, you are brave to ensure that who you are on the outside reflects who you are on the inside.
“My darling, sometimes the days are dark, and I know you’ve probably seen your share. I want you to know that I’m trying to build a better life for you. I never wanted the pain and fear that I felt as a child to befall you. I pray it hasn’t and that you grow up oblivious to everything I suffered. If that’s not the case though, dearest, I promise I will never stop trying to make this a world we can all be proud of.”
Hireth stopped reading and looked up, her voice wavering. “Thank you for letting me share; thank you for being here tonight. Always remember that even though they’ve taken our magic, our anonymity, our choice in who to love, we are still gathered here against all odds. I am grateful for each and every one of you.”