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100 words to the first person to guess my favorite line in the entire story 😉
Content warning: discussion of maiming & rape
The woman with the thick waist and the black dress cradled the drink as if it were a lifeline – or, nobody wanted to think, and everyone did, a child.
“Unicorns don’t – traditionally – touch men, or allow themselves to be touched by men or males.” She stared into the depths of her drink for a moment, and then swallowed it down in one long gulp.
The rest of the tavern looked at Jakob. Jakob picked up his mug and swallowed it down. The rest of the tavern gulped theirs down or, in the case of the teetotaler and the two who believed in moderation, they drank a long swallow of water.
The bartender filled their mugs without question. The woman was silent for another minute, but nobody thought to prompt her to hurry. Nobody wanted her to hurry, truth be told.
“In most villages, they want virgins. Everyone knows that.” Her lace sleeve flapped like the lips of an open wound. “And everyone knows that sometimes they…” Another flap. “They turn down the girls sent to them.”
They all nodded. Like Jakob, many of them had sent daughters to the river. One of two of them stared down into their mugs and said nothing. The rest let them back. Fost’s daughter hadn’t come back. By’s had raked her wrists across the unicorn’s horn. Sometimes that happened. Sometimes they just pretended it had.
“They have standards.” Her lip curled in what looked like aristocratic disdain. “What they think of as ‘pure.'”
To a man, boy, and child, the tavern tried not to shrink backwards. The matters of purity were not things they touched – not tavern wenches, not pot-boys, and certainly not the men of the Villages. Purity was a matter they left to the women, the grandmothers, mostly. They said yay or nay to a girl going to the river, yay or nay to a girl stepping out with a young man,and no man would think to naysay them Not a man who valued having a house to come home to, at least.
It was Jakob again, who remembered that this wasn’t about them. He lifted his drink in toast to the woman in black. “That’s beyond our ken, Lady.”
“The secret is, it’s beyond even the grannies’ ken.” She pinned the skinny barmaid with a glance for a moment, as if daring her to say something. The girl, wiser than that, blanched and stepped back behind the counter. “Certainly, a wise woman can learn from trial and error and nosy questions what will satisfy the unicorns who frequent their riverbeds. They can learn what will clean the waters, and what will…” They always spoke of such things in euphimisms. You sent the girls to the river. The unicorns cleaned the water. “It all cleans it, did you know that? Whether they send the girl back whole or broken.”
The room was transfixed. The room, however, also needed a drink. They lifed their glasses. They drank. They stared at the woman, never saying a word.
She lifted her glass. She drank. “I thought I was pure. The grannies certainly thought I was pure. That’s what you have to remember. No girl, no girl will go to the river willingly, if she doesn’t believe herself pure. We all know the cost. We’ve all see the price paid.
I asked.” She continued so quietly that they had to lean in to hear her. “I asked, when it was done with me. I asked it what I’d done wrong.”
Even Jakob could not have spoken, waiting to hear the unicorn’s answer. But the Lady only sobbed, and, more drinks in her than a grown man could handle, sank gently to the floor.
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