The second category of Jae's Lesbian Book Bingo 2018 challenge is Historical Fiction. Check here for the thread with suggestions of books for this category, and for a chance to win prizes if you comment.
As I announced previously, since I don't read enough books to have a chance at filling my bingo card, I thought I'd play along by writing short fiction pieces for each square, using a historic setting and tying them all up loosely in a single overall story. But what do I do for a historical fiction category given that I'm trying to do the whole thing in a historic setting? Obviously the solution is to include something that is historical fiction for the characters in my setting! We're still following the same two characters currently, but I've switched viewpoints. (There will be more characters later, but they'll all connect up in the end.) At this point, I've sort of narrowed down the setting of the current ficlets to the Nine Years' War some time in the early 1690s. I'm dodging making too-specific references to what military action my heroines might be taken part it since I haven't pinned down a more specific date (or exactly which regiment they're with). If you're interested in more details of passing women in the military in the Low Countries and Germany in this general era, there's no better source than The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe by Dekker and van de Pol.
My book Daughter of Mystery will be one of the featured book suggestions for the fantasy category, but my work fits in a lot of different categories on the bingo card. For those who might be visiting here for the fiction and brainstorming for ideas for their bingo squares, here's a brief rundown of what categories the Alpennia books and my self-published novelette fit into.
And now, on with the fiction!
All the Stage is a World (Lesbian Book Bingo: Historical Fiction)
The only thing more miserable than standing sentry through the wet miserable night on the edge of the army camp would have been sitting inside the walls of the town we were besieging. No, even worse for everyone would come when the siege broke into open battle but I mostly avoided thinking about that before time and tried to forget it afterward. The dark was thick with the smoke of campfires and the orange glow of them was scattered across the fields like a hellish reflection of the stars above.
Lena—no, I needed to think of her only as Pieter, and I’d only called her Lena for a few days anyway. Not long enough that the name should seek to betray us like that. Pieter shuffled a few steps to keep her legs warm. Another hour at least before we’d be relieved.
A trickle of wet fell into the collar of my uniform coat and I adjusted the wide brim of my hat to send the rain somewhere less uncomfortable. “Are you cold, Pieter?” I asked.
She snorted. “Of course I’m cold, Martijn! Times like this I wish I hadn’t traded skirts for breeches.”
Skirts for breeches, a job serving beer at De Leeuw in Zendoorn for the army life, but I knew she didn’t regret the gamble. I saw it in her eyes ever time we marched past towns and rivers she’d never seen before. No matter how sore our feet were or how quickly sleep seized us when we made camp, that look of wonder and surprise never dimmed.
I moved closer and huddled against her for a little more warmth but she stepped away with a shake of her head.
“You never know who might be watching.”
She was right. As bad as it would be for anyone to guess that we were women, it would be worse if they decided we were too-affectionate men. Sharing a bedroll for warmth was one thing, but embracing while on watch was another. The pleasant tumble we’d had back in Zendoorn rarely had a chance to be repeated.
“I’ll tell you a story to pass the time,” I offered. Even the stories I’d grown tired of were new to her. “What would you like?”
“Tell me about…” She thought in the darkness for a while. “Tell me a story about people like us. Tell me that we aren’t alone. You said you’d had sweethearts before…”
I didn’t want to tell her about Mayken, not all the private memories. But… “I know a story about people like us. I saw it on a stage when I was in London. A grand story set in olden times with pagan gods and two girls just like us. Would you like that one?”
I tried to remember everything I could about the play, all confused with shepherds and gods and comic rustics. In the end, the play had left me shaking and filled with questions.
“Once upon a time, there was a band of shepherds who had angered the god Neptune, I don’t remember why. But Neptune demanded that every ten years they must sacrifice the most beautiful and most virtuous maiden in the land. You might think that fathers would be proud to have beautiful and virtuous daughters. Neptune wasn’t the only god in the story. The virgin goddess Diana roamed the woods near where the shepherds lived, and she loved chaste girls. Or you might think that the shepherds would encourage their daughters to be a little less virtuous, if it meant they would live. And the goddess Venus was happy to encourage them in that. But men are strange creatures, so they protected their daughters’ virtue carefully and the mourned what came of it.
“There was a girl named Gallathea who was so pretty and so pure that her father was certain that she would be chosen as the sacrifice, so he took her away to the woods and commanded her to dress in men’s clothing and hide herself away until after the choice was made. Gallathea was embarrassed to wear breeches and a doublet—just like you were at first, Pieter. I still remember how you blushed looking down to see your legs showing! But she did what her father commanded and went to hide in the woods.
“And there was another beautiful virgin named Phillida. Her father was also certain that she would be chosen to be the sacrifice. So he took her aside and said she must disguise herself as a man and hide away in the woods until Neptune had received his due. Phillida thought it was an immodest thing to do, but she obeyed her father and she, too, put on breeches and a doublet and went to hide herself.”
“Well that was a silly thing!” Pieter said. “Wouldn’t anyone notice they were gone? Wouldn’t they remember two such pretty girls and ask what happened to them?”
“Hush,” I scolded. “It’s a play. People do silly things in plays. Now let me continue. So Gallathea and Phillida chanced to meet each other in the wood, and of course each one thought that the other one was a boy. A very pretty boy.” I smiled at Pieter in that way I knew would make her blush, though I couldn’t see it in the dark. “And they fell in love.”
I couldn’t see her, but I heard her sigh—a quiet little sigh that I remembered from times when I’d touched her just so.
“Both Gallathea and Phillida, they each thought they were in love with a boy, you see? And while they’re hinting at being in love with each other, Diana’s virgin huntresses meet up with Cupid and mock him and he decides to make them all fall madly in love. Some of them fall in love with shepherds and some with Gallathea and Phillida, thinking they were men, but Gallathea and Phillida fall in love without Cupid’s help. But when they each see that the other spurns the love of Diana’s ladies, they begin to suspect that the other might be a woman in disguise.”
Pieter gave another disgusted snort. “I know you said people do silly things in plays, but why would they think that? There are lots of reasons to spurn a woman who’s chasing after you.”
“Ah,” I said, “but they both are thinking a lot about being in disguise, so maybe it just seemed more likely to them. Let me finish. Do you want a story or not?” It had worked to distract us from the cold, but now I wanted to tell Pieter how it ended.
“So Gallathea is worried that if Phillida is really a girl like her, then her love won’t be returned. But if Phillida is a boy like she seems, then falling in love puts her chastity at risk. And Phillida is thinking the same thing. And at the same time, the shepherds pick a different girl to be the sacrifice, but Neptune won’t take her because she isn’t pretty enough. And he gets mad at the shepherds for cheating him, and he’s mad at Diana for making girls all worried about being virgins and then Diana and Venus have a fight about whether it’s better to be in love or to be a virgin.”
“They don’t sound like gods, they sound like people arguing over the price of cabbages in the market.”
We both giggled at that, because it was true.
“Anyway, the fathers confess what they had done when Gallathea and Phillida come back and then the two know they’ve both fallen in love with a girl, and they’re unhappy because they think it means they can’t be together but they swear to all the gods that their love is true and they’ll never love anyone else.”
Pieter gave a little sigh again, but this time it was the kind of sigh you give when you see people being happy. I felt a bit of worry twisting up my belly, because I think Pieter thought we were in love like the girls in the play. And I…I wasn’t sure. I liked her well enough, but I wasn’t sure about being in love. Not like Gallathea and Phillida were in love.
“What happened next?” Pieter asked all in a rush.
“Venus tells everyone that love will triumph and that she’ll turn one of them into a boy so they can get married.”
There was a long silence after that. I couldn’t tell what Pieter was thinking, just that she was disappointed in how the story ended.
“Martijn…would you want to turn into a boy if it meant you could marry the girl you loved?”
I’d thought about it. I’d thought about it when I'd seen the play. I'd thought about it when I’d been with Mayken. We’d talked about getting married and me leaving the army to settle down with her. And I just…I wasn’t sure. In the army I was Martijn and Martijn was a soldier and a man. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to be Martijn for my whole life. Not even if it meant I could marry Mayken. That was why she’d stayed behind and I marched away.
I shook myself to push the memory away. “There aren’t really pagan gods, you know. They can’t do that. Only God can make miracles and God isn’t going to make that kind of miracle so it doesn’t matter. It’s just a story.”
I don’t know what I would have said after that, but I saw a lantern bobbing in the dark and two voices called out the sign. We answered with the countersign and the watch had changed.
Back in our tent, it took an hour of holding each other close to warm up enough to sleep. I lay there wondering what happened to Gallathea and Phillida after the end of the play.
(copyright 2018 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved)
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*Historic note: John Lyly’s play Gallathea was first performed in 1588. I haven’t yet pinned down the precise date of these sketches yet, but my current approximation is during the Nine Years’ War of the Grand Alliance, in the 1690s. It’s extremely unlikely that Lyly’s play was still being performed at that date, though some plays of the era did have long runs through multiple revisions and adaptations. But I’ve taken the liberty of having my character see a performance.