Piers Glodson had been afraid this would happen. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin to meet Sergeant Angua's gaze. It was allowed, she reminded herself. There were nearly a dozen dwarfs now wearing skirts as part of their uniforms, between the different watch houses, and after all Cheri had started it …
"I have to ask," Angua said.
"Yes, sergeant?" Piers said, in a tone that questioned as strongly as she dared whether Angua really did have to ask.
"It's not that there's any rule against wearing female clothing in the Watch."
"It's just that, generally, the people doing it have been …"
"Female, sergeant," Piers said, resisting the urge to look down at her feet even though she could feel her cheeks flush. It might have helped if she'd already changed her name, she thought, but that seemed so … drastic, and anyway she hadn't thought of one she liked.
Angua seemed to be hunting for a tactful reply, and eventually to give up on finding one. "I know you're not female," she said.
"Why can't I be?"
"I can smell the difference, you know."
"Then I'm a female dwarf who smells wrong. I can live with that."
Angua ran a hand through her hair. "You weren't … let's be frank, here … born female."
"Neither was Cheri," Piers said.
"I'm pretty sure …" Angua began.
"She was born a dwarf. And so was I. Nobody's she in the mines, Sergeant. No one wears heels on their boots or paints their faces or wears breastplates that curve in interesting ways."
"That's not all there is to being female," Angua said.
"No, it's not," Piers said. "I'm interested in the other parts, too. Look, sergeant, my parents came here from the mountains," she said, finding her confidence as she spoke. "They tried hard to be good dwarfs, as much as that's possible in the city. They never did anything other city dwarfs hadn't done before them, so that they could tell themselves it wasn't undwarfish. And I could spend my life that way, but I don't have to. And I don't think there's a rule in the Watch that says what 'female' is. Is there?"
"I don't think anyone thought they needed one."
"Look at it this way," Piers said. "It's not like anyone knows less about me than they do about a dwarf who's dressed in trousers. More, really, because a dwarf in trousers could be male or female. And everyone can see that I'm female."
"I see that," Angua said, but she looked bemused. "I really didn't expect this kind of thing," she said finally. "I didn't think dwarfs were generally … well, very complicated in this particular way."
Piers shook her head. "You have no idea."
Greta Ironmonger tucked her beard into her apron against sparks from the forge and beat at the glowing bar of iron in frustration. It was a good frustration-relieving exercise, there being very few other things you were allowed to hit as hard as you could with a hammer. At least, not if you didn't work in a mine, and that probably wasn't a good idea; as tempted as she was at the moment to leave Ankh-Morpork and go somewhere else, there was a real shortage of other places to go that might possibly be an improvement.
She could hear her father talking to customers out in the shop, in Human, not dwarfish; he liked to consider himself a cosmopolitan, forward-thinking dwarf. That was the problem, really. If he'd really been one, he wouldn't be so stubborn about her marriage. And if he'd been the sort of dwarf who woud disown her for calling herself her, the way Liesl's parents had, then she could have justified doing whatever she wanted without his permission.
She tried to hammer in a way that would convey her wounded feelings, but she had to admit that probably sounded very much the same as just normal hammering. It wasn't very useful, either, and since that was the heart of the matter, she began making an effort to shape the iron into something other than a thing to be hammered.
After a while, her father came in from the front of the shop; it was afternoon, usually a quiet time once the rush of people conducting business on their dinner hour was over. Greta laid down what had become a fireplace poker, still cooling. "Yes?" she said without looking up.
"You have to understand," he said. "I'm only thinking of your future."
"She's a perfectly respectable dwarf," Greta said. "It's not her fault that Balti Skulldrinker is still stuck in the Century of the Fruitbat."
"He's used to it," her father pointed out. "But, no, there's nothing at all wrong with, with her," he said, clearly pleased with himself for having remembered that Ankh-Morpork had extra pronouns. "I would be pleased to have her as a -- as a daughter-in-law. Provided she were marrying my son."
"I don't know why you care so much about what either of us is. It's practically indecent."
"Not when you've told everyone."
"Nothing's changed," Greta said. "If we were still calling ourselves Grendel and Lars, you wouldn't mind."
"I would assume that you … knew the relevant information."
"I do," Greta snapped. "Liesl has a good job in the Watch, and she's already saved up nearly--"
Her father turned away, looking a little embarrassed. "There's the question of … well, of grandchildren. And besides …" He trailed off, seeming to find it difficult to put the rest of his thought into words. Greta didn't feel like helping him.
"There are couples who have no children," Greta said. "And don't tell me they all expected to when they got married. There's nothing wrong with it."
"Maybe not at home," her father said, sounding even more awkward. "But this is Ankh-Morpork. It isn't done."
"You mean by humans," Greta said. "That's what you mean, isn't it?"
"Or by dwarfs," her father said. "Females don't marry other females. It isn't right."
"Dwarfs marry other dwarfs," Greta said. "That's the way it's always been. You know that's the way it's always been."
"Times change," her father said. "Time was, I had a son."
There was a jangling of bells, and she heard her father's quick footsteps retreating out into the shop. She looked at the hammer lying on the anvil. It was all too tempting to leave it there and walk out. There were plenty of jobs in Ankh-Morpork. A dwarf didn't have to work for her father.
It might come to that, but not yet. She wasn't sixty-five yet. She could afford to wait a few more years for her father to catch up with a changing world.
She just wondered if it would ever slow down long enough.
Bjorn Karlson gazed gloomily at his tankard of ale. It was a perfectly good tankard of ale, but he couldn't work up much enthusiasm for quaffing it, not when Balto and Href had abandoned their own tankards to talk nervously but enthusiastically to the female dwarf at the next table. It used to be that he could count on them both to join him in a rousing chorus of "Gold, Gold, Gold," before the end of the evening, or at least to settle down to quaffing ale and telling stories about whose family mine was deeper and had bigger strata.
Now they were trying, awkwardly, to talk about shoes. Bjorn wasn't sure what there was to say about shoes, besides the fact that some shoes were more sturdy than others. He wasn't sure any of them could think of anything else to say about them, either, including the dwarf wearing lipstick and a dress that showed her muscular shoulders, but they were all gamely trying.
It wasn't that Bjorn couldn't figure out why. It was the kind of thing that ought to involve long conversations with your parents and the parents of other eligible dwarfs, or at least meeting another dwarf who worked in the same mine, but in the city there were plenty of dwarfs whose parents would get a letter sometime next week, even with the improvements in the post, and who rarely met anyone in the course of their work day who wasn't two feet taller than they were. Lonely dwarfs gravitated to dwarf bars, where one of the things they could find was other lonely dwarfs.
He just wasn't sure what the attraction was of putting paint on your face and wearing the same clothes that human women did -- well, not exactly the same clothes, of course, unless they had been taken in quite a bit. Or of putting high heels on your boots. Or of talking about your boots.
There were still plenty of dwarfs in the bar who weren't as modern, of course. He'd been talking to one or two of them with, he had to admit, certain things in mind other than quaffing. Balto, for instance, who was the foreman in a factory and whose broad shoulders showed the years he'd spent swinging heavy tools on the line before that. Or Href, who was younger and might never have picked up a hammer, but who worked in the bank and knew things about numbers that Bjorn thought probably added up to quite a lot of gold in his own vault, or however that worked these days.
He'd been on the verge of asking one or the other of them more than once if they wanted to come up and see his savings, but somehow it had never seemed like the right moment. And now both of them were busy pursuing a dwarf whose only assets might well be a paintbox and a pair of iron spike heels. He wasn't sure why everyone suddenly seemed to find that kind of thing so attractive.
If they did. He liked that better than the alternative explanation, which was that everyone felt it was the kind of thing they were supposed to find attractive. Of course it wasn't -- most of the grags were clear on that point -- but this was Ankh-Morpork, and things were … different. By which most people meant there are an awful lot of humans here, and maybe they're onto something.
It was one thing for humans to say things like you can't even tell whether they're men or women and make them sound like there was something dirty about perfectly normal modesty. It was another thing for dwarfs to act like … well, like it was safer to be sure. It made courtship simpler. And if you worked with humans, they wouldn't ask so many questions, or call you so many names behind your back.
There had been a time when dwarfs assumed humans who called them "queer" just meant that they were strange, which was hardly much of an insult, since the dwarfs thought the same about humans. But times changed. That was what everyone said, wasn't it? And because this was Ankh-Morpork, for some reason people felt that was the same as saying things were getting better.
Bjorn kicked at the table leg and tipped up the last of his ale. At least the ale here hadn't changed. Granted, that meant it was still terrible, but it was a comforting sort of terrible.
He looked up as Href slid back into the chair across the table.
"I thought you were trying to make a new friend," Bjorn said.
Href shrugged. "I'm not that interested in shoes. Or in …" He looked at the table. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the way dwarfs look in trousers," he said fairly rapidly.
"Neither do I," Bjorn said, with a companionable scowl.
"Good," Href said. Bjorn thought about that.
"I don't suppose … you'd like to come round and see my savings?"
"You still keep them under the mattress?"
"I do," Bjorn said, although it seemed breathtakingly forward to be talking about both gold and mattresses.
"You'd do better if you opened an interest-paying account," Href said, somewhat disappointingly, but then he added, "We could go and look at your gold, and, umm, talk about it."
"We could," Bjorn said. For a moment, he had the impulse to go ahead and ask the other question -- it couldn't hurt to be sure -- and then he dismissed it firmly. He wasn't that worried about whether they could have children, and if he wasn't, then what did it matter?
Arndt Hammerhand had learned a lot in unexpected ways since he joined the Watch. He hadn't expected, for instance, to learn much from dropping by the Blue Cat Club with Sergeant Angua to take a report of a broken window and a stolen cashbox. Angua had taken the report with an expression somewhere between amusement and boredom, and Arndt had struck up a conversation with one of the young men who worked there, first mainly out of confusion, then out of an increasing fascination.
Angua had cleared her throat eventually, looking like she was struggling not to laugh, and pointed out that it was pretty near knocking-off time, and that she'd leave him to conduct his personal business personally. He stayed, not for the reason he later realized she thought -- although he supposed the young man might not look too bad if he grew a beard -- but because he wanted to be sure he understood exactly why it was men went there rather than to one of the neighboring establishments that featured young women wearing very few clothes.
He supposed it made sense. He'd never seen the appeal of the few dwarfs who dressed in female clothes; no matter how clinging their dresses might be, it wasn't as interesting as watching a dwarf's muscles move under a mail shirt as he swung a hammer. It made sense to him that there were humans who didn't like that kind of thing either, and since most female humans looked … well, more like dwarfs in female clothes than like most dwarfs, anyway … he could see why some of them would find another option.
Of course dwarfs were different. There were things people whispered about; sometimes when a couple didn't have children, their closest friends didn't seem entirely surprised. He'd asked his father about it once, and his father had said that sometimes love was stronger than all sorts of practical considerations. At the time he'd taken that to mean that sometimes people got married even when they didn't have very much money, but now he suspected that hadn't been what his father meant.
But it wasn't as if male dwarfs went looking for other male dwarfs to marry. Arndt was planning to find a nice, traditional dwarf, who didn't wear skirts that showed his legs or dresses that clung alarmingly to every faint curve. He expected that dwarf would be female, although really it didn't matter to him particularly what was under that dwarf's chain mail. It wasn't as if he thought about what might be under it.
Well, not much.
Certainly not in the squad room, where the human men stripped bare to change clothes without a thought, and where the other dwarfs changed, as he did, behind partitions, where he could only imagine their hard muscles and the pale skin under their shirts, and wonder exactly how big …
He was walking home one afternoon when he realized that he did think about it, and that he'd never thought about any of the dwarfs who wore female clothes the same way. He felt that he was almost all the way to understanding something, and then it hit him, a little frightening and a little exciting: he'd never imagined female curves beneath the chain mail at all. In fact he'd always pictured, well, exactly the opposite.
He pulled Piers Glodson aside one afternoon, because she had taken to wearing lipstick and skirts to work, and he felt that probably meant she would understand this kind of thing. "What do you know about being queer?"
"You mean …" Piers said, and made a strange wavy hand gesture that Arndt felt probably did mean the thing he meant, although he wasn't sure why.
"Men with men."
"That's normal for dwarfs," Piers said, a little sharply. "I don't think it counts as queer if everyone does it."
"Most male dwarfs marry females."
"Most dwarfs marry dwarfs," Piers said. "If they're both miners who spend all their time talking about gold and stomp around in leather trousers, and neither of them acts female, except maybe secretly in the dark, what's the difference?"
"Maybe what happens in the dark," he said, but she didn't seem to be listening anymore.
He wasn't sure "queer" was the right word for it, though, if only because that was a human word, and some part of him felt that anything that couldn't be named in dwarfish didn't really exist. It made him feel uneasy, as if he might not really exist either unless he could find the right words to explain how he felt.
He'd heard there were certain clubs that catered to men who wanted to find other men (besides the Blue Cat Club, which attracted men who wanted to substitute cash up front for the necessity of looking.) It seemed unlikely that he'd find another dwarf there, but he told himself that if everyone thought that way, certainly no one would. And then maybe he'd learn a new word, or maybe even think one up.
Everything had to start somewhere.