Judy couldn't remember the first time she had seen the Middle Wall any more than she could remember the first breath she had taken. It had simply always been there, a gleaming white ribbon that defined the edge of everything she had ever known. Even as she approached the Middle Wall, preparing to go past it for the first time in her life, it looked no different from how it had when she was a kit. From the outermost field of the Tochtli Barony it was perhaps twenty miles to the gentle curve of the Middle Wall, and at that distance it appeared almost completely perfect, the smooth white marred only by the War Gate, which appeared as a grayish smudge. Judy had gone to War Gate when she was younger, too, and as when she had first seen it up close it took her breath away.
The gate was simply enormous, easily more than forty feet tall and twenty feet wide, and yet it wasn't even a third as tall as the wall itself. The doors were the same white stone as the surrounding wall, but both had been worked into an elaborate bas relief carving of the conquest. Stone figures so realistically worked that they looked apt to step out and walk around depicted the entire war, the left door depicting everything from the breaching of the Outer and Middle Walls to Ocelotl's abdication. As a kit, the sheer scale of the violence shown had been difficult to imagine, the early advances of an invading army numbering in the thousands finally being met in kind at the Inner Wall. Claiming what were now the Outer and Middle Baronies was said to have been done in less than a day, the combination of surprise and unfamiliar magic allowing the invaders to hold all of Zootopia's farmlands before a defense could be mounted. Even then, in the face of overwhelming odds, the defenders had held the Inner Baronies for almost a year under constant siege before finally surrendering. Emperor Ocelotl was centered perfectly between the two doors, and while the left side showed him as he must have been as he surrendered, gaunt and wasted from starving alongside his subjects, it was the right side that Judy had appreciated as a kit and appreciated even more viewing it again as an adult.
The right door showed Ocelotl as he had been immediately before his death some twenty years after abdicating the throne, the elaborate costume he had worn as an emperor replaced with the far simpler garb of a duke, and the rest of the door was consumed by depictions of how the two societies, natives and invaders, had come together and rebuilt the city-state. There were images of the sharing of farming techniques to improve yields, of the elaborate additions made to the buildings at the heart of the city-state, and even of the two societies sharing their knowledge of the healing arts to cure the plague that had devastated both in the early years of their cooperation. The door even showed its own construction, detailing how the enormous hole that alchemists had put in the wall had been turned into a gate that memorialized all of the mammals involved. Judy's eyes traced over the images that had been burned into her memory years ago, from the banning of mammal sacrifice to the elevation of prey from little more than slaves to true equals. One of her distant ancestors, the first Baron of Tochtli, was shown, his face somehow both humble and proud as he accepted his responsibility from King Oveja I with the other newly minted barons.
At the bottom of the door, though, was the image that Judy had long held in mind, because it showed the very first members of the Zootopia City Guard. Their centuries-old uniforms were somewhat different from the one that she wore, but the resemblance was unmistakable even when comparing the uncolored stone to reality. Her steel breastplate was much less ornamented than theirs, and she had only two feathers attached to her bracelets rather than the half-dozen the first members of the City Guard had worn. The quilted tunic and trousers she wore were also significantly less bulky, and she had a belt of quauhxicallis at her waist that would have been the envy of any of those early guards. The most significant piece of her uniform that the first generation of guards lacked, however, was the golden torc at her throat with its single obsidian starburst stud that announced her position and rank. Even though she had worn it for nearly a month, Judy's paw sometimes still went to the torc, as if to confirm that it was still there. There had been plenty of mammals who had said that a rabbit could never join the City Guard, but she had never forgotten how inspired she had been to see the War Gate. Seeing it again, on her first official assignment that used her as more than just a warm body that could hold a spear, made her heart well up with pride.
"You the courier?" a voice suddenly asked, completely breaking Judy's line of thought.
She turned as quickly as she could to face the member of the City Guard who had been waiting for her arrival, trying not to stumble under the weight of her pack. Travelling from the center of Zootopia to the edge of the Middle Baronies had been a journey of about a day, but reaching the settlement in the ruins of the Outer Baronies would take at least three and she had packed accordingly. "Yessir," Judy replied, giving the pig a sharp salute, "Ensign Tochtli, reporting for duty."
He returned her salute in a far more sloppy fashion, more of a vague motion of his arm than anything else, but his very appearance would have gotten him chewed out in the city center. The pig wasn't wearing his steel breastplate and the quilted tunic that strained at his ample gut was rumpled and had a number of curious stains on it. The feathers at his wrists were sadly sparse looking and even the golden torc at his neck looked smudged. Judy understood that guarding the War Gate was more of a ceremonial duty than anything else—it had to have been at least two hundred years since the last time raiders had made any serious effort at invading the city-state, and even that attempt had been a spectacular failure on their part—but that only made it all the more appalling. The guards who had been on duty when she had visited as a kit could have been illustrations for how the uniform should be worn, and even when they had rushed to her aid they had been perfect professionals. She hadn't needed their help, of course, as even the silver torc she had worn when she had been nothing more than one of the middle kits of a middling baron had been protection enough, but that was entirely beside the point. "Hmm," the pig grunted, appearing completely unimpressed by her enthusiasm as he looked down at a crumpled piece of paper he had produced from inside his tunic, "Ensign Tochtli, then."
He squinted down at the words and then looked up at Judy. "From the Tochtli Barony? You're close to home."
The Middle Wall defined an area so enormous that, standing next to it the wall appeared straight rather than curved, but Tochtli Barony was just barely visible since the day was fair and the sky was clear. The great stone farmhouse that would have been a castle were it not itself enclosed in such an enormous wall appeared hazy and dreamlike from where it stood perhaps thirty miles away. Judy had been somewhat tempted to stop on her way, if only to show her parents that she was a real member of the City Guard, but her desire to impress the mammal in charge of the gate with how quickly she reported for duty had won out. Although, considering it had clearly been a futile effort by the bored expression on the pig's face, Judy felt a touch of regret for missing her family. "Well, I've got your orders," the pig said, plowing on without waiting for an answer, "Escort the package to Phoenix."
Judy had already known what her assignment was, but if there was one thing she had learned during her time in the City Guard it was that they loved to repeat themselves. She was about to ask the pig if he had the package when the way he had phrased her orders struck her. "Escort, sir?" she asked, "I thought I would be carrying the package myself."
Judy had been under no illusions about what couriers did, and while getting assigned to carry a package alone through the ruins of what had once been the outermost part of the city-state hadn't seemed particularly glamorous, it had seemed a decent opportunity to demonstrate her value. Escorting even a small convoy of supplies out to the lone settlement in the Outer Baronies would be a much greater opportunity, and Judy briefly indulged in thinking of what it would be like to keep a careful eye out from the front seat of a caravan before the pig's words intruded on her fantasy. "Carry?" he said, and his chuckling was unpleasant, "If you can lift him, you're welcome to try. Come on, ensign, meet what you'll be escorting."
The pig gestured her to follow him inside the guardhouse, which only appeared small due to the enormous scale of the gate and wall it was next to. It was built of the same seemingly perfect white stone blocks as the wall, each block about three feet on a side and fit so tightly together that Judy couldn't have gotten so much as a hair into the gaps between each block. The guardhouse was actually one of a pair, for it was mirrored on either side of the gate, both seeming identical. The guardhouses were about thirty feet long by twenty feet wide and rather squat. Neither had any windows, but when they entered the space was nonetheless brightly lit by alchemical torches that burned evenly and without so much as a hint of flickering behind the glass globes that contained them. The guardhouse was, at least, somewhat neater in appearance than the pig who had greeted her, although not by much. The main space of the guardhouse was dominated by a number of desks pushed off in the corners covered with untidy stacks of paperwork, and in the middle of the room there was an enormous wooden table with a patolli board on top of it, around which there were three mammals playing. Two of them, an alpaca and a goat, wore City Guard uniforms somewhat neater than the pig's, but the third was definitely not a guard. He was a fox, and although the torc around his neck was the dull bronze of a merchant, Judy had never before seen a merchant who didn't apply any ornamentation to their torc. Where most merchants would decorate their torcs with baubles indicating their guild memberships—perfectly formed gold or silver ornaments in the shape of their guild symbols for the better off or colored twists of string for the poorer ones—his was completely bare, but he certainly dressed as though he was prosperous. He wore a bottle-green coat with brass buttons that had been left casually open, exposing an embroidered vest and a shirt that looked as though it was made of silk.
When Judy saw him, her paw went involuntarily to her cheek, feeling the scars hidden beneath the fur, before she lowered it, ashamed of her reaction. It wasn't fair to the fox to assume he was anything like her one-time tormentor all those years ago when she had first visited the War Gate. In any event, he certainly didn't look or sound anything like that young fox; even leaving aside his obvious lack of scars identical to her own, he was tall and lanky where Gideon had been short and thick for a fox. The fox at the table, who was cheerfully scooping in his winnings with exaggerated thanks to Macuilxōchitl for his good fortune, had a surprisingly cultured voice with a distinct Inner Baronies accent. Besides, if she assumed he was a self-serving coward and traitor like Oztoyehuatl was said to have been when he betrayed Ocelotl then she was no better than all the mammals who had said a rabbit couldn't join the City Guard.
The pig cleared his throat, cutting off both the playful grumbling of the two guards who seemed to have lost about a day's wages to the fox and Judy's thoughts, and announced, "Your escort is here."
The fox stood up from the table and walked over to where Judy stood. "How do you do?" he asked, cutting a low bow, "Nicholas the Alchemist, at your service, but you can call me Nick."
Judy could only gape at him for a moment, for he might as well have announced that he was a rabbit wearing a fox costume. When she had been in training at the heart of Zootopia she had seen one or two alchemists before, but they had seemed to delight in making it known to everyone who passed them on the street that they were alchemists, with their long hooded robes embroidered with mystical symbols in gold threads and elaborately ornamented torcs bearing the ouroboros of their guild. Their order was also, from what Judy had heard in whispers from the recruits from the Inner Baronies, entirely composed of prey mammals. "You're an alchemist?" she blurted, and when the words came out she realized how disbelieving she must have sounded and hastily added, "I'm sorry, I'm sure that you are one, and there's no reason a fox can't be one but I just wasn't expecting a fox to..."
That, she realized, was only making it worse, and Judy rather lamely finished, "You're not dressed like an alchemist."
Nick laughed, and there seemed to be genuine amusement in his emerald green eyes. "No, no, you're right, I'm not," he said, waving a paw dismissively, "But look at you! You must be the first bunny member of the City Guard, Ensign...?"
"Judy of the Tochtli Barony," Judy said, and the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach only got worse.
Not only had she judged him and suggested that he couldn't be a member of his profession, but he had in turn been perfectly polite to her and her own admittedly unusual career for a rabbit. "Well how about that. Ensign Tochtli, you certainly seem to be one of the more perceptive members of the City Guard," he said, and it seemed to Judy that he wore a half-smile as he spoke.
"Now that you're introduced," the pig interrupted, scowling at the fox, "You have your escort. Ensign, you have your assignment. Manada, Vicugna, get the gate."
"Thank you, it has been an absolute pleasure, really, and you've been an extremely gracious host," Nick said, offering his paw for the pig to shake as the two other guards hurried off.
The guardmammal seemed extremely reluctant to take the fox's paw, but did so at last, his scowl deepening as he did so. If it fazed Nick at all the fox did not show it, for he seemed entirely cheerful as he swept a thick pack made out of glossy black snakeskin off the floor and onto his back, setting off for the door. Judy wasn't sure how the War Gate operated; it might have been purely mechanical or it might have been assisted by alchemy in some fashion, but it certainly wasn't something that had been covered in her training. However it worked, though, by the time she and Nick were outside the guardhouse the gate was open and she could do little more than stare in awe.
The last and only time she had been to the gate the guards hadn't opened it, so with the enormous doors open before her she saw for the first time what remained of the Outer Baronies. Unlike Tochtli Barony, which was lushly green and fertile with farmland stretching as far as the eye could see, or the Inner Baronies, where the densest collection of buildings in the city-state were and where powerful magic turned the climate on its head, the Outer Baronies were as ruined as Judy had always read. The ground looked to be nothing more than grit and ash, pockmarked and cratered by some long-ago calamity. What little plant life grew looked sickly and poisonous, clinging around filthy little pools of water. The remains of the Outer Wall some fifty miles off in the distance were barely visible through the haze, but the blocks looked to have taken on a nasty brownish color. Nick seemed to notice her expression of awe and he looked down at her. "Have you ever been beyond the Middle Wall?" she asked, and he nodded.
"A few times," he said breezily as they walked towards the gate and the blasted landscape that lay beyond, "There's good money to be made in Phoenix."
"Oh," Judy replied, "Are you representing the Alchemist Guild? Is that why I'm escorting you?"
It made perfect sense to her that a member of Zootopia's most powerful guild would warrant an escort from the City Guard, so she was surprised when he shook his head. "I'm not a member of the Alchemist Guild," he said, fingering his unadorned torc as if to show her its lack of a guild symbol.
Judy found herself suddenly intensely curious as to why a merchant alchemist who didn't seem to belong to any guild warranted an escort, and most of all why she had been chosen for the job. "So why am I escorting you?"
Nick did not respond for a long moment, staying silent as they walked through the opening in the Middle Wall. It was so amazingly thick that it was like walking through a tunnel, and when they were about halfway through he simply said, "Because you're a new member of the City Guard from the Middle Baronies and I'm not a member of the Alchemist Guild. You get the assignment none of the more experienced guardsmammals want and I get an..."
He paused for a moment before continuing, "Inexperienced escort."
There was no rancor in his voice, but it was hard not to take it as an insult, particularly because she had the awful sense that he was right. "Oh," she said.
"Well, you have to learn somewhere," he replied with surprising cheerfulness, "So chin up, Ensign Carrots, you get to spend the next two to three days with me."
"Please don't call me that," Judy replied, but she could feel herself smiling a little at his teasing anyway.
Maybe he was right and it was a completely meaningless assignment. Maybe he wasn't. But either way, she was going to do her absolute best to make sure he got to Phoenix.
This story is a bit different from anything else I've ever written on a few counts. For starters, it's a fantasy setting that I developed, rather than a continuation of the movie's continuity or an interpretation of historical fact. Which isn't to say I used no historical facts in writing this story, but I'll get to that in a bit. The other major characteristic that makes this story unique among my work is that it's the first time I've ever written a story specifically for someone else. DrummerMax64, I do hope that you enjoy it, and I do appreciate you being so patient waiting for it! Hopefully it'll meet your expectations, and I hope it's also interesting to a general audience. Speaking of which, I'm posting this for two reasons: the first is that my currently running Sherlock AU "The Unlikely Heir" is rapidly coming to its end, and the second is to celebrate my second year of posting my work online, since this is the anniversary of when I started. In the two years I've been at this, I've now posted 113 chapters across five different stories. Thank you very much for reading; I really cannot say how much the support I've gotten over these past two years has meant to me.
The guidance that DrummerMax64 gave me was pretty simple: a fantasy story something kind of like Dragon Age and Game of Thrones that is an adventure and romance story. This is what I came up with, and while I tried to make the setting somewhat unique there is an underlying idea I had the guided it.
I was inspired by the Spanish-Aztec War of 1519 to 1521, which is a particularly interesting conflict in terms of the combatants and the way that it went. The Spanish invaders assembled a coalition of allies native to the region and defeated the Aztec Empire, following which the Spanish intermingled with the defeated Aztecs. However, I thought it'd be kind of interesting to have an event like that in the past of the setting rather than being the actual focus. Thus, as is mentioned in this chapter, centuries before the events of this story Zootopia had an entirely different ruling system with a completely different culture, but it was conquered by foreign invaders with their own culture who adapted what was there to serve their purposes. Of course, considering that the invaders deposed an emperor and installed a king, you might reasonably question how "equal" the society is.
As an advantage of the fantasy setting, I also developed two different systems of magic, one developed by the original inhabitants of the city and one developed by the invaders. I'll get into those later, as I tried to write this so that the relevant details come up organically in the story.
"Tochtli" is the Nahuatl word for "rabbit," and "ocelotl" the word for "jaguar." "Oveja" is Spanish for "sheep." The word "quauhxicalli" literally means "eagle gourd bowl" and is a sort of container that the Aztecs used for holding human hearts after performing a sacrifice. I tried to write this story in such a way that my author's notes aren't necessary to understand the setting, so rather than explaining now what a quauhxicalli is in this setting I'll just note that Judy's understanding that this version of Zootopia does not perform sacrifices that are fatal to the victim is correct.
"Patolli" is a real board game that the Aztecs played, and it involved a combination of luck and strategy as players attempted to move their pieces around the board while engaging in wagers against each other. During play, there is a symbolic space set aside for the god Macuilxōchitl, who would have offerings made to him during play and from whom rewards would be provided to players from the resources pooled to him.
Macuilxōchitl is one of the names for Xōchipilli, the Aztec god of art, games, beauty, dance, flowers, and song, with "Macuilxōchitl" literally meaning "five flower." "Oztoyehuatl" is the Nahuatl word for "gray fox skin" and is being used here to suggest that there's some extremely long-standing bias against foxes, although I'll refrain from commenting on whether or not Oztoyehuatl was actually a self-serving traitor. In general, though, writing this story I made the assumption that names would typically become more Western over the centuries due to how the city-state was taken over.
"Manada" is the Spanish word for "herd" and "Vicugna" is the genus that alpaca belong to.
Thanks for reading! I'd love to know what you thought!