In the 16th Century, Germany was a collection of kingdoms, duchies and principalities, united under an emperor. The Emperor, who chosen by a group of the most powerful kings, princes and archbishops, was expected to maintain peace and justice. But he could not be everywhere, and so in some places there was very little of either.
"Are you a tall Short, or a short Tall?" the gruff voice boomed.
It was not a friendly voice, and Gabriel didn't turn around. The small, bearded man behind the counter looked over nervously as he continued to assemble the basket of cheese, cold meat and bread for the young man who had come with the soldiers.
Gabe looked out the open doorway of the inn, away from the voice. The fresh team was being backed into place in front of the wagon, and he could see some of the soldiers watering their horses at the trough in front of the inn.
"He looks tall to me," the voice said. "Don't he look kind of tall to you?"
"Lay off, Conrad. He's just a kid," someone else said, and this time Gabe turned to look.
There were three Shorts at a table in the corner. He could tell which one was Conrad by the scowl on his face and the hatred in his eyes. The other two didn't look very friendly, but at least they were trying to keep Conrad from starting trouble.
But Conrad stood up and walked over to the counter, pushing a chair roughly out of his way as he came. People at other tables looked around nervously, even though they, too, were short and stocky, with dark, thick hair like Conrad's, the men bearded, the women with heavy coils of braids.
The top of his head was even with Gabe's nose as he stood facing him, a little too close. "You planning to get even taller, or are you about done?" he asked, and Gabe could smell the beer on his breath.
"Is there a problem, innkeeper?" A military officer in the uniform of the Queen's Own Guards entered the inn, taking off his wide, plumed hat and ducking to get through the low doorway as his cavalry sword clanked against the frame.
"No, sir, no problem," the man behind the counter said. "I was just getting your order ready."
"Well, take your time," the officer said. He turned to face the room, leaning on the low counter. "We don't have to go anywhere for a few minutes."
Conrad had backed away when Captain Stahl came into the inn, and now he went and sat down with his friends, though he didn't take his eyes off the tall, blonde soldier and the boy with the long legs and dark hair.
Stahl buffed a spot from his hat and looked back at the doorway. "How high is that frame?" he asked.
"It was built before the law changed," the innkeeper said. "Most of the buildings in this town were built before the law changed," he added, continuing to work on the lunch order.
The innkeeper was within his rights; Only public buildings constructed in the past 10 years had to be designed with Talls in mind.
In the cities, where the Talls lived, all the buildings matched the legal measurements anyway, but out here in the western countryside, most people were Shorts and the older houses and other buildings had been made for them. Even Gabe had had to stoop to get through the inn's door. Once inside, he could stand comfortably, but Stahl's hat would have touched the ceiling if he had put it back on his head.
The innkeeper finished loading the basket with food and tucked a cloth over the top to keep the flies away, then boosted it up onto the counter. Captain Stahl scattered some coins on the counter and Gabe took the basket.
Stahl watched as the innkeeper picked up the money and tucked it into a cash box under the picture of a light-haired man with a neatly trimmed beard. "You have the King's picture," he said, "but not the Queen's."
"As I said, this place was built many years ago," the innkeeper replied.
"Still, the King has been dead a long time," Stahl said. "Why do you not display Her Majesty's picture?"
"I put that picture up when the King died," the innkeeper said. "I would be happy to place a picture of the Queen next to it."
"Watch your tongue, little man!" Stahl snapped, then turned and stooped to walk through the door and out into the mottled sunshine of the forest clearing.
"You'd better get used to people acting like that drunken fool," he said to Gabe, who handed the basket up to the wagon driver.
"It's not the first time." Gabe replied quietly, as he climbed up onto the wagon box and sat next to the driver.
"Well, the farther we go into the country, the worse it's going to get," Stahl warned.
Indeed, it was not the first time Gabe had been insulted for his heritage. There were few people like him. His father had been Short, a huntsman in the King's service who came from the mountains. His mother, who was Tall, had served the old Queen until that good woman died and the King remarried. Now she served the new Queen, the one who, by order of the Emperor, ruled the kingdom until the Crown Prince was of age.
Gabe and Crown Prince Rupert had been born the same year, the Prince a few months before the King's hunting accident, and Gabe a few months later, just before his father died in the mountains towards which he now rode with Captain Stahl and a dozen Tall soldiers.
Text c. 2004, Mike Peterson - Illustrations c. 2004, Clio Chiang