Prologue

I used to be proud of my country.

Once.

I trusted it. Believed it, thought it was great. All the propaganda fell into my lap and I devoured it greedily, never even thinking about looking past it.

Of course I was proud.

Have you ever tried not to be?

It’s not nice, you know.

Better to be in the dark and proud than aware and ashamed. They say ignorance is bliss and I can honestly vouch for that. I haven’t been happy, truly happy, since my bubble was so rudely burst. Since I saw my home for what it really was.

Repressive. Cowardly. Pathetic. It was irrelevant and it knew it.

You know, they say home is wherever you feel safe. I don’t feel safe there anymore.

I was homeless.

From a distance I could see it looming ominously. Even this far away the isolated city I came from was menacing. Armed with the little knowledge it had from its outdated politics. It was dangerous. Even here, on an outcropping of rock in the mountains, safety refused to visit. The camp was tense, all of us looking over our shoulders, old prejudices hard to overcome.

We were all different. We’d all taken different paths, yet somehow found our way to the same place. There was no room for us in a country of closed minds and closed borders. The walls keeping people out were also keeping people in. The population was rising while space was running out.

Not to worry though, war was brewing. That ought to thin the herd a little.

Trails of smoke tracked their way into the sky, adding to the overall gothic feel of the sprawling capital. I imagined I could hear the noise of the hearthsquare, the crackling of the eternal fire, the hushed whispers of its admirers and, every so often, a cry from a stall master.

The busy heart of a busy country under a lot of strain.

Soon it would stop, work no more. Materials and services, which oxygenated the rest of the country, would be blocked. A declaration of war could not be any clearer.

My land, so afraid of enemies on the outside, was going to be attacked by enemies on the inside. The rogues, misfits and anomalies were gathering.

And I stood with them.

 

Chapter one

Welcome to Solo, the land of freedom and opportunity – as long as you were a citizen, completely normal and completely natural. The land of inclusivity, as long as you weren’t from the outside.

Cynical; yes. But how about a brief history lesson. Trust me, it’ll come in useful. You know, I always thought if more people paid attention to history then maybe future mistakes were avoidable. Perhaps I was naive.

Anyway, I’m getting distracted. I promised you some history. Here it is.

Upon this continent sprawled many different countries, each of them small. Their sphere of power and influence was tiny and no one much cared. Everyone guarded their borders, never wanting to give up what little they had, friendship was a luxury hard to come by. They were in awe of Solo.

It was bigger, powerful, had a magnificent military force. What it accomplished was beyond imagining for its neighbours.  Even though it was part of the same land mass its sense of importance was inflated by its sheer size. It takes up the entire western coast and is safely hidden behind a mountain range that spans the continent from South coast to North. It bullied its way to the top of the chain and rusted in its complacency.

The world continued on and Solo’s neighbouring countries realised they could never contend by themselves, but if they all worked together they could match it.

Here, it’s worth noting there are differing opinions. If you believe Solo this came about from jealousy. They wanted what Solo had so plotted and schemed a way to get it, resulting in a very unlikely alliance. However, the Continent states a need to defend itself as the cause. Solo was too powerful and wielded its strength irresponsibly and without remorse.

Years ticked by and alliances formed, countries forged friendships in the shadow of the mountains. There was never any war but there was a lot of tension, a lot of times when the slightest action would have meant war.

Solo spent these years hidden away and using up all its natural resources. Eventually it had to crawl out of its self imposed solitude and negotiate trade, otherwise it couldn’t support its people. It meant its society became aware of the differences in how they were treated, how limited things were.

This was the spark of civil unrest.

More kindling was fed to that spark when political conversations turned hostile. Solo used its military might to keep trade coming but refused entry to the country. They were afraid. It might have power and money but it was normal and hated the thought of anything different, worried that it would be attacked by something it couldn’t understand. The main reason it hid and ignored the world was because there was magic out there.

For all it had, Solo did not have magic.

Occasionally magic users, unnaturals, were born within its borders but they were called an anomaly and whisked away. So deep was this fear that people let it happen without question. However, there were some outsiders allowed into the country, a result of vague events a couple of centuries ago. They were only granted entry to boost the workforce, to take on jobs no one else wanted. Hebens had magic, not anything they could use but enough to keep them young.

They were allowed into Solo but as soon as they arrived they found they didn’t have the same rights as those who were born there. They were second class.

As all of this was happening, Solo fell behind. It grew outdated, not that its people knew; they continued to believe in its strength and power and relevance. Well, not all of them I guess.

While the Continent enjoyed the benefits of unity, Solo was becoming divided. There were those who wanted to be a part of the Continent and its equality and fairness. They want to be welcoming but there was never the opportunity. Unfortunately the majority of the people didn’t share this view and spent their time pontificating about the dangers of strangers.

It’s no surprise, then, that the government blamed the foreigners because, of course, only the Hebens could be responsible for this change in attitude. So, they legalised killing on sight; whether by an official or a citizen. If they were caught outside of curfew  then they must be plotting to bring down the country.

With murder now sanctioned, the tension was at an all time high; in the streets, in the government. It was turmoil.

So, that’s the history lesson over. A basic background of where we currently are. The state of play. Propaganda was our daily meal and most of us devoured it gladly. Including myself. I didn’t start to open my eyes until recently, one chance event changed everything and now I didn’t recognise my past self, not even the way I spoke.

I lived in the lower quarter of Greystone, Solo’s capital. It was a grimy place, soot blackened the walls and dirt invaded homes. Water wasn’t readily available, a treat reserved only for the first and second quarters. There was a well where we could collect our drinking water but it was never for cleaning.

The soot-stained walls were decorated with aged posters. Corners curled over and torn at the edges, the message was still clear as ever.

Every single day, to and from work, I stopped and read every single one of them and tapped into a sense of national pride.

Only the independent stay strong

You are Solo’s strength

Us united against them

We are strong. We are Solo

Big blocks of letters yelled at me and other passersby. I wasn’t the only one to stop, there was often a crowd. We carried on life as if everything were normal, we ignored the threats and listened to the horror stories but morale still slipped. Kind of expected when a terror group attacked the streets ona daily basis, their target always unpredictable.

Them.

They took their name from one of the posters, although people were already saying the poster came out after the group formed. They wanted to join the Continent, saying it was best for all of us but whatever action they took always ended in violence.

The very aim of their little group was an insult to every upstanding citizen of Solo, anyone proud of the country refused to even entertain the idea of joining with the Continent. Why should we lower ourselves to their level? Anyone with any sense knew Solo was superior in every possible way, what would be the point in giving that up?

The words washed over me, calming despite their loudness . They followed as I headed to the market, wares trailing behind. The sun was just making itself known, its rays falling here and there over the buildings and cobbled streets as it sluggishly started the day.

A few other people were in the streets, early risers. Some were store masters, like me, others were Hebens. Whenever my eyes fell on one I looked sharply away. They weren’t something you wanted to look at for long. It was unnerving how young they looked.  They carried their magic within them, why should we take their word for it that they couldn’t use it at will. They shuffled along, running errands for whoever was unfortunate enough to have them. There was a law being debated about whether or not we should allow Hebens to wander the streets without anyone to keep an eye on them.

When I arrived at my stall the city’s hearth was burning strongly. Every city had one, it kept magic and anything ‘other’ away from us Traditionally the hearthfire was started whenever a settlement was founded and it meant the citizens were protected against their enemies. If it ever went out the settlement was abandoned, everyone evacuated and all buildings burned to the ground. Luck had left them, for whatever reason the place was no longer favoured. The mayor (not to be confused with the Regent, you know) was always executed as a way to appease whoever needed appeasing  and also because of the general feeling that their leadership was one of the reasons why the fire had gone out. Sometimes even the people were shunned, superstitious that the bad luck would follow them wherever they went.

The hearthfire in front of me was the oldest in all of Solo. It was as much a part of life in Greystone as the sky above. If this one ever went out there would be nothing but panic all across the country.

The day went on, people came and went. I managed to get some of them to buy my bread but most hurried on by, their pockets already empty. My family had run this stall for generations and it looked like I’d be the first to lose it. No one had any money to spend any more, including me, but prices for ingredients were going up and I had no choice but to follow them. The bread definitely wasn’t worth what I charged. I was seven when I first started on the stall and knew how to judge who’d buy and who wouldn’t, there were far less of the first and far more of the second.

A gust of wind blew my hair into my mouth as a huddle of possible customers shuffled by. They threw me a curious look as I spluttered and were gone before I  could talk to them. All in all the day wasn’t bad, there were some hungry people with money and I went home a pouch full of change and some unsold bread for supper. I was lucky to have as much as I did, more people were putting up stalls, driven there by the growing Heben workforce. They were taking jobs, taking money and making it harder for us to make a living. It angered me how often I saw my people struggling, people begging on the streets, the taxman kicking people from their homes if they couldn’t pay.

Solo was falling apart and it was obvious in its most glorious city. The tension was getting too much, soon words would turn into action.

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