“Where’d you get the food?” I nodded at the meal, ignoring his introduction.
“I bought it,” he shrugged then spotted the look on my face, “with my own money.”
“And how can you afford that?”
“I’ve been saving up, I’m quite good with money.”
“Nope, no one saw me. I was very careful.”
My back was aching and so was my belly. It’d been a long day spent stooping over people and kneeling besides them. I longed to sit down and eventually gave in. He started serving up the meal. I’d been living so long on leftover bread and stew with questionable meat that what was before me now was nothing less than a feast. I ate without talking and he followed my lead, giving me time to work out exactly what was going on here and how I was going to get out of it.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” he said suddenly. “A lot of people would have ignored what was happening. Hardly anyone would bother to come out of their home in the night to stop it.”
I hesitated with the next mouthful, feeling guilty. I wanted to tell him I’d made a mistake but the words were getting caught up somewhere.
“D’you here the news today?” If I couldn’t be outright I decided to lay down some pretty obvious hints.
“I heard something while I was out and I was getting some hostile looks, it doesn’t really take long to put two and two together.”
“A bank,” I said flatly, “your lot blew up the bank and killed people.”
“What makes you think it was my lot,” he replied, taking it in his stride as if this were a normal conversation.
“Who else would it be?”
“Maybe some of your lot?”
“And why would they?”
“I could ask you the same question now, couldn’t I?”
He had me there so I carried on eating, not really paying attention to what was on my plate. He was the tricky sort and talking to him was only good if I wanted a headache.
“You haven’t told me your name,” he broke the silence again.
“Why should I?”
“Because I introduced myself and, where I come from, it’s polite to reciprocate.”
I had to keep myself from scoffing. Where he came from was a country full of monsters, people who could use magic and took advantage of their power for whatever they want. They could control minds, speak with the dead and force nature to do whatever they wanted. No one knows how they got these powers but they’ve abused them ever since. Solo was tricked into letting the Hebens in and now there was this whole political ground too difficult to navigate to get them thrown out. More of them keep coming and tricking the weak minded into believing their stories and sympathising with whatever situation they found themselves in. And nothing could be done because of the politics involved. our hands were tied.
It didn’t help there was discussion of a vote happening. Somehow some people in Solo got it into their heads that they’d quite like to be a part of the Continent and enjoy the benefits of being part of an ever growing community, losing our national identity in the process. Some of us still had a sense of national pride and refused to even consider joining with them, but there was a lot of fierce opposition. More than anyone expected. The Hebens were to blame, of course. They were feeding them lies about what they’d get, making up all of the good stuff and forgetting about the bad. Using the magic they had to manipulate and get what they want. He mentioned politeness as if I were the rude one, but he came from a nation of monsters and cheats. He deserved no politeness from me.
But then in struck me, maybe I was in a position I could take advantage of for my own gain. For whatever reason he’d chosen to stick around, that same reason was making him cook dinner and talk to me. I could use that to my advantage, learn some of what he and his kind were planning and feed it back to the Regent’s men. Then they could stop the attacks. No more blood spilled in the streets because of terrorism.
“It’s Asha,” I said with a calmness I only managed because of my plan. Although the smug bastard soon stripped me of it.
“Well, it was nice to meet you Asha. A delight to dine with you, too,” he stood up and stretched his arms. “You saved my life last night but I can see it was a mistake to stay in your home. You’re not a friend of my people.”
He cleared his dishes and grabbed the ragged coat he was wearing last night. My chair scraped against the floor in my rush to stand up.
“I mean this in the nicest possible sense, but I hope we don’t meet each other again,” he offered me his hand, which I left hanging there. Everything had turned around so quickly. For the first time since last night I met his eyes again and quickly looked away. They were unnatural things, his face was so young but his eyes so old. They held wisdom and stories of what they’d seen, stories far older than me and far older than he had a right to be. The work of magic. Every Heben was marked by the same kind of eyes, it made them easy to point out. They could disguise themselves however they wanted but knowledge was always hard to hide.
“Where are you going?”
“Away from here. I was mistaken, you aren’t a friendly native. You’re just like the rest of them,” he waved his hand to show he meant the city beyond my front door.
“Can you really be surprised?” I was getting angry. “You keep attacking us. It ain’t enough that you take our jobs and our money but now you have to take our lives too, you know. We ain’t done anythin’ to you but you’re here doing all this to us. Do you really think I’m gonna throw my arms open in welcome?”
“It’s not your arms I want open, it’s your mind. We don’t gain anything by attacking your people. We come here and everything’s taken from us but we don’t complain because we want to keep the trading relationship good between Solo and the Continent. We’re not here to hurt anyone.”
“Bullshit. This is my home and you’re ruining it. Hebens are taking jobs we could have, they’re taking money we need to get by and scaring children, parents and people in general because they’re so bloody unpredictable. How can you treat us like that? How can you defend that?”
“How can I defend it?” He was incredulous. “How you can you say that with a straight face? We don’t do anything. We take the jobs you don’t want and the money for it is barely enough to survive. We can’t own anything because we’re not treated like people, because that’s what we are, don’t forget. We’re people just as much as you are. And you scare us, we never know where we stand. some days we’re ignored and others we’re beaten to a bloody pulp if we so much has breathe too loudly.
“And, as for this being your home – I’ve been living here much longer than you. I remember when there wasn’t a wall surrounding Greystone. This is my home too. You treat us like nothing, forget that we have rights. Tell me, how is that okay?”
Even though he was extremely passionate in his speech, he never once raised his voice. He stood his ground without ever resorting to volume or swearing. He even made sense. I thought perhaps he was using magic on me to get me to see his point of view, but from all the stories I’d heard there was always a horrible feeling when magic was used, like your insides were vibrating. And that wasn’t happening now.
Nope, the only feeling I had was a hot stabbing pain deep in my gut, He’d silenced me with his words and the silence that followed made me feel guilty. I couldn’t tell you what I felt guilty for, just that I did. Looking at him it occurred to me he was waiting for an answer. In the face of his logic everything I knew seemed to wobble. He was right, of course. I’d never dream of treating another countryman the way I treated a Heben.
So, for perhaps the first time in my life I ignored what my country had taught me since the time I could walk. I did my best to put aside the differences I had with the man in front of me. He wasn’t a danger to me.
“You don’t need to leave. No one else lives here so you can have that bed again tonight.” Then I walked up the stairs, leaving the conversation behind. He’d caught me out, found a possibility of the slightest doubt and took full advantage. I’d be stronger next time. Yes, he was right. no one deserved to be treated certain ways, I knew that. But the Hebens were a whole different scenario. We were reacting to a proper threat. Right?
I’d completely meant to kick him out but he’d talked me round, my thoughts of using him for information had quickly fallen to pieces. The stabbing feeling of guilt was being replaced by a swirling confusion I neither liked nor understood,
Well, I wouldn’t help him. I’d decided. But I wouldn’t harm him either. And perhaps I shouldn’t harm any others. I thought of the Heben I pushed to the ground and the amount of people waiting to jump on the violence. They had every right to be scared of us.
Two days later and everyone is still talking about the attack. No arrests were made but the atmosphere was getting worse. People stood at my stall talking to me for ages about what happened. Plenty of them hadn’t been there and wanted to know from someone who’d seen all the Second Quarterers come in. They stayed so long they felt as if they should buy some bread, so all in all I was doing pretty well out of recent events. For the most part I think my customers wanted to know what the wealthy were like, they wanted to know what made them so different from us, why were they wealthy while we were suffering in poverty. Someone even went so far as to so they weren’t rich any longer. They’d soon be sent down here to join us. With the bank gone they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills or the taxes and many a person would have to claim bankruptcy. There was no safety net here, if something went wrong then it went horribly wrong.
“Can you believe the Regent hasn’t done anything, though,” one of my regular customers said. She’d been buying bread from me for years and I’d never quite managed to learn her name. “Ain’t it bad.”
“Don’t worry too much,” the stall master next to me added to the mix, “the Regent is a snake. He’ll strike but only when the time is right and he has his prey cornered. May the fire protect him.”
“What’s he gonna do though? Arrest every Heben,” I shook my head and added, “if he does that then the Continent will be knocking on our door before blasting it apart.”
The both of them grumbled but didn’t argue. Five minutes later the woman moved on having bought twice the amount of bread she’d usually buy. Someone else shuffled over and we’d end up having a similar talk to the one I’d just been in.
Every time I said something bad about Hebens I felt like I was being over the top, but no one seemed to think anything was unusual. Elswick was still staying at mine and going stir crazy from being cooped up. I was going crazy from his company. He’d taken to trying to correct the way I spoke, I ended up making a point of it just to annoy him. In the end he’d start telling me stories about the Continent just to make sure I didn’t speak. I always zoned out, uninterested in hearing about the monsters next door, but some things always managed to break through my barrier of disinterest.
For example, there were ten types of magic that could be used but no one could use all of them. You learnt the magic you were born into. But that didn’t mean each race was isolated from one another. When the Continent was formed they decided to create schools where children from different magical backgrounds could learn together and they were taught to respect each other’s abilities.
Of course, that didn’t mean they respected our lack of ability, I doubt they taught that in their schools.
At one point he also started waffling on about his home in Ewel. Apparently that’s a small country in the shadow of the mountains surrounded by forest and a stunning view of the sea if you were brave enough to climb to the top of a tree.
Ewel had clans of Hebens, whose innate ability was extended life. Their magic was passive, they couldn’t use it but it was there. It kept them young for years and years. As a result their education was much more intensive and schooling with other races was just a section of their training. They were taught all manner of things and were prized for their wisdom above all else.
Their society was made up of clans and each clan had a family that led them. I was surprised to learn no one was born with the right to lead, it always had to be earned. Whoever contributed most to their society was elevated to leadership and every five decades the people were given a chance to pick someone new. The last he knew the same family had successfully been chosen for three terms in a row, the most of any clan.
On a broader level there was a council. The leaders of each clan would meet and lengthy discussions were held about the best interests of the Heben race. While this council did not have an overall leader they did have to start electing a representative to talk with the other leaders of the Continent. Elswick didn’t know who that was anymore.