Now there was no one potentially about to break in he took the notes out again and carried on doing whatever it was he was doing before. I sighed, feeling unwelcome in my own home. He’d made it clear there wasn’t any sort of chance of me finding out what he was writing so I was obviously intruding. But it’s not like there was anywhere to go, my home offered very little space and I didn’t want to head up to my room unless I was going to bed for the night. There was still light in the sky and I was always consumed with the childish dislike of going to bed when the sun was still out.

Without any other option I grabbed the only other chair in the kitchen and sat across from the strange man who’d invaded my home.  The scribbling of the quill was halting, the writing slowed and then quickened erratically. Now, as someone who spent her entire days on a market stall and never getting a proper education, I wasn’t often around people who write. Sure, I found reading difficult, it’s not something I’d ever do to pass the time (unless the words were on a government poster)and it transferred over to writing. I wasn’t skilled at either. I assumed it was the same for Warren. But to hear Elswick’s quill faltering told me he was distracted by something. Its scratching was confident before the taxman made an appearance, barely pausing over these foreign symbols.

It grew slower and slower until he finally gave it up as a lost cause. A shame really because I was taking my entertainment from seeing how long it would take for him to give up entirely. He dropped the quill on top of his paper, ignoring a couple of ink blots making an appearance when it landed. Two cracks, one after another, as he stretched out of his stooped position.

I eyed him but he avoided my gaze, a bit too readily, so I guessed he was going to make some sort personal observation.

“You live alone? Here we go.

“It’s taken you a week and the taxman to realise?”

“Well, no. But I never really considered it before,” he shrugged, “Greystone isn’t the friendliest of places, you don’t often hear of young women living by themselves. It usually encourages a lot of unwanted attention.”

“There are ways of stopping that kind of attention.”

He raised an eyebrow. I had a feeling he was questioning if I’d actually used one of those ways rather than wondering what they were.

“How long?”

“What was that?”

“How long have you lived alone?”

“A fair few years, you kind of just forget about it in the end.”

“Forget about it or get used to it?” When I didn’t answer he cut his losses and went to the bigger question. “How long is a fair few years?”

“Hmmm, about six years. I think. I was definitely old enough to be thrown out to the world by myself,” it’s not a story I like telling.

“What happened? Where are your parents?”

“Dead. The Fever got them and never even gave them the chance,” it was my turn to look at anywhere but the person in front of me. I wasn’t about to open up, he had no right to be asking. He opened his mouth to say something else but I got there first.

“Look, you’ve made it pretty clear I don’t have anything to do with whatever you’re doing. Against my better judgment I’ve let you stay here even though me and you believe in different things. I believe in this government, it’s looked after me and kept me safe from whatever’s out there,” I threw my arm wide, it wasn’t until then I realised just how pissed off I was. “You don’t get to freeze me out one moment then ask these personal questions another.

“I don’t even know what I was thinking letting you stay here, I dunno how you talked me round. But if those scribbles are plans against my country then get the hell out of my home.”

Elswick raised an eyebrow and leaned back in his chair. Pushing the papers away he made a point of distancing himself from his previous activity.

“What’s out there,” he began, “is my people. Is my home.”His voice was so quiet it was almost too difficult to hear him. With arms folded and eyes down he looked like a child in trouble, but that voice suggested something else. “No matter what your country says we’re not a threat to you. But you need to open your eyes, you need to see the world for what it is, your country for what it is.

“On some level you must be doubting what you’ve been told otherwise I wouldn’t be here. If you truly trusted and believed in your government I’d be in the bowels of the Regent’s mansion. But you let me stay, even convinced me and that’s not anything I did. That’s down to you entirely. Look at where you’re living, count the money you have coming in each day and then work out how much stays in your pocket and how much goes in theirs. Then ask yourself, how exactly is Solo looking after you? I bet if it was truly looking after you your parents would still be alive.”

Now he’d stepped over the mark. He was obviously feeling too comfortable if he thought it was ok to bring them up again. I so badly wanted to push him back, maybe even hit him, but I’d made a promise to myself not to repeat what happened with the other Heben. For all that’s going wrong with the country, shoving random people to the floor isn’t going to help.

“Don’t even try to lecture me, not after I’ve already told you things like my parents aren’t any of your business,” my voice was steady, a fact I was proud of.

“I’m just saying,” he sighed, “spend some time really thinking about it. List all of your protestations against my kind and similar and try and find the reason you think that.  Then have a look at all the reasons you love your country and do exactly the same thing. Just think.”

“You don’t need to treat me like I’m stupid,” I snapped, spinning around to face him again, “I know what I think and I know why I think it.

“At the moment I think you should go.”

“The Regent is coming down to the Quadrant tomorrow, I’ll be gone by then,” he slumped his shoulders and didn’t even bother trying to bring us back round to the conversation, “but I have nowhere else to go. Please let me stay for one more night.”

Chapter six

I went to bed fuming, it was a mixture of having my past dredged up and giving into Elswick’s request. Sometimes I wished I had more of a backbone.

It took ages to get to sleep. I regretted each second that ticked by, knowing it would have added valuable rest before my early start the next day. So many thoughts were flying through my head it was impossible to settle down, even for a moment. Most of them were about my parents, they crept up on me just as I was about to doze off.

Several years ago there was a disease, it spread through the Fourth Quadrant so quickly. There was nothing to stop it and the poverty of the area helped it on. A lot of our neighbours came down with it, their children suffered the worst. It was a nasty, vicious thing that infected you in the morning and had you coughing up blood in the evening. Very few people recovered fully and a lot died. High temperatures crashed into enthusiastic shivers making it impossible to give comfort to the infected as they suffered incredible pain.

The neighbour’s children recovered but only partially. Something went wrong and with the healing and one couldn’t speak anymore while the other lost the ability to see. Then my mother got it. She coughed once in the morning, the only possible sign of what was about to happen. Dad, always worried about health, kept her away from the store and roped me into helping instead. Even if she just had a cold he didn’t want to infect his customers. Just after noon a messenger boy came running into the bakery as I was helping a customer choose a selection.

He called for my father. ‘Mr Quin,’ he yelled. ‘Mr Quin.’

When he came bustling into the front of the store I think he knew. I saw a fire dying in his eyes and it was when he started to melt before my eyes. Mum didn’t have the best health and the both of us were secretly scared that if she caught this horrid illness she wouldn’t recover. By the time we got home she was already confined to her bed and racked with pain. Her covers were stained with blood and it was one of the worst sights I’d ever seen.

It was made worse knowing that if we had money we’d easily be able to cure it. The healthcare here wasn’t a charity. If you didn’t have the money for the treatment then you’re left to die. A healer came along and told us she had the Fever, said the speed she was consumed by it meant she likely wouldn’t recover.

All night she coughed and hacked, wrapped in her own sweat. Me and dad stayed with her the entire night , hearing the pain she was in and wishing we could do something. But the healer straight out refused to do anything. ‘The ingredients are expensive, there’s nothin’ I can do without payment.’

By the time the sun was fully risen mum was gone. She gradually quietened, energy sapped from her wrecked body. She lay on her side so she wouldn’t choke on the blood she was coughing up. She held her hand out to dad and he took it, finally having a chance to give her some sort of comfort. Then, with one last sigh, she went.

Just over twenty-four hours later and she was taken from us. Condolences came through but most people were distracted; no one knew how the disease spread and they didn’t want to hang around us too long in case they got it. Our bakery was avoided, it went from breaking even to earning nothing at all. Things carried on like this and it became habit to stay away from our store. a year went by, then two and the fever was dying out slowly. Cases were rarer and there was light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

Then dad started coughing. I heard him trying to muffle it but then spluttering when it became too much. I remember standing in the doorway to my room, then the guest room on the ground floor, and watching as he pulled his hand away from his mouth to find it covered in blood.

The whole cycle started again. But it took longer because he was much stronger. The same healer came and diagnosed him and again refused to treat him. a week later and he passed away in the same bed mum had. Again, I stayed with him and watched as he body gave up. He held out his hand to me and, remembering what he did two years ago, I took it and offered what comfort I could.

I often wondered if it was going to come back and strike me down. But it disappeared. Apparently the healers managed to ward it off with the their concoctions and the disease, finding it more difficult to jump from person to person, died out in its victims. Someone blamed the Hebens, said the illness came when more of them did but that was one opinion I didn’t subscribe to; there were still a whole bunch of Hebens around and no one else was dying from it.

But Elswick did make me wonder. Could it have been avoided? Would the hundreds of people who died still be alive if we were part of the Continent?