“Maybe you should go home.”
I shook my head, probably harder than I needed to, like hell was I going to go away when the Regent was coming, whatever was going on in my head.
“I’m fine,” I said, “anyway, you’ve never served customers before. You’re more likely to scare them off than sell them something.” That came out sharper than I meant and Warren went back to not talking.
People started filing past, guards mixed with the general public but standing out in their black uniforms. Even though this was our home anyone from the Third and Fourth Quadrants were herded to the back so the wealthy had a better view. Everyone was looking towards the hearthfire, the eternal flame still burning brightly to ward off evil and represent the strength of the city. Just watching it energetically leap about made me feel better, it looked like it had the same affect on others in the square. As long as it stayed lit Greystone was going strong and, since it was the first settlement to be made in the country, it meant Solo was as well. If it ever started dying, if it ever went out, there’d be panic like we’ve never seen.
It’d happened in other towns, not for a while but we were all brought up on the horror stories. Towns turned against their authorities believing the land was cursed, they killed their mayors asking for forgiveness; convinced it was the leader’s fault the flame abandoned them. It’s presence gave them life and it’s absence gave them death. The towns, villages and the occasional city were destroyed and nothing was ever built in their place.
To see our flame still burning aggressively after a thousand years gave you nothing but confidence. It was the only constant in this city; it was here long before I was born and will still be here long after I die.
It was still a few hours before noon but some people had obviously been waiting all night to get into the square, they came searching for food and some of them found us still unpacking. We weren’t the only providers of food, but there was something comforting about a loaf of bread in the morning, especially when it still had some warmth form the oven. They called out to us asking for prices but a guard came a long and told them trading hadn’t opened yet. He was completely out of his league, these were people used to getting what they wanted and to them it didn’t matter if the law forbid trading from opening before a certain time. We did our best to ignore their conversation while we continued to ready the stall, although I couldn’t help but notice when he went to speak to a gaggle of other guards, I think one of them was his superior.
After a few minutes he came back over but ignored the customers and went straight to us. He already looked stressed and the day had only just started.
“Look, I know you’re not supposed to start selling anything yet, but we’ve been told to keep this lot happy,” he jerked a thumb behind him at the growing crowd, keeping his voice low so only we could hear. “I’ve ‘ad a word with my captain and he’s said it’s alright for all the stall masters to start selling what they ‘ave to sell, but thinks you guys should up your price for the inconvenience of it.”
“Did your captain have a suggestion?” I asked, Warren gave me an odd look as if he’d never dream of ripping off our customers.
“I thought you might double it, but ‘e says triple,” he shrugged, “they can afford it I guess. Must be nice, not ‘aving to worry about money.”
I agreed with him and he turned towards the other stalls and passed them the same message. None of them looked as worried as Warren did.
“What d’you think?” Might as well give him a choice. He stayed silent for so long I really thought he wasn’t going to answer, but it’s not something he could just shrug away.
“I reckon we need a boost to our shop fund,” he said matter-of-factly.
So we started serving the customers, charging them triple the price we usually would and they didn’t even flinch. We could probably keep on rising the price and it’d be a long while before they complained. Still, it was more money than we ever earned for our wares and we weren’t about to start moaning. Thankfully the crowd didn’t grow much bigger so we would have enough for the prime time after the speech.
The noise level grew and grew, so did the number of guards present. Warren spent most of his time sitting on our stack of crates, his eyes scanning the crowd nervously. His short-sleeved shirt showing off most of the scars he’d earned over the years in the line of duty. Who knew baking could be so dangerous.
Someone came up to us, their face covered by a hood and their cloak billowed dramatically behind them. Their stride had purpose and I felt it was more than the desire to buy some bread. The feeling form earlier, the one that never left, surged and left me feeling sick.
“Asha,” the figure whispered when he reached the stall, I don’t think Warren heard. To be honest I wish I hadn’t, but I did and I recognised the voice.
“And how can I help you sir?” I greeted him, probably a bit too loudly as I tried to pretend I didn’t know him.
He lifted up a loaf of bread, the smallest and definitely the most undesirable looking one. It was one of mine and I managed to burn it, just another symbol of the morning I’d had.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I whispered fiercely. In a louder voice I told him the price.
“I wish I knew,” Eslwick answered while pretending to make a fuss of the price. “I’m going. You don’t have to worry about me being around, I made things too dangerous for you anyway.”
“Like now? You’re taking a bloody big risk.”
“So are you, just talking to me,” he sighed and put the bread back down. The was gust of wind that tried to tug his hood down. My heart jumped into my throat and skipped a beat entirely. I looked over at Warren but he wasn’t looking at us. “I just want you to keep on thinking, to keep questioning. I can’t tell you how important it is.”
I thought about everything I’d been thinking this morning. The questions coming to mind and the realisation the Regent lied, even if it was something small. Then I looked into Elswick’s eyes, properly for the first time since I met him. They didn’t creep me out as much, yeah his face still looked too young for such old eyes but they were honest. And now that I thought about it, that wasn’t something you often got in Greystone. Most people’s eyes were guarded, always hiding something. But the Heben in front of me, the Heben risking his life entering a crowd of people who’d quite happily beat him bloody, after a major terrorist attack that made a lot of people hate his kind even more, just to make sure I kept my mind open.
Even when he hid stuff he was honest about it, with his notes he didn’t try to brush me off. Instead, he acknowledged exactly what it was and told me why he wasn’t sharing it with me. I had to respect that. He wanted me to see the truth and in return he wanted me to be truthful. I guess that’s what his questions were about.
“Ok,” I said, forgetting to keep it at a whisper and I think I felt Warren’s eyes land on my back. “You’ve got to go, he’ll be here soon.”
“Just say it, say that you promise,” his hands jerked towards me as if he was going to grab mine, but a lifetime of being told he wasn’t equal to any of us kept him in check, “I’ll go then.”
“I promise,” I said desperately. “Now get -“
We were interrupted by a buzz zig-zagging around the square. People getting excitable and the sound of marching boots. Eight guards entered the square, right behind the hearthfire, in amongst them was a tall figure, dressed all in black. Even from here I could the material was quality and would have cost more than I made in six months.
“Damn,” Elswick breathed, for the first time I heard panic in his voice.
“Go,” I whispered back as I leaned forward to try and get a better view of the man we’d all come to see.
“It’s too late, there are guards everywhere.”
I looked around and he was right. At every possible exit from the square there were guards blocking it; only letting people in but not letting them out. Attending the speech was a legal obligation. Even try to leave and you’d hear about it later.
Was it like this in other countries? Or could people decide if they wanted to go to something like this. That was a freedom I couldn’t imagine. The regent might not have addressed us directly before but he had advisors who usually passed messages along. While they never had the authority to take over the hearthsquare people were still obliged to attend. If you didn’t there had better be a damn good excuse.
There was no way Elswick was going to get out. It was too late. And Warren was still hanging about, he’d moved from his uncomfortable throne of crates to come and stand by me. I possibly imagined it, but it looked like he was trying to get a glimpse under Elswick’s hood. I wished he would go and join the crowd, I couldn’t offer Elswick a hiding place behind my stall while he was here.
The crowd, so loud just seconds ago, fell silent. Such was the power of the man now standing before us all in front of the fire. He had blonde hair, short but much brighter than mine. Mine was a dirty blonde, I guess we matched our environments. He looked over us all with cold, sharp eyes.
The sun was beating down but I shivered. He was everything I thought he’d be except for one, rather big thing, there was nothing about him that suggested friendliness, or kindness. Everything about him said he didn’t give a damn about the people. He wore mourning clothes but it was still an opportunity to show off his wealth. The guards around him looked at the citizens like we might look at the Hebens, but no one noticed, no one even gave them a second glance. They had eyes only for the Regent.