“He’s younger than reckoned he would be,” he whispered to Warren, he grunted in agreement and Elswick turned to look at me, something strange flitted across his face as he considered my words. I shot him a questioning look but he ignored me, trying to shrink away.

“It is a trying time for this great city,” he began, a soft voice that sounded dangerous, “a trying time for our great country.” People nodded slowly, already taken in and he hadn’t even said anything. I was usually the type to be nodding along with them, instead I was thinking ‘great’ was a strong word.

“Last week innocent lives were taken. Men, women and children were killed because protesters wanted make a statement. All they were doing was visiting the bank,” he paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. “For years we’ve suffered attacks against our culture, attacks against our way of life  and attacks against our wish to remain private. Isn’t that what we all want? To be able to live our lives.”

Some people murmured a hushed ‘yeah’, but he heard it and he smiled. I noticed how he included himself like he was a normal person, as if he had a normal life to go and live. I doubt he even knew where this bank was. doubt he would’ve been able to find his way to the heartsquare without his guards there to guide him.

Bloody hell Asha, when did you get so bitter?

“We opened our arms to the outside world and they’ve held us to ransom ever since. We’ve been forced to take in their people, forced to suffer these attacks silently otherwise they’d take away the resources we need. Our land has never been rich in natural resource and they would stoop so low as to deny us what we need for basic survival. Our people are suffering and dying while they’re rolling around in the money they make from us.

“Solo will be pushed around no longer. Solo is strong and Solo is better than the entire combined Continent. They send terrorists to us and expect us to accept it, they take our money and think there will be no resentment. Their magic is not welcome here so neither is their politics.

“Those unnaturals will pay for ever thinking they could walk over us.”

No one kept quite now. The crowd cheered, there were pockets here and there that refused to acknowledge his statement. They stared up at the Regent with crossed arms and hardened eyes. He noted every single one of them with his eyes, a glint behind them. Elswick was still trying to go by unnoticed, getting smaller and smaller the more animated the crowd grew. The wealthy lot were rowdier than the poor.

“I don’t like this,” he said. Me neither, I heard a few snatches and it sounded like we were preparing for a fight. At the very least most of the crowd were preparing for a fight. I found myself thinking it was a good thing there weren’t any other Hebens about.

Warren stood calmly next to me, he didn’t get caught up in the passion around us but kept looking forward. We were the only people in our area staying quiet, I’d hoped we couldn’t be seen, hidden as we were by the stall, but those cold eyes found us. Seized by the sudden image of us being dragged somewhere and soundly beaten for not reacting right, I forced a smile.

I would never normally think the guards would do such a thing and, to be honest, the ones posted round here wouldn’t. They were trudging through life as much as the rest of us. Yet, those ones up there, posted behind the Regent, with eagle eyes and fearsome looking weapons could easily do that.

“It is with this in mind,” he continued, raising his hands to quiet the people before him, “that I say the Hebens will pay for the actions of their country. They will be punished for tainting the minds of our people, for convincing them that rebelling against their loving government is the answer to our problems.

“Solo is a forgiving country. I am a forgiving Regent. But it has run out. We’ve been lenient with them, overlooked their lack of papers. But if they want to live in our country then they will jump through our hoops. They will abide by our rules, our laws and any one of them caught doing otherwise will be held accountable. Any Heben without papers will be punished, any Heben unable to explain their presence will be punished, any Heben begging on the streets of Greystone, or anywhere else in Solo, will be punished.”

He said the last three words as if there was a full stop after each. A couple of women nearby were hanging onto his every word, nodding their heads at the end of each one. Every syllable he spoke drove the feeling home. The uneasiness turning to queasiness. What he was saying didn’t make sense, not if you thought about the restrictions already held against the Hebens.

“If we find a Heben without papers they will be arrested, if any are caught with known terrorists they will be executed. A fine for breaking curfew was too lenient, any Heben found outside once the sun has set will be imprisoned indefinitely. Heben beggars will be thrown out. I give permission for employers to increase their punishment if a Heben employee causes trouble. This applies not just to Greystone but to all of Solo. Anomalies are also subject to these new policies.

“They too have been spotted helping the foreigners and must be held accountable. If we won’t stand for being attacked from the outside then we definitely won’t stand for attacks from the inside. They’re like diseases, trying to make us weak and bring us to our knees, but it’s time to flush them from our system.

“All of this, all of what I have said is effective immediately. I expect my guards to hold up the punishments and I expect the general public to follow suit. Report anything, and anyone, suspicious. If you suspect someone it is your duty to make the authorities aware. Solo will be strong again but it can’t be without your help. It’s time to do your duty as citizens of Solo.

“Together we will stop this scourge.”

He finished to a huge round of cheering. Slowly, as he got more impassioned those who disagreed with him filtered to the back, eager to escape. Elswick was wise enough not to go with them, they were all drawing attention to themselves, which he couldn’t afford.

“Excuse me,” an elderly man called, “I’d like to be served please.”

The Regent had quietly made his way down from the hearthfire and exited the square, making his way back to his mansion.  Without him, or even the anticipation of him turning up, people were quickly making their own way out. A queue had started at our stall and apparently both Warren and I hadn’t even noticed. He was usually so observant.

That distraction was all it took for me to lose sight of Elswick. He slipped into a crowd of people and disappeared. I doubted I’d see him again. The speech wasn’t good news for his kind and he’d already made it clear he was going. Plus, I didn’t know what he’d done before. He might be part of the terror group, one of these people causing damage and taking lives. If he was then the guards would arrest me as well, whether or not I was part of it. Maybe it was a good thing he was gone.

“Hey, young lady,” this time it was a middle-aged woman, “if you want my money you’d better start doing your job.”

Just for her I tripled the price again.

 

Chapter seven

Oh it was a weird old day.

Even though I started it absolutely exhausted the tiredness evaporated on the walk back to Warren’s. For the second time in our history we’d completely sold out and there was no point in baking any more, by the time it was ready there’d only be minutes of trading time left. We started early so may as well finish early.

The people only got ruder and I was glad when the invaders left my Quadrant and headed back to theirs. For all that though, our pockets were weighed down like they’d never had before. As happy as that should have made me, it just didn’t. The speech replayed in my mind, his words echoing and jumbling together. Even though I understood it when he was speaking I was getting confused by it now.

That’s why I started talking through it with Warren. Bless him, he put up with a lot having me in his life, he never complained and let me carry on. Always patient, always caring. At the same time, the thought of heading back to an empty house was not appealing. Warren’s was welcoming and warm and so much more comfortable than mine. I dreaded going back and sitting at the kitchen table and looking across at the chair he sat in.

I said earlier I didn’t realise how lonely I was until he waltzed into my life, right now I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to go back to that. I might disagree with him about everything but he made sure I knew what I was missing out on. I banned him from going upstairs, personal boundaries had to be set, so he never knew about the books I kept hidden in my room. They were well worn and dog-eared from all the times I’ve read them. They were passed down from my parents, each of them non-fiction and detailing so many different things. One was all about Solo, the geography and all the natural wonders scattered throughout. Or there was a bestiary on all the creature found in Solo, a matching one about plants always accompanied it. I didn’t have an education, not in the usual sense. Everything I was taught came from those books, I picked everything else up along the way. My pint being, he had no reason to ever suspect I liked knowledge, I liked learning and discovering things, but he seemed to know. He understood I had a thirst for it so he drip-fed me information about places outside of Solo, cultures other than my own. He tried to open a mind I’d barely even cracked ajar.

How was it possible for him to know me so well in the short amount of time we’d been forced together? I still wasn’t even sure if I liked him.

“So, I still don’t really see the point of him coming down and giving that speech, right,” I said as soon as Warren shut the door behind him, “I mean he’s pretty much repeating a lot of stuff already in place, you know.”

He gave me a hard look, as if I was being stupid. So I kept on thinking out loud.

“Well, I guess the papers thing is knew. But how can he expect that to work? No Heben has papers, he’s forbidden anyone to give them any ’cause then that makes them equal with us. And there’s the whole thing about giving employers permission to exact stricter punishment. He’s already passed a law saying they can do whatever they want within the law, right. Is he now saying they can go further?”

Warren shrugged, maybe he was still thinking it through. To be fair I probably wasn’t helping with his thought process. I did tend to babble when I was in this sort of mood.

“So what, they can kill them now? Is that what he means. How come he mentioned anomalies, I thought all of them were rounded up at birth and banished from cities and towns. It sounds like he’s saying there are some still around, right here in Greystone.”

If you’re not from Solo anomalies are something that need explaining. No doubt you’ve figured out we’re very proud of being a magic free country, it gives us a clear identity from our neighbours and that’s something we’ve always enjoyed. But sometimes magic manages to creep into the country and every now and then a child is born who can use magic. Whenever they appear the Regent sends his guards out and makes sure they’re taken from wherever they live and are banished to a wasteland where nothing can survive. Having active magic in our land was a threat we couldn’t have. Said our government. Fifteen years ago the Regent claimed we were anomaly free. Now it sounded like he was backtracking.

“And going back to the papers bit, he’s properly stitched them up. It was illegal for them to have any because it gives them the same status as us, but it’s illegal to not have them now. None of it makes any sense,” I sighed, finally running out of questions to answer myself. Nothing was any clearer, politics always muddied things. At least Elswick understood it all, he seemed to have a natural talent for unravelling what people mean from what they actually say. Not surprising really, it’s the experience you get from living a long life. What was that like? Moving slowly through a world that only got faster.

“I just don’t get why he came down,” I said again, shaking the thoughts of Elswick away. “I bet he’s gonna stop the vote now.”

“No,” Warren grunted, “he can’t stop it, he’s already agreed with the Continent. It has to go ahead.”

“Then he’s doing his best to get us to vote no. He’s making stuff up.”

“Yep.”

“And everyone else is believing it. They can’t see it’s a lie.”

He nodded, not seeing the point in repeating the word he’d just said.

“So the papers. He’s trying to catch them out.”

“It looks like it. He’s not going to clarify what the Hebens need, so if they try to get papers they’ll be arrested for breaking the law, but if they’re searched and they don’t have any the same thing will happen,” he sounded almost upset as he flopped into his chair.

“How is that fair?”

He just looked at me. I saw nothing in his eyes, it struck me that for the first time they were guarded, I remembered what I was thinking earlier about how there were hardly any honest people in Greystone. Until I saw that barrier come up I never even thought Warren was one of the open few. For a couple of moments I thought we were on the same page, I thought he was having the same doubts as me. His reaction said different. He stiffened and stopped talking altogether, still looking at me with a guarded expression I didn’t like. I’d overstepped and shown my cards.

The silence between us grew steadily more uncomfortable, aware that I was being judged I didn’t dare blink, I didn’t even want to move in case that showed some sort of weakness. Eventually he was the first one to move. He shifted his head to the left, slightly, and blinked. Spell broken I jumped out of my chair and mumbled some sort of excuse about not being able to stay late. However successful the day was, we still had work tomorrow.

Once again I found myself walking up his street as the sky was darkening. There was a palpable tension, everyone was on their guard, even the beggars. Someone went running past. A Heben trying to make it home before the sun disappeared completely from the sky. If a guard was feeling particularly nasty they could stop and request their papers, keeping them busy until the sun was gone and then arresting them for breaking curfew. Thankfully our guards weren’t the smartest bunch; it would probably be a few days before they realised the potential of that move.

I crashed into bed, the day finally catching up with me. Although my sleep was broken and filled with dreams of people in a beautiful land where the trees were green and the grass was thick and lively. There were people there with Elswick’s eyes and, for some reason, Warren was there too. He was smiling and spread his arms out beneath the sun, enjoying its rays.

I’d never seen anywhere like this, the sky so clear, the area so clean and the air so fresh. Warren reached out and grabbed my hand and we found ourselves running through a forest. There were animals I’d never seen before, my dad’s book didn’t cover them. Was I outside of Solo, beyond the mountains?

Ahead was a voice I didn’t think I’d hear again. Elswick was shouting something, at first I thought he was shouting at us. But them someone else appeared, as if they were stepping out of fog. They struck him across the cheek and he tumbled to the ground. It was the Regent.

“You never used to be this young,” Elswick echoed a sentiment he once voiced in my kitchen. He spat blood on the ground and rose to his feet, not fazed by the tall man in front of him with cold eyes.

I tried to slow down but Warren wasn’t having any of it, he started dragging me towards the two figures ahead of us. I struggled, afraid of him, afraid of what was going to happen. My foot snagged on a root and I heard a crack, which I pretty sure didn’t come from the tree. No pain though, a reminder that it was a dream.

He threw me so I was sprawled on the grass next to Elswick, he bent down, looking concerned. Amethyst eyes shining.

“You’ve done well, Warren,” the Regent said.

The baker ducked his head in thanks.

“These people are trying to interrupt our peace,” the Regent’s voice echoed and grew more distant. Some of it was drowned out by a banging. “We have no choice but to execute them.”

Elswick started protesting and trying to save me. I probably should have done the same but the banging was too distracting. It sounded like something hitting wood. I looked back, nothing was hitting the trees. what was it.

“Asha,” I spun my head back to them and they were both looking at me, but it didn’t look like any of them had said my name.

“Do you not care about death?” The Regent asked, baffled by the lack of interest to the announcement of my death.

“Not in a dream, no.”

“Asha.”

Much louder, much closer. The banging stopped but I could feel someone else nearby. Someone who wasn’t here in the forest. Weird though, it sounded like Elswick but he wasn’t talking.

“Asha.”

I sat bolt upright, almost head butting the person standing over my bed. It was too dark to see anything properly but there was only one person I knew who would never see the issue with breaking into someone’s house to creep into their bedroom while they slept.

“Elswick,” I scrabbled to light a candle with a match, “what the hell!”

It wasn’t until there was light that I remembered I was in my nightclothes. Apparently that hadn’t occurred to him and he looked away, blushing.

“Are you gonna explain or do I have to guess?”

“I need your help,” he was looking at the ceiling. I took petty on him and used my scraggily old quilt to hide the offending clothes. I muttered something like ‘what the hell do you expect’ but it went largely ignored.

“And how am I supposed to help?”

“You heard what the Regent said earlier. I’m stuck, we all are,” he took a breath. “I didn’t want to come here. It sounds like they’re going to claim anyone who speaks to a Heben outside of an employer and employee relationship is working against Solo. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and shifted in my bed, realising the leg I’d broken in my dream was feeling numb.

“I don’t understand. What’s that to do with me helping you?”

“I need to find someone. I thought I could do it alone but the trail’s gone cold. I haven’t contacted him in years and never found out what he looked like. Things were left in a bad state and I don’t know whether he’s ignoring me or if he’s genuinely not getting my messages.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“A contact, you don’t need to know his name.”

“Then how the hell do you expect me to help you find him?”

“Wow, you’re cranky in the middle of the night.”

“No. I’m cranky when I’m woken, in the middle of the night, by someone who’s broken into my flat and invaded my bedroom,” I corrected.

“Do you know anyone, can you think of anyone, who might be involved with the rebellion?”

“What! Of course I don’t, until pretty recently I hated every single one of them. How in Solo do you expect me to know one of them?”

“Life is strange like that sometimes.”

“You’re strange like that sometimes.”

“I can’t argue with that,” he shrugged, as was his habit when a conversation strayed from where he wanted it to go but didn’t know how to get it back on track.

“What happened to you, Elswick?”

“I’ve spent the day dodging guards and trying to get out of the city. But the one person I need to talk to isn’t answering.”

“Are you part of it? Are you part of the rebellion? Did you attack those people?”

“No,” he saw my look and repeated himself more forcefully. “No, I didn’t. I used to be part of it but I left, years ago. Still, I know things they need to know and I’m almost certain they don’t have the information. If you don’t know anyone do you know someone who might? Is there someone you trust enough to ask?”

One name came to mind.

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