Elswick wanted to head off right away, eager to share his information. Although I couldn’t imagine what he knew. What did he get up to when I wasn’t around.
“Come on Asha, we can’t wait,” he pleaded.
“Well, we have to,” I blew out the candle and collapsed back into my pillows, “if they catch you out there you’ll be thrown straight in jail. And me along with you.”
“No. We’ll wait until the morning,” for the first time I felt like the most grown up one out of the two. I swore he had to keep himself from stamping his foot.
“Fine,” he exhaled, brining himself back into check. He slipped out of my room and back down the stairs.
Thankfully the rest of my sleep was uninterrupted, no dream or real-life Hebens in sight. Unfortunately it went by quickly, I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew there was sunlight sneaking through the window and a creak of footsteps on the stairs.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered. “If you’re about to burst through my door there ain’t any point. I’m up.” They paused for a beat, then went back the way they came.
He was sat in his chair glowering darkly at the stairs. I’d never seen a man so desperate to leave. I grabbed my coat and slipped my shoes on, he jumped up like a dog about to go for a walk. He threw his hood back up and rushed out the door, by the time I locked it behind me he was halfway down the road.
A few glances were shot in his direction but no one really paid him much mind. They figured he was a traveller form another part of the country, at least I hoped they did. I tried to catch up with him without making it obvious.
“Hurry up,” he said when I met him at the corner, “we’ve wasted enough time.”
He was in such a rush he didn’t pay any attention to what was around him, it struck me as being out of character but who was I to judge.
“Where does this Warren live?”
Ah Warren. Elswick asked me if there was anyone I trusted and Warren’s was the only name that came to mind. There wasn’t anyone else. I only saw him for work but he was the only person in my life I could truly trust. I’m not really sure I knew him all that well, his past was a mystery, but something told me this was ok. He was someone to trust. Although, I did hesitate. When I’d mentioned the Regent yesterday, talking through his speech, I wasn’t completely sure we came from the same place. What if I was wrong?
“Only a couple of streets away,” I mumbled. “Hey, Elswick. Just because I said we can trust him doesn’t mean we can. I think it’s pretty clear I’m not the best judge of character.”
“Listen to you, are you admitting you’re wrong about your country?”
“I’m admitting the possibility I’m wrong about some of it. Just because one person’s bad, or made bad decisions, doesn’t mean we all are. Most of the things he does we don’t get a choice in. You shouldn’t judge an entire country because of one person. And anyway, maybe he’s tried to make the right choices but there are other things going on we don’t know about.”
“Words of wisdom I never expected to hear from you,” he smiled, “but I’m glad I did. If Warren turns out not to be who you thought, well, we’ll think about that when we get to it.”
Halfway there we ran into an obstacle. Quite a big one dressed all in black and armed with one of the biggest swords I’d ever seen. Elswick walked straight into him and bounced right off, landing on the ground, his hood falling back. I was a few paces behind, not able to keep up with his pace. A few people had stopped to look at what the guard was going to do, I mingled with them not knowing what else to do.
“Heben,” the guard spat, “you need to be careful where you’re walking.” He reached down and grabbed Elswick by the scruff of his neck, lifting him clear off the ground. He struggled, but he couldn’t do much. He was woefully overpowered by the guard and no one was exactly going to jump to his defence. If there was anyone who sympathised they had to keep a low profile otherwise they’d be punished too.
“I apologise,” he tried to say with some dignity, but failing has his feet flailed in the air, “I’m in a rush. My master has asked for something and I must get it.”
“I don’t really care what your master wants, long-life. We have laws and even people like you need to live by them,” the guard growled.
“I didn’t realise accidentally walking into people was against the law. I’ll do my best not to do it again, but accidents do happen.”
The urge to bury my head in my hands was almost too much. He really needed to learn when to keep his mouth shut. As it was the guard laughed and threw him to the ground, he landed roughly on his back and scrabbled back to his feet.
“Give me your papers,” the guard demanded.
My breath caught, Elswick froze. He didn’t have any. If he didn’t show them anything he’d be thrown in jail, never to be seen again. A good chance the same would happen if he did show him something.
“Ummm, my papers…” Elswick stalled.
“Yeah, I’m sure you heard about the new policy. Orders of the Regent. Give ’em over.”
Elsiwck patted his robes down, making a show of looking for them while the guard held his hand out patiently, although the smirk said he wasn’t expecting anything to be put in his hand. He didn’t notice me looking him over but I noticed the way he stood. He shifted uncomfortably, favouring one leg. He did a good job of hiding it but it seemed really obvious to me. Elswick was just about running out of places to ‘look’ for his papers and as soon as he gave up the guard would pounce.
So, it was my turn to be out of character. I took a deep breath and pounced first. I circled to the side of the scene, hating that it brought me closer to the sword. Then I ran at him, a few gasps from the crowd gave me away but he didn’t seem to realise why until I was kicking him in the ankle. I was right though, there was something wrong with it and he stumbled back, almost falling to the floor, in agony.
I grabbed Elswick’s arm and ran. We didn’t dare head straight for Warren if he could help us there wasn’t any point putting him in danger too. Instead I used my memory to guide us through the alleys and any other short cuts that would get us away from the angry guard before he could catch up.
“What the hell did I just do.”
“Something brave,” he said breathless, “or something stupid. Depend show you look at it.”
“I’m more likely to be stupid than brave, so that sounds right.”
We did a half run half walk through a busy street. Plenty of other people were doing the same, going about their own business. We needed to double-back, so I made us turn down the next alley and carried on along it for a few minutes before finally heading back the way we came.
“What are you doing now?”
“The only safe place is Warren’s, we can’t just hang out on the streets all day and think no one’s gonna find us”
He nodded and looked back behind us, there wasn’t a sign of anyone coming after us. Thankfully we didn’t have to go round the front of Warren’s to get in. There was an alleyway that pretty much led us to his back door but it took us a good ten minute to get there. Every moment we spent out in the open was unbelievably tense, even though I did my best to guide us through the maze-like streets Elswick’s knowledge of the city came out as he nudged me every now and then down a road I wouldn’t have thought of.
When I saw the it was with a wave of relief. I let go of Elswick’s arm, having held onto it the entire time, and ran to it knockign quietly but furiously. It swung open a few second later and I almost fell into the house.
“Asha?” He looked puzzled as I got my balance.
“Please let us in,” I begged.
He was taken aback but stood aside to let us through but gave Elswick a long hard look. He’d shoved his back up while we were running, otherwise more guards would have joined in, but now he brought it down and Warren knew exactly what he was.
“What’s goin’ on? Who is this? Why’re you comin’ round the back?”
They were probably the most questions I’d ever heard him ask but I was too busy catching my breath to answer him. Elswick, obviously the fittest of the two of us, stood up straight and offered warren his hand.
“I’m Elswick and, as I’m sure you’ve spotted by now, I’m a Heben. Or a long-life, whatever you want to call me.”
Warren shook his hand. “You were at the stall yesterday.”
“I was. You’re an observant one,” he smiled. “I’m afraid I’ve led your business partner astray.”
“I’ll say, trading started half an hour ago, I have all this bread and no one to sell it.”
“Oh believe me, Warren,” I snapped, “that’s not even in my top ten list of worries right now.”
His mouth worked as if he was trying to say something but the words just weren’t coming. I helped myself to a chair and pressed my hand to a stitch in my side. What had I done? Elswick came over, as if he heard the question I’d asked myself.
“It looks like you’ve made your choice,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “Thank you.”
“I can’t of,” I shrugged his hand off but looked at the floor, feeling defeated. He flinched at my words but I wasn’t in the mood to be worrying about my grammar, “I still don’t believe half the things you’re saying.”
“No, but you believe the most important bit. You’ve done what I asked and you came to a decision. You saved my life when you could have,” he really put a lot of emphasis on the have, making a point, “run away. Left me and met me get taken away.”
I sighed. Kicking that guard in the ankle wasn’t something I could explain away. Sure, there was a chance I wouldn’t be recognised, but there were a lot of witnesses and one of them had to know who I was, or at least know someone who did.”
Warren shoved cups of water in front of us. “Either of you gonna explain what’s goin’ on, or do I need to call the guards?”
Elswick launched into the story as I caught my breath. To be honest it didn’t actually take that long to get it back, I was just still trying to understand what made me attack the guard. It didn’t matter if Elswick was in danger, I wouldn’t have done it for anyone. He was right, it was either a brave or a stupid thing to do. I was not brave. Can someone really change that much in a week?
No, of course not, not unless there were some really extreme circumstances . And, let’s be honest, none of the events over the past had happened to me. Well, not quite true. One of them did, me meeting the Heben and inviting him into my home. Has that changed me? Has he changed me?
I shook my head and then covered my face with my hands. They smelled of sweat. The day was barely even started and they reeked of hard work and labour. As they always did. Every morning they smelled the same. No, he hadn’t changed me. I was already changing. He just sped up, bloody fast. I breathed in one more time and used it as fuel.
I was angry. At everything, at Elswick for making me see things I was happy being blind to, at the Regent for lying for no apparent reason, at Solo for following him blindly and at Warren for never speaking.
The dream from last night popped into my head. He dragged me to the Regent, handed me over to the government happily. Was he about to do it now? Dragging my hands down my face, he came into view. Watching Elswick as he moved his arms about in time with his words. They washed over me without making any impression but I watched Warren closely to see what impact they had on him. It didn’t seem the affect him. He blinked slowly but other than didn’t move. His hand rested on the back of his chair, gripping so tightly his knuckles turned white.
Unexpectedly, he looked at me. Elswick was still talking and it wasn’t like him to ignore someone speaking to him directly. Maybe he felt my eyes on him, maybe something was said, either way he was looking at me and I looked right back. I searched him for any sign he was about to get the guards in, any sign that years of working together just wasn’t enough for trust. To be fair, considering how many people stabbed each other in the back I doubted it was enough.
“I’m just going to come right out and tell you,” Elswick continued, “it’s risky and I’m sure they’d have my head, but desperate times. I need to talk to the rebellion, or whatever they call themselves now. Do you know how we can contact them?”
Warren looked back at him, where we stood with him wasn’t any clearer. He just blinked again and it looked like he was trying to wrap his mind around everything he’d heard.
“Why should I help you?” He asked, driving a dagger deep into my gut. The dream, it was going to come true, he was going to throw us to the guards and the Regent was going to get us. There was a very wise, gut-instinct feeling that said I didn’t want to find out what the Regent did with prisoners accused of treason.
“Because we need help,” Elswick sighed, paused for a moment and could see the gears changing track behind his eyes, “and if we don’t get it Asha’s in trouble. She just attacked a guard to stop me from being thrown in some dungeon somewhere. They’re going to start searching for her, they’ll hunt her down and call her a traitor and all she did was act like a decent person.
“If she’s caught there’s no one left to help me get my message to the rebellion and it really is information they need.”
All the while I was watching my colleague closely, he didn’t react to anything. It really did look like it was all lost. It struck me that right now called for some really rousing and convincing speech, something to make him trust us. But words weren’t my thing. Neither were people. If I even tried I’d screw it up and Warren would be much more likely to kick us out than help.
“Alright,” he said, so quiet it was almost to low too hear.
“‘Alright’ what?” I asked, not quite trusting my ears. “You’ll take us to someone in the rebellion.”
Heart started sinking.
“You already know someone in the rebellion, “there was a slight smile to his words and it took me a few seconds to realise what the hell he meant. When it clicked I sagged into the back of my chair with relief.