By the time we scrabbled down the hill they’d ducked into the tent. I followed everyone else, who had no problem entering the tent as well. I guess when a whole country was at stake there was no time for pleasantries, like letting a long-separated brother and sister have some time to themselves. From the scene inside they expected the intrusion.
She was sitting behind a desk, it was simple and looked the sort that any kind of carpenter could make. There was no wealth hidden in it, but it wasn’t exactly austere. In fact, there was no signs of showing off anywhere within the tent. Everything there was exactly what you’d expect to see at an outpost, all necessary. There were seats for everyone and we each took one, grateful. I don’t know about everyone else but my legs were aching like mad and I’m pretty sure I pulled a muscle.
Elswick introduced all of us, I came up last and Lys’ eyes lingered on me longer than the others. Her eyes were generally warm but I didn’t sense any of that as she looked at me. I think I knew why. Everyone else here was an outsider, a Heben or an anomaly. The only other person not ousted by the Solo authorities was with the rebellion for several years. I’d only just sort of joined. Of all of them I was the most suspicious, I represented everything that kept her brother away. She needed someone to blame and it looked like I was going to get it. Elswick sensed it too, he swiftly moved onto a brief explanation of what he’d been up to.
“Trying to stay alive, basically,” he jumped on that as an opportunity to look good, “Asha helped with that, actually.” He went on to explain what I’d done, except he made me sound more heroic than I actually was. Anyone would think I’d fought off his attackers, who’d apparently become fully armed, with nothing but a stick and my winning charm. She raised an eyebrow, mirroring my own expression, at the bullshit. It took all my willpower not to slap my hand to my forehead. He stuttered to an end, realising his tale fell flat and he looked across at me with an apologetic shrug.
Lys leaned back in her chair, taking us all in. One by one her eyes roamed our faces as if memorising each detail.
“All these years,” she started, “all these years and I thought you were dead. My big brother disappeared into the enigmatic Solo, never to be heard from again. When the resistance started snooping around at the mountain path I thought you might be there but those hopes were quickly shot down. None of them could tell me anything.
“I can’t begin to imagine what you went through, what you saw. But I cannot understand how you can bring a citizen of the country that put you through so much, killed so many of your people, and call her friend. Have they twisted you so much, brother?”
“On the contrary, Lys,” an edge crept into his words and guilt stabbed at me for adding some bitterness to the family reunion, “it’s made me stronger. I’ve been there long enough to know who to trust. You question Asha, but you’re happy with these other two who aren’t Hebens nor anomalies.”
“They’ve been with the resistance for years, they’ve proven themselves. She’s only just joined.”
“Everyone has to start out somewhere. Her intentions are the same, it’s not fair to judge by time.”
Lys didn’t say anything to that but her posture changed, less challenging and more open. Looked like she listened to her brother, even if she was the one in an actual leadership position.
“Fine,” she conceded, “you have a point, but if she proves me right then we execute her.”
Wow, that was unexpected. All eyes were on me, as they would remain for as long as I spent here. Under scrutiny from this moment no movement would go by un-noted , people would follow me around and if I made the slightest mistake or looked the least bit suspicious they’d report me. There was a childish urge to stamp my foot and shout out, how was it fair when I hadn’t done anything wrong. But really, what had I done right?
I’d taken my own anger out on a passing Heben, I’d refused to serve them for no good reason, I watched my country treat them unfairly; tossed them aside and chucked them on the street. Worse happened and I never spoke out, I let it happen thinking it was right, thinking they deserved it just because of what they were, because they were different. There were a lot of people like this in Solo, but that doesn’t mean I should keep my head down and follow them like a sheep.
So, yes. It was fair. It was fair because my people suppressed theirs. The other non-Hebens who’d joined us had proven themselves, they’d actively rebelled against their own country. They stood up and decided what was happening was wrong. I hadn’t done anything, not yet.
“Lys,” Elswick said in a low voice, “I don’t think-“
“It’s fine,” I cut him off. He gave me a look as if I was being a stubborn walkover, bit of a contrast but I get what he meant. “Yeah. It’s fine, Elswick. And it’s fair. Whatever I need to do to prove I’m on your side, I’ll do it.”
For one, very long, moment he looked me in the eye, searching for how I really felt. Apparently he found nothing and nodded in agreement. Things in my life had changed far too much for me to turn back now. There was nothing left in Solo, I’d made my decisions and each one had brought me closer to this point right here and it was time to commit. I wouldn’t turn my back on the resistance, instead I’d do all I could to help it.
I’m not brave, I’m not a fighter. But there had to be something I could do.
As it turns out there was something. I could keep my head down. So I did. Whenever they started talking I melted into the shadows, acted like I wasn’t there. Listened and learned but never took part. They spoke often and loudly, at some point everyone saying they needed to make plans but no one actually getting started. The buck was passed quietly and efficiently, progress was only made when Lys stepped in.
At those moments it was clear why she’d been elected leader of her clan and elevated to the Continent Council. Decisive but made time to listen to all points of view. The only other person who didn’t contribute was Elswick. He stood at his sister’s shoulder watched silently.
After each session he would come up to me and ask if I followed what happened. If anything wasn’t clear he’d spend time making sure I understood. If I became a student then he most definitely became my teacher. One thing I noticed was a difference in the way I spoke. All these people talking over one another, I was bound to pick up something. Soon I began to mimic them without even noticing. My mouth bypassed what I might usually utter and instead made it sound better, as if I didn’t come from the Fourth Quadrant. Elswick was overjoyed.
“Listen to you,” he exclaimed, “you’re enunciating!”
I brushed him, mostly because I didn’t know what he meant but also because I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I was very wary of Lys. I had nothing but respect for her, she’d done nothing to make me dislike her, but she disliked me and it was obvious. I didn’t want her to pick up on it and decide it was just a way of me trying to fit in and hide who I truly am or what I was truly up to. Never in my life had I wanted to fit in somewhere as much as I did now. Pathetic really.
One day, a couple of weeks after we turned up on the Continent, I was outside minding my own business and looking at the flowers. They were different from what we had. Much more colourful and more plentiful. I’d never seen anything like it and was fascinated. Someone cleared their throat behind me and I turned to see Lys watching me, arms folded, hair tied back. She took a step forward, almost hesitant and for the first time since coming here I saw a bit of Elswick in her.
“How are you finding Ewel?” She asked, no ice in her voice and I would’ve wondered if I was warming her up if I wasn’t so surprised by where she said we were.
“This is Ewel?” I gasped. “I had no idea.”
“Wick said you were smart.”
“Not sure where got that from but, in fairness, I’ve never been outside Solo before and we don’t learn about anything beyond those mountains,” I pointed at the behemoths rising into the sky behind us, “how am I supposed to know where we are if no one’s mentioned it?”
“You aren’t I suppose,” she sighed and came to stand beside me, looking at the flowers that so recently held my attention. “You know, you’re everything I despise.”
She said it so calmly I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. Always softly spoken and never seeking an argument it was hard to imagine her in a room full of politicians holding her own. Even as she stood here telling me this I knew she wasn’t after an argument, just being honest. Again, hard to imagine her being in the world of politics.
“I’d gathered,” I decided not to beat around the bush.
“You’re people use mine. They destroy them after making their life a living hell. Every citizen of Solo who turns a blind eye is responsible for what happens to them, whether they know what the Regent does or not. Your ignorance does not defend you.”
“No. It doesn’t. I get that. But I learned about it three weeks ago. I learned what the Regent did, who he really is and I turned my back on him and joined this merry band of rebels. You might despise me but you didn’t grow up in Solo. You’ll never understand why so many people can turn their backs on another race, you’ll never understand how powerful the government’s words are.
“Judge me all you want, judge my people while you’re at it. We deserve it. But don’t presume we’re all awful people.”
“Why is it so bad where you come from?”
“I don’t know what it’s like outside of Greystone, but we’re literally walled in. The Regent lives at the top, looming over us all and we feel his eyes roaming over every street. His words are plastered across the walls, posters reminding us what to think and how to act, stirring up fear and hatred. But we don’t know any different because it’s all we’ve ever been told so it’s all we’ve ever known. Especially in the poor quadrants. We don’t have school there, what we learn is passed on from our parents, who’re fed the same lies. Any hint of sympathy for Hebens is met with scorn and the guards start paying extra attention to you, convinced you’re a troublemaker. It’s thick in the fabric of our society. This hatred. This…fear.”
“You want me to feel sorry for you?”
“Ummm, I don’t believe I ever said that,” one thing I hated was people putting words into my mouth, twisting what I say and thinking that’s what I meant. And once anger got a hold of me I was quick to share it with others. “If you’re just here to manipulate what I say then there’s no point in us talking. You don’t trust me and I get why, but neither are you giving me a chance.”
“Tell me why I should?” She asked although she didn’t seem very enthusiastic by the idea. She kept her emotions firmly hidden.
“I don’t know.”
“Because Wick did?”
“I don’t know why he did. He just did.”
“He’s like that,” this was the first non antagonistic thing she’d said to me since I arrived. “He gets an idea in his head and he doesn’t let it go. Even if it blinds him to common sense. He might be an intelligent man but sometimes he skips the basics.
“If it had been me I never would’ve given you the chance. As soon as I realised your rescue was accidental I’d have walked out that door without a second thought. But he swore he saw something and refused to go, even though logic said you were more likely to turn on him than not.”
I shrugged. She had a point. Anyone else and he’d be in a dungeon rotting away as he had all those years ago.”
“What made you let him stay?”
“Something he said,” I paused, trying to remember our first proper conversation, “he reminded me that Hebens were people too, so why was it fair that we treated them the way we did. It wasn’t anything profound, in fact it was really obvious but something I’d never even thought about. He dared to open my mind a little.”
“He does have a way of forcing himself in,” she laughed a little as if she had experience with it. “You know, he’s been out of my life longer than he was ever in it, but I’ve dedicated my life to getting him back home. For all I’ve said about not trusting you, you did save his life. Twice. Thank you.”
“You shouldn’t thank me,” I sighed, “both times I didn’t think. I just acted. It’s not like a meant to.”
“Ah,” she paused, I wondered what she was going to do and almost jumped when she put a hand on my shoulder, “so you did it on instinct. I’d say that’s even better. Perhaps Wick was right about you.”
I didn’t reply and I don’t think she expected me to. It was a bit of an awkward conversation, she didn’t want to be saying these things, her own stubborn nature making it difficult to concede to her brother.
Instead, I carried on looking at the flowers and she observed our surroundings. There was a tense peace surrounding the two of us and it seemed surreal to think we were standing on the brink of war. That the woman beside me was considering invading my country and I wanted her to do it.
While I’ve been here my view on the world has changed. I see things clearer, sure my view is still muddied but the peripheral is clear. I might not see everything but i see enough to have a blurred understanding of the world around, at least I wasn’t completely blind anymore. I listened to the natives talk about the Continent and they have things they take for granted that we would never dream of having in Solo.
“You’re not going to get in our way when we invade?” Lys asked, perhaps this was the whole reason she sought me out.
“No,” I said quietly. “But perhaps you should wait until the vote.”
“You know as well as I, your Regent won’t ever allow it”
“But if you invade everyone’s going to believe everything that was ever said about you. No one would be happy, they’d carry on fighting you.”
“My people are suffering.”
“And so are mine.”
“So what do you suggest we do?” She was almost scornful and I flinched at how easy it was for her to switch from an easy truce to being defensive.
“You still go in but you don’t fight, you don’t attack. If you attack first then it’s all over. You walk through Solo under a banner of peace, make it clear you’re not armed and don’t intend to hurt anyone. If the Regent and his guards attack first then at least you’ll know that you didn’t start it. For whatever that’s worth, you’ll know you tried everything you could before resorting to violence.”
She looked at me, blinked once, slowly. She had the exact same eyes as her brother. A brilliant amethyst twinkling whenever the sun hit them. They were old, seen so much, suffered so much. I wondered how many times they cried while Elswick was missing. As I looked into them I stumbled across a revelation and, for the life of me, I can’t tell you why it took so long for me to understand. Ever since I saw my first Heben and my dad explained to me exactly what they were, I’d always seen the as young with an unnaturally old view of the world. So, right here, talking to a woman I met for the first time two weeks ago, in a country I’d never heard of until a few weeks before that, I truly grasped the nature of a Heben. I could see them for what they were.
They weren’t young and their eyes weren’t old. The woman before me had waited two centuries for her big brother to come home, he had himself had seen almost three hundred years pass him by. They might look young on the outside but I’m sure they felt every single one of those years. Their eyes looked so odd because they took in every experience and learned from it. They knew the world better than anyone, understood the way things worked and lived long enough to see people make the same mistakes again and again. The upside, of course, was being able to stop people before they fell into that never-ending spiral. With their passive magic keeping them going, I found people revered Hebens for their knowledge and wisdom. They were held in high esteem and often asked for their view out of genuine respect.
For all the magical powers available in the Continent, they alone had the power to change the world and it wasn’t even because if anything particularly magical. They observed the world around them, listened to the people who walked through it and remembered where things went wrong. Then they passed the knowledge on.
They kept their minds open, kept them sharp too, and in doing so they understood things a lot more than the rest of us did. They had the advantage over those of us who preferred to keep our minds narrow and enjoyed the tunnel-vision of believing a hundred and ten percent that what they believed, even though they haven’t researched and are regurgitating what other people have told them without fact-checking, was right.
Their wisdom could guide us all but their appearance made the people of Solo mistrustful. It was unnatural for anyone who looked so young to know all they did, so they refused to believe anything good came from them. Instead choosing to think the worst, closing their minds off and refusing to allow any differing opinions.
Outsiders not welcome and we’ll shout over anyone who says otherwise. We’re Solo and solo we shall remain.
That was the country I came from and I wished it was all the government’s fault, I wished all of the blame could be placed firmly at their feet but there were citizens who would fight to the death to keep it that way. Even if we tore the government down and installed a fairer one with a kinder and wider view of the world, there’d still be people spouting hate, people with and without influence.
A dawning sense of dread told me it was a fight we’d be waging for a very long time.