“It seems we have a place for our most recent addition,” Lys announced at the next gathering. All eyes turned to me while my cheeks turned crimson. Attention, I hated it.
“And what would that be?” Elswick chipped in quickly, I think he was eager to know how I’d made an impression on his sister.
“She knows the state of Greystone better than any of us. I’ve never been there, don’t have the first clue about any of it and the rest of you spend all your time trying to keep to the shadows. She might be an outsider now but her experience of society there is the most recent we have. She also seems to have a strategic head on her shoulders.
“Someone will need to train her up with a weapon but she’d principally be about the strategy.”
Elswick hid his reaction well, but I fancied I saw a flicker of it before he managed to hide it away. He was impressed. Maybe his sister was notoriously difficult to sway, once her mind was made up that was it. I’m not really sure, but I kept wondering what exactly I happened to do. These people kept to the shadows on purpose, they shone so brightly they had to keep themselves hidden away. Any length of time spent in the open and someone would surely notice them. I didn’t shine, I didn’t have a choice about being in the shadows. It was where I belonged, where I’d always been. No one noticed me, I melted back into the background and remained forgotten until something else was needed.
Then that damn Heben came into my life. He saw me. Somehow he saw me and he wouldn’t let me go back the comfort of the shadows. He dragged me out, slowly but resolutely. Others started seeing me too and now, while I might not be shining, I was at least starting to twinkle.
I always thought people’s belief in me would lead to some sort of change within myself, a shift in confidence. Something more, much more. Instead I was questioning them. I wouldn’t allow myself to trust that their belief was in the right place. But that didn’t matter, not to them. They just kept on giving it to me and now, with Lys deciding I wasn’t as bad as she thought, they were forcing me to think maybe they were right.
The others looked me over, better at hiding their thoughts than Elswick. I had a feeling it wasn’t a very popular choice, but I wasn’t going to back away now. I didn’t want to prove myself a coward. Now I knew what was going into the fight, what the world was really like, I didn’t want to walk away from the little I could do.
“Do we really have enough time to train her?” One of the others spoke up. “The Regent isn’t exactly clueless and it’d be best if we were through that pass before he realises we’ve reopened it.”
“We’ll have to make time,” was her calm reply.
“We’re not all like you,” he countered, “not everyone has centuries in front of them.”
They started to bicker. Well, that’s not entirely true. Everyone started to bicker except for me, Elswick and Lys. I saw the two of them roll their eyes at each other while our companions started arguing about the best way to start a campaign and when it should begin.
“I agree with what the newbie said to Lys earlier, we shouldn’t go in attacking. We should take the time to talk to the people, persuade them we’re not what they think we are. Surely someone there will listen.”
“Of course they won’t,” the original man cut in, “they never do. The last time anyone from the Continent walked in there with any ‘talking’ in mind they started stealing Heben magic.”
Lys leaned over to Elswick and muttered something in his ear, a flicker of a smile before he murmured something back. I looked down at the table between us, uncomfortable in the environment. Everyone had their own opinions and expressed them one way or another. There was a sense this conversation was had many times before.
“Why don’t we,” Lys said over them, “ask our very own Solo citizen what she thinks?”
I could almost hear the eyes swivelling to me. I definitely felt them settling on me, some of them were judging, some innocently waiting to hear what I was going to say.
“Great appointment Lys.”
“Yeah, fantastic. Um. How insightful.”
“Next time you want to play a joke on us maybe make sure it’s not at a really serious time.”
“No one will listen to you,” I decided to let the sarcastic comments roll off me and plough on anyway. I hated the type of person who comes to a discussion with their mind already made up and unwilling to listen to other people. It meant they were narrow-minded, I often found the most narrow-minded of people said they were the most open. I was such an example. Told everyone my mind was open but I didn’t want to hear anything about the Hebens and their plight that might challenge the way I viewed the world. “They see things a certain way and they have done for centuries. Each of us are taught that outsiders want to stop our way of life. Propaganda goes out each week saying Solo is better by itself, but nothing about the other side of the argument.”
“If you head in there and start throwing your argument about, standing at corners and preaching the word of the Continent, the people would knock you down and tear you apart. We don’t like the obvious, we prefer the subtle.”
My mind raced, I was talking without any real plan. I just wanted the others to eat their words. My thoughts scrabbled around for an actual point so I started thinking about what I listened to, about how I’d become settled in my rut and happy to swallow the propaganda pill. Taking the time to think it through actually made the answer pretty obvious.
There was something I used to do every day without fail, on the way to and from the stall in the Hearthsquare.
“Posters,” I sort of blurted out and tried to pass it off as a mysterious comment. Lys crooked an eyebrow at me, the others doing the same. The only person who really understood was Elswick. He grinned and it spread across his face faster than a fire down a street of wooden buildings. “Everywhere you turn in Greystone there are posters plastered over the walls. It’s how we get our news and it’s the only way the Regent talks to us consistently. It might be the same in other cities and towns, I’m not sure. I’ve never stepped out of Greystone until a few weeks ago. In fact, it’s probably more likely since he barely even leaves his mansions.”
“Hang on a second,” one of the angry guys roared, “we’re supposed to be listening to you because apparently you know the state of Solo better than anyone here, but you’ve never been outside of the capital?”
He shot up out of his chair and strode over to me, grabbing my collar and lifting me up to eye level. “What sort of game are you playing?
“Sie,” Lys warned. Her voice was level but low, incredibly dangerous. I didn’t bother struggling. The guy could use magic, if he was going to hurt me he wouldn’t have bothered moving. At least, that’s what was running through my head to keep the panic at bay. “Let go.”
Reluctantly, he followed his orders. He released his grip on my collar and I felt my shirt, which was beginning to bite into my neck, relax. I wanted nothing more to sit down and pretend it hadn’t happened, but there was a sense in the air that if I did so I’d be admitting defeat, or even some sort of wrong doing. Elswick had come over to my side, he was tensed and almost acting like a bodyguard. I used his presence to calm my shaking body, he wouldn’t have let anything happen.
“Have you ever stepped foot in solo, Sie?” She asked in that dangerous voice. Sie hesitated, mouth working as if trying to find an answer that didn’t show him up. His mind eventually caught up and clamped his mouth shut. Eyes downcast, he shook his head. Full of anger just moments ago, something about Lys made that melt away. His temper bowed down at just two words from her and receded even further at the simplest of questions.
“I have not.”
“Then she is still the most knowledgeable person here about the way Solo works,” at some point she’d stood up, it added a little extra support to her authority. “While my brother had been there for longer he was always forced to observe from the outside. He might know the culture but he was never a part of it, he cannot fully understand. Asha is our best source.”
Sie didn’t bother responding. There was a slight movement of his head, which may have been a nod but other than that he gave no reaction. I didn’t know what that meant, maybe it usually happened but I still felt a bit of an atmosphere. Lys settled back down into her chair and everyone else followed.
“Carry on, please, Asha,” she waved her hand at me. I thought I was done talking, apparently not.
“So, yeah – the posters. Everyone in Greystone reads them. It’s become a bit of a ritual to take time out each day to let the messages wash over you. It makes us feel safe. We’re told about all the dangers outside of Solo, so those few minutes spent soaking in whatever reassuring messages they want us to listen to is our way of taking ourselves above it. Away from it.
“People listen to them. Those posters are the only contact we have with the Regent. You have no idea how important that is to us,” I paused and added, “them.”
I could see most of the people wanted to grumble. Fair enough, the dangers we were told about were them. They were the reason we needed to feel safe and while it might have all been a lie, it was true to the people of Solo. A thought struck me.
“If you go in and start fighting, start forcing your views on them, then you’ll be everything our government says you are. You’ll outsiders who want to take our land for themselves, people who want to see us suffer, for whatever reason. Your position in Solo is worse than you thought. One false move and everyone will condemn you.
“Yes, people are fighting for a chance to be a part of the Continent. There’s a lot of trouble on the streets because of it. We hear news of settlements outside of Greystone where families are tearing themselves apart because they don’t all agree about the right way to vote. Friends disown each other, kill each other. All because your council has put temptation on the table and the rebels have done their best to convince my people to join with you. It’s something I never really understood. The Regent’s control on us is so complete the majority of Greystone can’t even imagine what it would be like joining with the Continent. For us the possibility is so far from reality, but everywhere else it’s so close.”
I wasn’t the most well spoken person. When I spoke it was often disjointed, halting, went round in circles and I forgot things. People were so much better at getting their points across than me and could knock me down with one well placed comment. At times I think I’ve been clear but others are confused and don’t understand. This was one of those times where I felt I managed to make my points eloquently and as I finished I hoped I hadn’t lost anybody. I wasn’t sure I could go through it all again. Another symptom of not being well spoken was that my words slipped out of my head as soon as I said them. If I ever had a good idea it could take several minutes to have it again.
People seemed to understand. I let out an internal sigh of relief and relinquished the spotlight to someone else. My heart pounding under scrutiny. Elswick took up the baton.
“She’s right. I may not have been a part of the day to day life but there’s something similar in all citizens of Greystone that makes them tick. They put up a tough front but they’re deathly afraid of their way of life being challenged. If we barge through the gates and force our words and our way of life on them then we have no chance. We have to play the it right.
“This may very well be our only chance. Let’s not blow it because some of us are as prejudice as the people suppressing my people.”
I felt Sie’s anger flare up again. He really hated the idea that anyone could think badly of his people or the Continent. As I said earlier, in my experience the most narrow-minded people were the ones who said they were open.
“What does everyone else think?” Lys asked, saw that Sie was going to say something and stalled him, “I said everyone else, Sie. I think you’ve made your views pretty clear.”
The discussion went on for a long time and neither Elswick or I added anything more. The fire didn’t need any more fuel. We exchanged looks as everyone else added their bit. I was surprised to find that they listened to me. There were a few token protests; we’d only end up fighting anyway so what was the point in delaying the inevitable. If the shoe was on the other foot we all knew they wouldn’t give us a chance at peace, so why should we. Probably the most convincing of all was that if we went in with our weapons sheathed the Regent would have time to escape.
Lys was the one to knock down the last argument.
“If we do go in, magic at the ready and weapons drawn, we could probably do away with the Regent swiftly. But his legacy would remain. It’s as Asha said, each bit of poison he fed his people about us would come true. We might be killing a tyrant but they won’t see it that way, they’ll see us as the tyrants.
“I don’t see that we have any other choice. We must play the waiting game. We have to do everything we can to avoid a fight. I doubt this can be done entirely peaceably but we have to try, otherwise the Continent and Solo will forever be at odds with each other.”
Her words floated around the table, full of authority and no one, not even Sie, wanted to challenge them. I shivered. I was in the presence of someone who commanded absolute respect from her peers. She might be the leader of the Hebens but with people like Sie she was on equal ground, yet he allowed her words to be final. A quick glance at Elswick and I knew he was thinking the same thing, a gleam of pride in his eyes for what his little Sister had achieved.
I wondered why everyone seemed to revere her. There wasn’t any animosity around the table, they genuinely accepted what she said, but surely she was making a decision for the council, which she wasn’t qualified to do. She must have sensed my confusion.
“I think it’s time to pause this meeting. If my stomach is rumbling I know most of yours must be,” some laughter as people agreed, “we’ll meet back here in two hours. There’s a lot left to decide. In the meantime, Wick and Asha, can you stay?”
As the rest of the company filed out, talking amongst themselves, Elswick and I stayed seated. I wrung my hands, a knot forming in my stomach; in my experience being asked to stay behind was a sign I was in trouble.
“We don’t need to stay here,” she said to us both, “let’s head outside.”
We headed out of the tent, a strong breeze buffeting us. I was momentarily blinded by my hair, it stung as it blew into my eyes. Elswick steadied me with a hand on my upper arm, I looked up at him and saw the sun gleaming off his naked head, those eyes dancing in the light. The sky above and the land around us was all unfamiliar, at least it had been. He’d brought me here, somehow he dragged me out of everything I knew and brought me to this beautiful place. Could Solo ever be like this?