A whole week later and I was ready to stand in front of the council. There wasn’t even a chance of having a friendly face in the audience, Lys would be standing by my side as the person who called the emergency meeting. Elswick would be there too; having gathered the most intelligence they’d ever had about Solo.
Much to Sie’s dismay the entire week was spent brushing me up on the etiquette of the council. As a visitor to their lands I was expected to stay quiet and speak last during the introductions, it was the most respectful thing to do, especially considering where I came from. I tried not to bristle as he said the last part with a lot of glee.
Once the meeting was underway I had to stay behind the two Hebens until I was called upon to talk and when I did I must not fidget, look around or generally come across as nervous. This would arouse suspicion and the council would automatically think I was lying. This would put me in danger, but, more importantly, also Lys, Elswick and our only chance of taking the fight to Solo – whether it was physical or a war of words. Thankfully no one had any complicated titles. All representatives were equal here and they were all called ambassadors. With Lys on the defendant’s floor with me, there was only nine of them to convince.
The importance of my part depended on how well Lys and Elswick did. The absolutely best thing to happen was that they’d be shocked into action by Lys’ address, they’d realise their current actions weren’t enough and they’d each return to their people and prepare for a friendly invasion. Of course, it was also the most improbable.
We were currently in the entrance hall of the Ambassadors’ Court. To be honest I was expecting something a lot more grand. There was no stone in sight, all of it was made of wood, sure it was gleaming, polished wood varnished to perfection, but if this had been Solo the wealth, and therefore status, would have been splashed everywhere the eye could see. I guess that was the point though. This wasn’t Solo.
We’d spent three days travelling to get here and the difference between this place and my home was astounding. The countryside was absolutely astonishing, any people we came across were friendly, some even offered to put us up for a night. Lys was very careful not to let anyone know who she was. I had a feeling people might start asking about the rest of us and no matter how nice they might be, the reaction to having someone from Solo in their midst wasn’t going to be great.
A door creaked open and an elderly man came out. His clothes were smart but reflected the theme of this place. Where Solo would have decked him out in expensive clothing a symbol of the prestige of this place, the Continent gave him simple but good quality garments. They suggested some importance but didn’t rub it in the faces of the poor.
“Ambassador Lys,” he said, his own voice as creaky as the door, “the council is ready for the three of you.”
He bowed at her and waited for the three of us to line up at the entrance. Lys took the front and I the rear, the elderly man led us in. Again, I was taken by surprise. I really thought I had the measure of the place.
This time it really was grand, at least the scale of it was. The furnishings were simple and the people inside each wore a similar uniform but tweaked in ways, I suspected, that reflected where they came from. None of it said these were the leaders of the Continent in their official office. But the size of the room told a different story. It was circular with a dais in the middle. It was on this that the council members towered over us. They each had a seat at the desk set in the middle of it and we had to crane our necks to look up at them. There was an empty seat toward the middle that I assumed must be Lys’. Aside from how tall and imposing they made themselves, the room was cavernous. If there weren’t torches flickering on the walls I probably wouldn’t be able to see the other side of it. Plus, it felt like the ceiling was miles above us. There were windows set in it, with blinds that were currently open, the mechanism that controlled them was dangling all the way down so someone could control them. Light trickled in from these windows and dappled the council members. It made some of them look menacing.
My nerves wrenched as they decided they weren’t already giving me enough trouble.
“Masters and mistresses of the council,” the elderly man called out, “I present to you Ambassador Lys, her brother Elswick and their guest Asha.”
From the lack of grumbles I took the liberty of guessing they didn’t know who I was yet. Still, I felt their eyes on me. Curiosity begging them to ask why I was here.
“Ambassador Lys,” the man to the right of her empty seat addressed her, “what made you call this emergency meeting?”
“My esteemed colleagues,” her voice filled the room and I got a sense of just how intimidating she could be. She had decades of experience in this room and knew how to use it to her advantage. “I come before you today with my brother and our mutual acquaintance to once again ask that you consider action against Solo. Elswick has brought new information with him and I feel it is our duty to act swiftly.”
And so this unexpected obstacle began. They grilled Elswick on what he’d learned during his time in Solo, they questioned him about every detail at least twice over and pretty soon it became predictable. They were clearly searching for a way to slow Lys’ request down, giving themselves time to think. The only thought that kept running through my head was ‘surely you and you predecessors have been thinking for two centuries’.
I didn’t say anything. I went over my lessons to make sure I wasn’t doing anything to cause offence. My legs started to ache but I stopped myself from easing the pressure on them. Now was not a time for weakness, I chided myself.
“I am sorry Elswick, truly I am. But as you’ve pointed out, you have been in Solo for the past two hundred years, not here. You cannot come back and expect us to change our ways to accommodate atrocities that aren’t even happening on our land.”
“But it’s happening to your people,” he countered. There was heat to his voice. “Or are we second class here just as we are there?”
He stunned them into silence and I saw Lys wince. Apparently attacking the way the council works wasn’t a good way to do what we wanted. Who’d have thought.
If Elswick couldn’t get through to them I was worried. He was at least a citizen of the Continent, but if they were saying he’d been away for far too long what chance did I have.
“You’re too close to the situation, you both are. The fact that these are your people is precisely what makes you unsuitable to judge on such a delicate subject.”
“Are you joking?” Both the Hebens yelled at the same time. Their voices clashed together and reverberated around the room, the anger was plain to here and I even saw some of the council members sit back in their chairs, wincing. The man who’d been talking to us so far went to answer, he looked angry, someone else managed to get there before him.
“Really, Krates, I think they rather have a point,” it was the woman sitting on the far left. She was calm and the outburst from the two Hebens didn’t seem to have any effect on her. “Just because you’re acting as our spokesperson today does not mean you speak for all of us.”
My hopes soared, here was someone who seemed to have some sense.
“This situation in Solo has gone on for long enough, it’s about time we did something. The entire Continent is looking to us to make a decision and we’re deluding ourselves if we think there won’t be some unrest about it soon. The people of Ewel have shown more patience than we deserve.”
“Artha, are you really suggesting we invade?” Krates was taken aback by this train of thought from his colleague. I saw Lys and Elswick exchange a look, even they were baffled.
“There must be something we can do this side, dissuade Hebens from making the journey, or at least giving them a way of getting home undetected. I don’t think for a moment Lys was suggesting we launch an invasion.”
“Well,” she hesitated, all nine pairs of eyes were on her and expecting an answer along the same lines as the point Artha made, “I’ve spent years doing what I can on this side of the border. I think it’s time we took further action.”
“See, Artha, see. An invasion. She wants us to throw away years of work to go and fight the very people we’re trying to save,” Krates was getting redder and redder. I wondered what sort of magic he could do. Was it the ability to change colour? Maybe it was to make arrogant comments. No one was asking them to save us. It was a mission they placed on their own shoulders.
“No,” her voice rang out again and Lys commanded their attention, “I’m not suggesting we fight. I’m not suggesting we give up on our goal either. If we know anything about the people of Solo it’s that these are people we cannot save, they must be able to do it themselves. But they need to know that we’re not the monsters their government is making us out to be.”
“What do you mean?” Artha’s voice was sharper now, not pleased at being contradicted by the person she was defending. “We have a deal with Solo, they’re not spreading lies about us to their people.”
“Apologies Ambassador Artha, but they are, Elswick’s seen it.”
“Elswick is not an objective viewer.”
“Then let me introduce you to Asha. She’s not exactly objective either but I think you’ll be interested in what she has to say.”
“And why is that?”
Lys gestured me forward, I stepped as close as I dared to her and Elswick, aware that drawing level with them meant I assumed I was the same rank, entitled to the same privileges and treatment. I quick glance her way and Lys nodded for me to speak.
“Because, until recently I was a citizen of Greystone,” I was pleased with the way my voice sounded, it was strong but not arrogant, it didn’t assume anything.
There was an uproar at my words. The other ambassadors, who until now were pretty quiet, started shouting, their words were tangled in a confused mess and the collection of accents meant I had no chance of trying to pick them apart. Krates was the only exception. He went silent but his eyes never left me. I felt them trying to bore right through me, as if he could kill with just a look. My stomach knotted. I was in a land of magic, it was entirely possible he could do that. Finally he deigned to speak and his words cut through everyone else’s.
“You dare to bring someone from Solo before us!” He roared. “We should throw you off the council immediately.”
“I have been on the council longer than any of you have lived,” came Lys’ quick reply. “For all the sacrifices I have made, that my people have made, all of you owe us this.”
The dangerous voice was back and everyone saw she was not to be messed with. Before them stood a leader whose people were being taken advantage of and, for the first time I think, they were keenly aware they were at least partially responsible for the situation.
“Very well,” Artha took over from Krates, “please continue Asha.”
“Well,” I wasn’t entirely sure where to start, “all my life I’ve been taught to be afraid of what lives beyond the mountains. That magic users lived there and they lacked law and order and thrived in chaos, that they wanted nothing more than to come to Solo and bring their chaos with them.”
I stopped to gather my thoughts, probably not the best way to get them to like me. Mind you that’s not what I was here for. They needed the truth and apparently the only chance of them accepting it was if they heard it from someone who lived there.
“I’ve spent my life hating you and everything you represented. You were a threat to our very way of life and Hebens were a drain on our society. Until a few weeks ago I’d never had a conversation with a Heben, I refused to serve them at my stall and didn’t bother helping when they were getting beaten up by a guard or the member of the public. I’ve even been known to start a fight. Many of them live on the streets after losing whatever pitiful jobs they managed to get. The citizens of Solo call them pests, some give them food laced with poison, others chase them off with swords.
“There are some who care, though. Some who look after them, but they keep it quiet knowing they’d be punished.”
“What is your point,” Artha asked, I sensed she was running out of patience.
“My point is the Regent has tricked you. He’s promised you one thing but has no intention of delivering it. He just wants Hebens so he can stay young and he’ll do whatever he can to get them. He says he’ll get his people to vote on whether we should join the Continent, he’s spent most of his effort telling us all how bad you are and what rights you’ll strip from us if we were to join.
“As a result everyone fears you. Trying to dissuade Hebens on this side is only burying your head into the sand. There’s a real problem on the other side of the mountains. Your people are dying, being abducted and murdered. By not doing anything you’re saying it’s ok. You’re saying it’s ok for him to be taking advantage of your magic. But you can’t go in fighting either, if you do that you become everything the government says you are. You do need to invade but it has to be quiet.”
The closer I got to the end the faster I spoke and I hoped they could keep because I really didn’t fancy saying it again.
“Tell me Asha,” Artha’s voice went back to its patient self, “if you fear us so much, why are you here?”
“Because, up until a few weeks ago I’d never had a conversation with a Heben. Then I did and it changed my life,” my cheeks were growing red and I felt, rather than saw, Elswick looking at me.
The council started talking amongst themselves, a complete contrasts to the uproar from just a few minutes ago. Elswick was looking at them now, we all were. My legs were really screaming by this point, it felt like hours but we were so close to the end, I hoped, I couldn’t give up now. I had a feeling I was so close to breaching the etiquette as I spoke to them and the only reason I was allowed to get away with it was because of the novelty of where I came from. I doubt they’d like kindly upon me fidgeting while they were in the middle of making an important decision.
Artha held up a hand for silence and Krates glowered at her.
“Lys, what if the quiet invasion doesn’t work, what if they want a fight?”
“Then we have no choice but to give it to them,” she was sombre and I knew she didn’t like the idea. “I give my word as a member of the council that we will not start the fight.” As she said this she held a hand over her heart.
Artha looked at each of her colleagues and they all nodded, apart from Krates, he stayed resolutely still.
“Very well. This council has finally come to a decision. We will send an envoy to Solo with the goal of changing public perception of the Continent. This is an important mission and, as such, a member of this council must accompany the envoy. Lys, as the most experienced and longest serving member of this council we’d rather not entrust this mission to anyone else. We also trust that you have a strategy already in place, as well as people willing to follow you?” She looked down at the Heben knowingly. Lys nodded, keeping the relief.
“Good,” Artha continued. “Whether you are successful or not this council seat will remain empty for you. Elswick, we haven’t had the chance yet, but on behalf of the council I’d like to welcome you back home. Unfortunately I must ask that you return with your sister, you know the terrain and we’d rather our people didn’t go in blind. As for Asha, please lend whatever knowledge you can. You were brave to leave your home and come here, but now you must do something braver and return back to your home. I’m sure you’ll be able to persuade some of your people.
“This meeting is now dismissed.”
The elderly man was summoned back into the room and he led us back out to where we were waiting before. The three of us looked at each other in disbelief. There was a bit of an awkward moment when none of us knew what to do or say. But Elswick broke it.
“You’re not in trouble are you?” He asked Lys concern heavy in his voice and weighing down his features.
“No,” she shook her head as if still trying to believe what happened, “otherwise they wouldn’t keep my seat empty while I was away.”
At that moment Artha entered the room, she had a broad smile and looked a lot less daunting now we weren’t looking up at her. Ironically she was the same height as me.
“In all my years I never thought we’d reach a decision about Solo in my lifetime,” she laughed. “You really are a miracle worker Lys.”
“How did you know about…well, you know?” She didn’t want to bring up her own little rebellion just in case.
“I didn’t, but I know you. You’re a person of action. Speaking of which, it’s probably not best to have a whole bunch of Hebens travelling to Solo to do whatever it is you want them to do. After what Asha said I get the impression they won’t be listened to. I’ll send a message back to my country and ask for volunteers. My country’s always been close to Ewel and we’ve been wanting to help ever since Elswick and the others went missing, now that we have a chance I expect you’ll be overrun with my people.”
“The more the merrier,” Lys replied, “I’ll do everything I can to protect them.”
“Thank you,” with that she swept out of the room.