I twiddled my thumbs.
There was a pebble on the ground and I stared at it. As the light from the lantern flickered, the pebble seemed to change – holes appeared in different places, edges carved on one side became depressions. Idle thoughts to distract myself.
All I wanted was the House of Wisdom. I wanted to sit on the cold marble floor, raise a book above my head, and read it against the sky. And now I was stuck in the middle of a civil war, just one city away from my destination.
I clenched my fists. It was unfair. I was the one who found the House, but it was stolen from me. And now after all the pain I had endured, all the hardships I’d faced, and the challenges I had conquered, I was forced to stop right before the finish line.
Someone kicked the pebble.
I looked up. Sally paced around the room, lost in thought. Jerome sat on the corner of the closest bed, staring at the empty glass in his hand. Idel stood with Camry, who was looking at Sally and Jerome with a trace of worry in her eyes. Olive still clutched the card in his hand as he stood on the bed where his youngest sister was sleeping.
Camry had told us Gecko was Olive’s idol, his hero. Olive was already a member of the youth wing of the Side Party and helped at the local party office whenever he had some free time. His room upstairs was plastered with pictures of black and white roses, and the black-haired, blue-eyed man who had incited a riot in Chart.
I recalled the rally in Chart, and particularly, I recalled Gecko Ross. I still thought he had been a reckless, arrogant, and selfish person who put his political aims above the lives of ordinary people. The damage done to Chart that day could not have been light, and since the whole incident had obviously been planned, he knew there would be casualties yet went with it anyways.
Yet, my heart felt a little empty. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the somber atmosphere in the room, or the gloomy expressions on everyone’s faces, or if I truly felt sad about Gecko’s death, but I did feel something.
The Tempest was still fluttering in the back of my mind. Before letting it fall on my shelf, I used Ben’s character to analyze my own emotions.
I didn’t know Gecko Ross. I didn’t like him, I didn’t agree with his methods, I didn’t think he was a good leader in any way, nor a good human being. It made no sense for me to feel sad. I was being irrational.
Besides, I wasn’t sure if he was dead. The words of a crazy terrorist group didn’t carry much weight. Even if he had died, there was no way to be sure he had been killed by the government, so wasn’t Project Poppy sending the country into chaos based on a hunch?
I let The Tempest rest, then took a deep breath. There was one last thing to consider.
I may not have liked the person, nor his methods, but maybe I felt sad because his message resonated with me.
The social hierarchy in Fore was terrible. The Collars lived in poverty and squalor, while the Headers lived safe, luxurious lives. I’d only ever seen the Headers district of Sett, and I’d rushed through that while being chased by Raxxers. The only significant memory I had of Headers was of Gecko Ross himself.
I almost wanted to chuckle. In the end, he’d been wrong. He thought he could get away with anything because he was a Header, but then he’d gotten himself killed. But then his death had been a success too, it had upset the social order, just like he wanted to.
There was something else too. If the guilds were effectively disbanded and all missions had been suspended, Sally, Jerome, and Ben had no reason to take me to Bendeck. Considering the situation, it wouldn’t be right for me to ask them to do so.
But I couldn’t give up. I needed to get to Bendeck. This was the first step on my journey to reclaim the House of Wisdom, and no civil war was going to stop me. I’d go to Bendeck alone, if I had to.
Would I be alone? I glanced at Elenor. She could come with me. No, she was only doing this because Moxy had wanted her to see the world, it was unreasonable to expect Elenor to go through so much on my behalf. Sticking to me for so long was more than what I deserved, anyway.
I heard a murmur. A yawn.
“Get off me,” mumbled a young voice from the back of the room.
Nobody was near her bed, so I wondered who she was talking to.
“You woke up early,” said Camry as she walked over to the bed.
A tiny figure sat up on the bed. Her blonde hair reflected the orange lamplight in strange ways, with a sort of metallic luster.
“Who’re they?” asked the little girl, rubbing her eyes. Her hand fell away and her eyes widened. “Uncle Jerome! Aunt Sally!” She pulled off the sheets, revealing a lilac nightgown, and ran up to Sally to give her a hug.
Sally hugged the little girl, and put a hand on her head. “Hey there, Betsy, you’ve grown up, haven’t you?”
“No, she hasn’t,” remarked Jerome with a smile. “She still sleeps like a baby.”
“No, I don’t!” said Betsy, releasing Sally and giving Jerome an annoyed look. “Big sis made me go to sleep early.”
“And I never said you could get up, so go back to sleep,” said Camry.
“But Aunt Sally is here,” said Camry, in the voice little kids make when they’re about to insist things go their way.
“Come on, let her stay up a bit,” said Jerome. “We’re about to leave, anyway.”
I glanced at him. They were going through with the mission?
“Jerome’s right, we can’t stay for long,” said Sally.
“But you just got here!” said Idel.
“I didn’t think the situation was this bad, we can’t risk getting stuck in Bass. I still need to think of a way to get into Bendeck, too,” said Sally.
Yes! With Sally’s team’s help, I could make it to Bendeck to meet Henry, and begin searching for the House.
“You’re still going to Bendeck?” asked Camry. “It’s too dangerous. If they’ve killed Gecko Ross, Bendeck could be a warzone right now. Not just Project Poppy, the Ross family and their supporters won’t let this go without a fight. Inline’s First Column will be there too, along with the FAF! This is no time to be working on a guild assignment.”
“You’re right,” said Sally as she turned to me. “I’m sorry, Val, Elenor, but I’ll have to terminate our contract.”
I frowned. But she said she was going to Bendeck?
“I understand,” said Elenor.
I looked at her. Her face was indiscernible, as always, but she wasn’t tapping her finger on the table.
“Same for me,” added Jerome as he stood up. “My apologies.”
“Are you going to Bendeck too?” asked Camry.
“Yes, but not with Sally.”
Sally faced him, her eyes slightly narrowed. “How much do you know?”
“A bit. He likes to play things close to the chest, doesn’t he?” said Jerome, with a smile.
“Who are you talking about?”
“Both of them.”
Sally nodded. “Are you going to the Project or –”
“The Orange Hats. I have nothing to do with the Project.”
Jerome looked away.
“And what about me?”
I looked at the owner of the voice. Ben stood next to the wall, and looked at both Jerome and Sally with a thoughtful expression.
“Isn’t it obvious? Stay with the kids here. You’ll need to look after Elenor and Val, too,” said Jerome.
Ben was about to say something but someone else spoke up first.
“No.” Elenor tapped her finger on the table.
“No?” said Jerome.
“He won’t need to look after us, because Val and I are going to Bendeck.”
I smiled. I could always rely on Elenor.
“It’s too dangerous, at least wait for things to calm down. We’ll hear from the capital, soon enough,” said Sally.
“The only reason we need to hurry, is because we need to be there when it happens,” said Jerome.
“When what happens?” I asked.
Jerome looked at me and said very slowly, “The revolution.”
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