Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben has been attempting to keep himself and his sisters out of trouble and failing. When Peter invites Cassandra, the woman who broke into their home and held them hostage, to stay for a few days, Ben decides it’s safest to let their mysterious stranger stay. At Peter’s birthday dinner, Mica peppers Cassandra with questions. What do you do? What’s the capital city like? How do you know Peter? Do people really die on the Windrose City Wall? While Ben might be curious about the answers, he’s afraid of what happens to people who know too much. And Mica isn’t his only problem. Anda, the youngest sister, gives Peter a dangerous gift: an illegal book. A book that could get them all killed. While Cassandra doesn’t seem concerned about the illicit book, Ben knows Anda has just given Cassandra everything she needs to get them all killed…
Ben paced in the darkness between the trees. He wandered in their old fort, which was nothing more than a clearing inside a tight circle of spindly trees and thorny bushes. They had played in this fort as children, pretending they were explorers searching the White Mountains for the Unseen City, the city said to be free from the Eternal Mother, Loraine and the General Eternal, Rufus. There were no Watchers there, no soldiers, no Burnings, or Adjustments, or so the stories said.
It wasn’t true, of course. Soon enough, children learned the city was not real and was only a lie.
He remembered his mother had been extremely upset when she’d found them pretending to search for the Unseen City. There was no Unseen City, at least, not anymore, she’d said. The General Eternal had destroyed the Unseen almost one hundred years ago in the Last Civil War before the Great Peace. You know that she said, pulling them back into the house and checking their eyes for Watchers.
If there was a city in the mountains, Ben hated them for hiding away and leaving everyone else to rot under the Eternals.
Ben leaned against a cold, thin tree and waited. After the incident with Peter’s birthday present, Peter had shown Cassandra to the barn where she would keep their milk cow Celia company for the night. It was cold this time of year, but if it was good enough for Celia, it was good enough for Cassandra. After getting their guest settled, Peter escaped to his room in the attic for the night, while the Alderman siblings cleared and cleaned the dishes in silence.
“Fort. Now,” Ben said when the last plate had been dried and put away.
Outside, Ben’s breath made little clouds in the moonlight. He stared at the barn in the distance. A single light shimmered through the window in the loft. Footsteps approached, and Mica pushed through the bushes into the clearing. Anda followed. Ben and Mica looked at her for a moment, arms crossed, and foreheads creased. Anda hung her head.
“What were you thinking?” was all Ben could say.
“What is wrong with you, Anda?” Mica said. “Why would you give him a book? One of our books?”
“I’m… sorry. Just… it was time,” Anda said. She stood half in a pool of light and half in darkness, but both of her eyes were bright.
“Time for what? We agreed not to tell Peter about the books, and you go and give him one?” Mica said and then made an angry sound. Despite Mica’s obvious feelings for Peter, she wasn’t dumb enough to let their secret slip. Illegal books meant Burning, and even Mica wouldn’t risk that.
Anda rubbed her thumb over her right palm in thought. “Don’t know. I just… just thought that since he’d been here so long that… maybe… you know… could trust him. It’s been seven years. I mean, there’s a good chance that he already knew about the books and—”
“And he obviously still knows people in the city,” Mica interrupted and frowned at her. “She could turn us all in, she could get a reward, and she could be gone tomorrow,” Mica said. She was obviously Cassandra, from the way Mica spat the word. Mica continued, “if Peter does know about the books, he’s been smart enough to keep his mouth shut for this long, so let’s not push our luck.”
“But we… trust him. I mean… don’t we? Don’t you?” Anda pushed her tangled hair over her ears, her white hair glimmered pale gray in the moonlight, making her look much older than her sixteen years. For an instant, Ben saw her as an old woman, and it made him sad.
“Of course I trust him,” Ben said. “He helped us when no one else would. You know that.”
“But… I mean… for other reasons.”
“What are you talking about?”
Anda gave a frustrated noise. “I mean… why we took him in. We trust him for… other reasons than because he’s alone just like us… don’t we?”
“Come on, Anda, what does that even mean? And why do you think he already knew about the books?” Ben asked.
She combed her fingers through her hair. “He’s smart and… and it’s not like we’ve been super careful recently and… and remember when we lost one? Wouldn’t surprise me if he had taken it. I just… I mean… wouldn’t surprise me if he knew. But… but don’t we trust him?”
The cold scent of water and forest and night filled Ben’s lungs. “We do trust Peter. But this should have been a secret, Anda. You know what could happen if we got caught. These aren’t just illegal books. These are Ancient books. That’s treason no matter what Cassandra says.”
Mica nodded in agreement. “Now we have to play dumb and hope that she won’t turn us in. Bitch.”
“Hey. Watch your mouth,” Ben said, glaring at her. Mica just shrugged.
“Peter won’t let us get turned in,” Anda said, again rubbing her palm. “He won’t let her… do that. He wouldn’t… do that. I mean… it’s Peter.”
Ben sighed. “I know it’s not as bad out here as it could be. Not like it is in Windrose. But even way out here, people turn on each other. Someone turned Duncan in. Now he’s gone, Anda. Duncan is gone.” The words felt strange in his mouth, like an herb he couldn’t recognize, sharp and bitter. “We can’t take risks now, even with Peter, even if he already knew about the books. If people are getting turned in, and they’re sending more soldiers, then we’ve got to be careful. Our best option is to go along with what you said and pretend that you found it. You didn’t know it was Ancient. You just thought Peter might like it.”
“But, I know he’d like it,” Anda said.
“Okay, then what? Were you going tell him about all the other books we have?” he asked, although he didn’t want to know the answer.
“How much do you think she knows?” Mica asked. “And remind me why we’re letting her stay?”
Ben shook his head. “I know as much as you do, Mics. But Peter vouched for her. That’s why I’m letting her stay.”
Mica snapped a branch off the nearest tree and twisted it in her hands. “I say we throw her out tomorrow, no matter what Peter says.”
“We’re not doing that.”
“Whoa,” Anda spoke up. “We believe him that this… stranger is okay, but we can’t trust Peter with a… book?”
“It’s not the same thing, Anda,” Ben said. “Trusting that in the past, Peter and Cassandra were friends is different than giving him evidence to Burn us all.”
“So you don’t trust her?” Mica asked.
Ben shook his head. “Of course not.” He turned to Anda, looking down at her and speaking clearly so that she could not misunderstand. “We don’t trust Cassandra, but we can’t send her away. We do trust Peter, but not with books.”
“I still don’t… get it,” Anda said.
“If it was just Peter, then maybe it’d be different. But with Cassandra… we can’t risk it,” Ben said. He tried to keep his voice level even as Anda frustrated him beyond belief. Even Mica understood how important and dangerous this was, how could Anda not understand? Didn’t she know how dangerous this was for their future?
“Just… just wish it was different. Hate how things are out here. You know?” Anda said, her voice was small and sharp, like the prick of a pin.
Ben shifted his bad leg and repositioned his crutch in the dirt. “I know. I wish it were different, too.” The branches around them creaked in the breeze like an old woman shifting in her sleep.
“Seven years is a long time. I… I don’t understand why you won’t trust him. He would never turn us in,” Anda said.
“You can’t know that.”
“But I can.” She stared at him with bright eyes, so bright they almost glowed. Something about her suddenly startled Ben, and he opened his mouth to ask her why she was so sure, but Mica spoke up.
“Someone turned Duncan in,” she said. The other two looked at her. Her face was barely visible in the darkness, hidden by her wild hair like a hood.
“But… but do you even remember what it was like without Peter?” Anda asked. “He… saved us.”
Ben remembered. They had been struggling to keep themselves together, and they had fought all the time. Anda had barely spoken those two years, and Mica had been constantly angry. Ben had wanted to give up, and he almost had. The night he found Peter, he had been going to the village to sell the farm to Titus, the baker, and his wife, Agatha.
Agatha and their mother, Esther, had been like sisters. For Esther’s sake, Agatha and Titus had said they would buy the farm and take Anda and Mica in, leaving Ben to purchase travel papers and go wherever he liked. It was kind, in a way, to let him go. A damaged like Ben was always at risk, even way out here. Ben thought he would move far away from West Six, maybe out into the Empty Places, maybe try and escape to the neighboring country to the south if he got desperate enough.
Titus and Agatha could have given Anda and Mica a better life. At the time, even with ration tickets, Ben had barely been able to keep them fed and purchase work permits. But that night, as he stepped outside to meet Titus and sell the farm, Ben had heard a sound out back by the graveyard. There he found Peter in a pile of frozen leaves, his head shaved, his palms burned and bloody. Ben assumed that Peter was drunk and Burned, and he was drunk, sick, injured, and drunk, but he had not been Burned. As Ben was deciding what to do with him, Peter looked up at the stars and cried, “What are we waiting for? He’s not coming—there is no Perseus. There is no Perseus!”
Perseus is coming, echoed in Ben’s ears like a bell, leaving the lingering sensation of movement and blood and heat. He pulled Peter to his feet, a challenge with his own limp, and helped him to the house, limping and dragging the drunk young man with his free arm.
The next day, after Peter slept through most of the sunlight hours, Ben grilled him on Perseus. Peter denied ever saying the word, but Ben knew what he had heard.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peter said.
“You said Perseus wasn’t coming. What did you mean?” Ben asked, leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees.
Peter only shrugged. “You must have misheard me. I don’t know any, Perseus.”
As Peter denied it, Ben was ready to throw him out. This stranger could have been dangerous, could have been a spy, could have been anything, and besides, they barely had food for themselves, let alone someone new. But then the sun tattoo on Peter’s arm caught his eye. He nodded to it and asked about it.
When he realized that Peter was the artist behind most of them, Ben saw an opportunity and offered to help Peter make some money, taking a little bit off the top for room, board, and expenses, of course. Soon when Peter’s small business thrived, and he brought in some extra money, buying supplies for the next planting season became a real option—staying together became a real option.
But more than the money, the siblings were kinder to each other with Peter around. Peter managed to get Anda to talk, engaged her about flowers and the injured birds she took in. Mica was less snippy and more considerate with Peter watching. She even laughed sometimes. They all pitched in to help Peter for their own reasons. Anda because she was compassionate and kind. Mica because she was in love. And Ben because… well, he wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because Peter brought in money and pitched in around the farm, or maybe it was because he somehow promised answers to questions Ben didn’t even know he was asking. But why would he deny raving about Perseus?
“I remember what it was like without Peter,” Mica said, pulling Ben back to the present. “It was bad. But I don’t want to get Burned for this. Do you?”
Anda hung her head.
“All right then, we all know the plan?” Ben asked. They nodded. “You found it and thought the pictures were pretty.”
Anda nodded, her head still down, and turned to leave.
“Hey, wait,” Ben said, stopping her before she slipped away. “What book did you give him?”
The moon and stars slid behind a cloud, hiding away what little light they gave. Anda and Mica slipped out of the woods and over the field, finding their way back to the house in almost complete darkness. Ben stayed for a while in the woods.
Reminiscence swayed slowly beside him to unheard music, inviting him to join her and hear the tune. He stared up into the sky, and stood lost in thought and old, faded memories, and heard a song he hadn’t heard in years. He remembered sitting with his father in the barn years ago. His father would read poetry out loud to him. The words were old and strange and beautiful, and Ben hadn’t understood them then, but his father had read out loud anyway. Ben loved the words by a man named Frost. He still had the little white and silver book tucked away in the plastic box. The silver was wearing off, and the white was now dirty from too many fingers. Those poems were woods and grass and wind. They reminded Ben of better, happy days. Ben didn’t read that book anymore.
Three days, he thought as he turned for home. They just had to survive for three more days, then Cassandra would leave, and then maybe they’d be safe.