Last time we saw BEN… (click for recap)
Ben, Mica, Anda, and Peter make their way into the little village of West Six for Re-Incarnate Day without Cassandra. As they pass friends and neighbors, Ben wonders who the saboteur (the person setting fire to the soldiers’ food supply) might be. Ben tries to keep Mica quiet, a herculean task, as Mica questions why Re-Incarnate Day is early this year. Questions get you Adjusted. Questions get you killed. The ceremony, broadcast from Windrose City begins, but something isn’t right. The Eternals don’t look quite the same as they did last year—their faces are different. The Eternals consciousness are transferred into the volunteers, the Vessels, and their eternal reign continues. But as the ceremony ends, a hand appears in the Transfer Kiln of one of the Vessels—one of the Vessels meant to be dead. The screens cut out and Ben wonders what lies they have been told. When Ben turns to follow the crowd home, he sees Cassandra’s face on a wanted poster. The reward is enough to get them all out of Nova for good. But can Ben turn her in? Turning her in means Adjustment and Burning…
Ben swallowed, and shifted his eyes away from Cassandra’s glowing face on the display and the astronomical sum of money offered for her capture, hoping to appear uninterested, and looked to Peter. His expression was calm and serene, but his skin had gone pale. Ben tried to grab him as he turned around and pushed his way through the crowd towards the road, but his eyes were fixed ahead. He did not notice Ben. Ben stole one last look at the display. Cassandra’s face looked down at him with a smirk in the corner of her mouth.
Someone bumped him, sending a shock of fear through him, and Ben turned from the smirking face above him to find Mica and Anda watching him. Anda’s forehead crinkled, and her nose flared just a bit. Mica pursed her lips at him.
“Well. Let’s go,” Ben said, nodding towards the road. But he could almost see the wheels turning inside Mica’s head, her thoughts picking up speed and spinning faster and faster. He knew she was thinking about that reward. He was thinking about that reward.
That kind of money could solve everything for them. It could buy travel papers, legal travel papers, for all of them. With legal travel papers, they wouldn’t be fugitives sneaking across the country. If they had legal travel papers they could travel the roads openly with far less fear of soldiers. If they could do that, then Ben’s leg wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Running through the countryside for weeks on end would have destroyed him, traveling slowly on the road was doable. Not only that, there would be enough money after the legal travel papers to hire a guide to get them across the border and out of the country. It would be dangerous and expensive, but with that kind of money, reward money, it could be done. They could all get out.
The only question was, could he turn Cassandra in? Even as the question formed in his mind, he knew the answer.
Together the Aldermans turned for home. At the edge of the village, the crowd began to thin. Viola was already on her porch, swaying gently in her rocking chair. Toby crouched on the steps with his paws tucked up under him, staring at the crowd as they passed. Feeling eyes on him, Ben shivered and looked up. Viola watched him silently. She slowly lifted one finger and pointed.
He turned to look just as someone slammed into him, almost knocking him over. Ben grabbed the figure to keep his balance, but he stumbled and leaned hard on his crutch, the shoulder support digging hard into his side. He found himself staring into wide and hazy eyes. Jack looked back at him, his face and half his scalp a smear of scars and skin puckered from some unremembered tragedy. Ben wondered if Jack’s Burning had been literal in more ways than one. His short hair stuck up straight over half his head, the skin visible just below the delicate strands.
Every town had a few Burners, and Jack was theirs. As assistant to Malcolm, he didn’t do much more than run simple errands, but running errands wasn’t his real purpose.
Jack came Burned to West Six from some other city or village. No one knows where. Burned were sent away from their homes to serve the Eternals wherever they were needed. But Ben knew better. Too many people tried to make their loved ones remember, too many people wasted time on forgotten memories. Ben knew how the story went. So Windrose decided to send them all away to forget them. For the most part, it worked. It was a strange kind of mercy, sending the Burned and oblivious away so that their forgotten loved ones could themselves forget, but Ben knew it wasn’t done out of kindness.
“Jack! Watch where you’re going,” Ben said.
“Jack?” he said. “Who’s Jack? Am I Jack? Are you Jack?”
Ben’s heart raced, and he looked back at Anda and Mica. Anda looked like she was about to scream, her mouth hung open, her eyes wide and staring. Mica mumbled something foul, shook her head, and pulled Anda towards the forest and away from that man who had been Jack.
Jack had already been Burned twice, and it looked like he had now been Burned a third time. But the soldiers wouldn’t have Burned him and then let him wander around, so he must have found the Burn himself. He Burned himself, Ben realized.
“Who are you?” Jack asked, staring intently into Ben’s face, but the hazy eyes flit to Anda. “Who is that—hey, who are you? I know you—do I know you?” Jack asked, grasping at Anda as Mica pulled her towards the woods. Anda had always been kind to Jack, she was always kind to Burners, but sometimes they got Burned again, and meeting them again made her too sad. She cried when they forgot who she was.
“Let’s go, Anda,” Mica pulled her down the road. Anda reached out for Jack as she passed, but Ben pulled him away. It was hard enough on her, and Ben didn’t want her getting attached to Jack this time. After three Burns the brain damage began to show. Jack wouldn’t be in West Six for much longer.
Mica pulled Anda away down the road, their heads bobbing up and down as they went. Ben let them go knowing Mica would take care of Anda. She always did.
He turned to Jack. “Why don’t you go find Malcolm. He’ll know what to do. Malcolm, okay? Can you find Malcolm?”
“Malcolm? He knows who I am? Will he tell me who I am?”
“Yeah. Yeah, Malcolm knows who you are.”
But the fear in Jack’s eyes grew as the Calm began to wear off. “I don’t… I don’t know who I am… I don’t know who…”
“Know what? Nevermind, I’ll take you to him myself. No worries, all right?” Ben squeezed Jack’s arm reassuringly and slowly guided him back into the village to find Malcolm. As they walked back past Viola’s house, Ben turned and found her watching them with a somber expression. She nodded to him once, and then looked away.
After delivering Jack to Malcolm, Ben headed home alone. It was fully dark now, and the little lights of West Six faded behind him. Ben walked slowly, limping along the road, so as not to trip. The moon had vanished, and the stars kept bobbing up behind deep blue clouds. And Ben pondered what he had seen.
That hand in the holy kiln. Did he really see a hand in the kiln? The old vessels weren’t supposed to be alive anymore, not after Loraine and Rufus had vacated the old bodies and transferred themselves into the new vessels. But he had seen a hand against the glass, so what did that mean? He shuddered.
He reached the farmhouse, little lights flickered in the window, and found Mica and Anda in the kitchen. No one mentioned the Re-Incarnate Ceremony or the hand against the glass, and Ben wondered if they had seen it, but he kept his mouth shut. No one mentioned the reward for their burglar.
Quietly, the three of them made supper together. The smell of roasting vegetables and warm bread filled the kitchen. The back door banged open, and Peter and Cassandra came in, red from the cold and dirt-smeared. Then they all sat down for dinner.
As they ate, Mica didn’t ask Cassandra any more questions, and Cassandra didn’t ask how the ceremony went. Ben assumed that Peter had filled her in on everything. Anda was silent, but that was not unusual. Peter kept his eyes on his plate.
That night as Ben lay in bed trying to sleep, he thought about that reward. It was enough to escape the Burnings. But he knew they could never turn Cassandra in. Turning her in meant that she would be Burned. Like Jack, like Duncan. No matter how big the reward, they could never do that to another person.
That night Ben dreamed of fountains and fire and flowers. In his dream, he stood on a mountain overlooking the whole country. It was burning, just like the fountain in the town square, with red licking flames. His parents, Anda, and Mica were lost. He wanted to find them but knew he would never be able to reach them through the flames. As he stood watching his home burn, the mountain fell, crashing beneath his feet, and the fire overwhelmed him.
“Where do you think you’re off to?” Ben asked, eyeing Peter over a plate of eggs. Thanks to Anda’s chickens, they had a constant supply. Ben had gotten up extra early today to keep track of their valuable visitor, and Peter had come downstairs with his jacket and his a pack.
Peter shrugged on his jacket, swung the pack over his shoulder, and headed for the front door. “I have to go to the village this morning,” he said.
Peter stopped and adjusted his gray and patched jacket. “Ben….” he started, but stopped and raised his hands as if asking a question. “I would do anything for you three. You know that, right?”
“I haven’t lied to you. I just haven’t told you some things.”
“And Cassandra is one of those things.”
“I know keeping her here is dangerous, but—”
“Relax. We’d never turn her in.”
“It is a lot of money,” Peter said with a sad smile. “I can understand if you thought about it.”
“Thinking about it is one thing, but doing it is another. Turning her in means Burning her. We’d never let that happen. You know that.”
Peter nodded. “Thanks.”
“You don’t have to thank me. She only broke into our house and held us hostage. Not worth Burning someone over.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Peter hesitated, then walked back to the table and leaned his palms on the wood. “Were you ever going to tell me about your box of books?” he asked with a smile beneath his rusty beard.
Ben flushed. “What?”
“Your stash of Ancient books buried out behind the barn. You really thought I didn’t know?”
Ben stuttered. “But… I mean, we were going to tell you…. but. How long have you known?”
“A few days after I got here. It wasn’t hard to find.”
“You’ve known all this time? And you didn’t say anything?” Ben fumed. Anda had been right.
“I figured you’d tell me eventually. Maybe.”
“Yeah, well, treason isn’t the kind of thing that just pops up in conversation,” Ben stabbed at his breakfast and took an angry bite.
Peter made a gesture of concession. “Well. I’m off. Back soon.”
“And what am I supposed to do with Cassandra?” Ben asked through a mouthful of eggs.
“Nothing. She’ll stay in the barn til I get back.”
“No. No way. Not part of the deal. You said the other day that you would watch her the whole time. I don’t want her wandering around here alone—especially after… you know.”
“She’ll stay in the barn, so you don’t have to worry.”
“You said you’d watch her.”
“You watch her,” he said.
“Not part of the deal,” Ben said, pointing a fork at him. “Go tomorrow after she leaves. She is still leaving tomorrow, right?”
Peter rubbed at the scars on his palms. “Yeah, of course. But I need to swing into the village for a bit today.”
“It can’t be that important. Go tomorrow.”
“Relax, I have a job. That means money. Won’t take long,” Peter said.
“A job? For who?”
Peter rolled his eyes. “One of the new soldiers. Ink job. You do want us to stay on good terms with the soldiers, don’t you?”
Ben frowned. Peter was right. The longer they could stay friendly with the soldiers, the better. “How long do you need?” he asked, defeated.
“Back before noon.”
“Hey, get a new lock for the window,” Ben called after him as the door slammed shut. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then picked up his crutch and headed for the back door. “Hey Anda,” he called up the stairs. “Don’t worry about Celia this morning. I got it.”
Ben pushed open the barn door and let in the morning sun. It was quiet. Celia swept her tail back and forth and blinked her large watery eyes at him. Ben gave her an affectionate smile.
“Rise and shine!” he suddenly yelled as he banged on a pail. Celia gave him a disapproving glare and turned her big head away from him. Up in the loft, Cassandra sat upright, instantly awake. Bits of hay stuck to her hair and shirt. “Time for chores!” Ben yelled at her. He wouldn’t turn her in to be Burned, but he’d be damned if he didn’t get some honest work out of her. It was the least she could do.
“What?” Her voice rasped with sleep.
“Chores. I don’t know what you do in the city, but out here, we work,” Ben said. “Get down here and milk Celia.” He banged his hand on the bottom of a pail like a drum. “Come on, up and at ’em!”
Cassandra stared down at him. “I don’t milk cows.”
“You do today.”
Her eyes narrowed, “Where’s Peter?”
“Went out on a job, so I’m watching you. Make sure you don’t steal anything.”
“I’m no thief.”
“How did you enter my house again? Oh, right. Through the window that you broke. Like a thief. Now, get down here and do some chores.”
After a moment of silence, she shrugged and said, “fine.” With that, she slid down the ladder and faced him with her arms crossed. Her clothes were rumpled, sleep stuck in the corners of her eyes, and she desperately needed a bath. She looked like shit. Ben grinned at her. Despite her general grubbiness, she looked well-rested, and rather… he cleared his throat and looked away before he could finish the thought.
“Over there,” he pointed to a bucket with warm, soapy water. “Wash your hands.” After she had washed and dried her hands, he handed her a clean bucket and pointed to a low stool. “Get to it.”
Cassandra looked at Celia, who snorted at her. “You sure you want me doing this?” Cassandra asked. “I’ve never milked a cow before.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. Even a cripple can do this. You saying you can’t do something that even a gimp like me can do?”
She opened her mouth, thought better of it, and frowned at him.
“I’ll talk you through it,” he said and motioned her towards Celia. “Let’s go. I don’t have all day.”
Cassandra sat on the stool and placed the pail under Celia. She grimaced at the large, warm cow before her.
“Now take two of those,” Ben said and pointed beneath Celia.
“I have to touch those?” she asked, looking at Celia’s softly swinging utters.
“How else are you going to milk her?”
Cassandra hesitated and then finally reached out for the cow. “Ew. This is so gross,” Cassandra said softly, but not softly enough. Ben smiled to himself: this was going to be a good day after all.
But as he watched Cassandra, he wondered why the government was offering so much money for her, what she had done, and what would happen to them all when he found out?