There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. Sombre clouds all but swallowed up Salem, and thunder rolled in the thick yellow fog. Little Ben pressed his face to the cool glass of the window, and peered out.
“A hell of a day,” his father remarked, fumbling with the brass buttons of his tailcoat. Ben grinned; he was used to Han’s cowboy attire, his gambler hat and sailcloth pants; seeing him making an attempt to look decent always felt like a private joke of sorts.
“Have you shaved?” Leia shouted from upstairs.
“It’ll happen, eventually,” Han grumbled, and ruffled up Ben’s hair as he passed him. “Ben is still in his nightgown,” he announced at a louder volume, and started climbing the wide stairs.
“Ben, honey, you’ll catch a cold! Where’s Artie?”
Ben slid down the windowsill, carefully, and ventured to the hearth. He nearly tipped over the toy train he was supposed to pack away: visitors would be coming for tea. He measured the challenge, decided to ask a servant for help at his earliest convenience, and walked to the bookshelf. He frowned at the titles, not quite familiar with every letter just yet, and pulled the volumes down one by one, favouring the ones with pictures; the rest ended up on the floor in a discarded heap.
He heard his Lady Mother the General running up and down, shouting quickfire orders like she used to do on the battlefield. He disliked having guests over for this precise reason, how overwrought her mother got in preparation, how his pleasant home transformed into a busy beehive, how even the kindest request of sit straight and say good morning stung. He vowed he shan’t get involved this time; he won’t be paraded around in some frilly attire, congratulated on his clear speech and for having inherited his mother’s eyes and father’s smile. He’d hide. He knew just the place. He grabbed a volume titled Histo__ of B_itish Bi_ds, and trotted back to the windowsill. He climbed up, sat cross-legged like a Turk, and pulled in the heavy scarlet drapery. The drawing-room disappeared, leaving him in a glowing dusk of gold and red.
There was just enough light to see by. He opened the book, the old spine of it creaking as if it was complaining of his finger’s impatience. There were exciting drawings of birds from his mother’s old country, British birds , foreign and pompous. He didn’t pay any mind to the eloquent descriptions, coming up with names and stories of his own, a bird of prey, moonpecker, puffswallow . He heard Artie call for him, high-pitched voice ringing clear, “Master Ben, please, Master Ben, where are you,” and he held his breath. After a short while, the doorbell chimed and the first early guest was admitted, an Admiral Somebody. He heard Artie’s anxious whisper from far too close, “Master Ben is nowhere to be found” and Han’s answering grunt, “He couldn’t disappear” and a much less confident “Could he?”
He wished he could. He fancied he did, once, when he was very-very little, and his parents and all the servants were running around with torches in the woods, screaming his name while he was right there, standing in a clearing, terrified of all the excitement he seemed to inadvertently cause and thus too afraid to reveal himself. His mother found him by the strange light of her white-turned torch, which seemed to spit fairy-sparkles. She hauled him up, kissed the top of his head and said, “Promise me you’ll never, ever do this again.”
The curtains were yanked open, and Han grabbed his shoulders. Ben dropped the book as he was lifted from his seat; it fell to the ground with a heavy thud, the pages creasing. He reached for it, but he was swiftly passed to Artie.
“Here he is! Get him his blouse.”
“My book!” Ben complained, twisting in Artie’s hold.
“You’ll get your book, but you need to put on some nice clothes first, for Mama,” Han explained, and then shouted “Coming!” when Threepio called for him, voice shrill with dread.
“...with sharp bullets! Please, sir, think of Master Ben; what if he finds them?”
Ben couldn’t care less about whether Han left his pistols lying about; he wanted his book. Artie tried to drag him up the stairs, but he resisted, making himself limp at first, and when that didn’t work (Artie was surprisingly strong for his short build), he started kicking his chubby belly and screaming, “Unhand me!”
“My-my, what is happening here?” called the Admiral from the anteroom, peeking in. Ben shrieked at him, a pained, beastly sound, and clawed at Artie’s face, barely missing his eyes.
“That’s quite enough.” Han rushed back to him; Artie was keeping him at arm’s length, as if he was a misbehaving cat. The Admiral chuckled. Ben wanted to sink his teeth into him, to chew and tear.
“Go away!” he demanded. Han threw him over a shoulder, and no matter how he kicked and wriggled, he couldn’t get free. He was trapped, helpless, humiliated. He started crying. The first wails summoned his mother, as if by magic, appearing in the door in all her finery; but she didn’t rush to his aid.
“I am dreadfully sorry,” she addressed the Admiral, who waved it away. “Were you followed?”
“Don’t cause a scene,” Han whispered to Ben. He was shaking, choking on his sobs. Han lowered him a bit, so he was pressed to his chest, and started rocking him. Ben punched him, weakly.
“Let me go,” he begged.
“Where do you want to go, huh? What’s the hurry?”
“I want,” Ben heaved, and pointed his finger downstairs, “I want my boo-boo-book!”
“Oh hell, is this about that damned book?”
A strong fit of tears overwhelmed him; it was a good book, and he wished to defend it, but found he couldn’t, not having the strength to summon words. Han brought him to the red room, and dropped him atop a linen chest.
“Look at me, son. I’m getting your book, all right? You must wait here until you’ve calmed down, and I’ll come get you and get you dressed. This meeting is very, very important to your mother, whether we like it or not. We’ll attend, for her sake. Do you understand me?”
Ben couldn’t answer, but he nodded. He wanted to ask permission to wait in his own room, with his toys, but Han hurried away, and locked the door behind himself.
“Leave it open,” Ben cried, but wasn’t heard. He rubbed his nose, and peered around. Oh, how he despised this room. He never told his parents: it used to be Grandmother Padmé’s, and was generally regarded as the most beautiful part of their mansion with its intricate red wallpapers and lavish curtains. Ben’s problem was the bed: it looked like a cage with its bare posts, and worse still, he was told his grandmother had died in it. “In childbirth,” his mother said; “Under undisclosed circumstances,” said the servants. The pattern of big, blooming flowers made it look like it was still bloody.
He told himself he wouldn’t mind meeting her ghost. She was a perfectly nice lady; her portrait, displayed directly across him, showed a woman of his mother’s age and beauty, a kind smile playing on her lips and with flowers in her hair. He was only afraid he’d see her in the agony of her last minutes of Earth. He didn’t like dying people: they were really loud. He could hear them from the end of the street, wailing as if to call to him, do something, save us, please, we’re so very afraid.
Han returned with a glass of water and the book.
“Will you be good?” he asked. Ben saw that the book was horribly creased—ruined; he started sobbing, not with desperation but anger, and pushed away Han’s hand when he offered the water. It spilled over the parquetry. Han mopped it up wordlessly with his handkerchief while Ben curled up on the ground. They kept the room heated, because Leia loved to come here on wintry evenings and read, but the floor was still terribly cold.
“If I were you, I’d occupy the divan and be miserable there,” Han advised. “I’ll come back once you feel like yourself again.”
Ben already felt like himself, just currently quite wretched. He didn’t say anything, and kept lying on the floor, rolling to his stomach so he was face-down. Once comfortable, he started crying again. He heard Han sigh, get to his feet, and walk away. A click, and the door was locked once more.
He ran out of tears quite quickly. His throat was raw and dry, and his nose was stuffed. He sat up, pulling the book close by the corner. He promised Leia he’d be gentle with them; now that promise was broken. He should’ve held on tighter. He started leafing through the pages, but they only made him anxious: he wasn’t seeing the beautiful pictures, but all the ways the book has been ravaged, a crease here, a bent page there.
The house filled with guests. He sensed it in the corner of his consciousness, louder than the clamour of their conversation. He could hear their thoughts. It was a rather annoying sort of noise, which echoed base emotions— he picked up fear and puzzlement, but also stubborn, boasting hope. He was used to the thoughts clouding the mind of his parents and servants; they were predictable. The noise of new people was annoying at best. He tried to cover his ears, but it didn’t help — never did.
There was a knock on the vast window; a real sound, muting the buzz of minds for a glorious second, knock-KNOCK, knock-KNOCK. He turned towards it, thinking that maybe the branches of the bare oak tree were tapping on the glass; but it was a magpie. Ben frowned at it. Birds were not in the habit of parading around when it was about to rain, and the clouds were still heavy with the promise of a storm.
“Little boy, little boy, let me come in,” the magpie said. Its voice was Ben’s own, whispering within his head. The magpie knocked on the glass again. Ben saw its black eyes flash. “Little boy, little boy, let me come in.”
He got to his feet. Surely, he was imagining that it could speak. No animal he ever met possessed this gift, although they were rapid thinkers, just lost in their own wordless world.
“How may I help you?” he asked, voice barely a tremble.
“I will help you if you help me,” the magpie answered. “I have a gift for you, and you have a gift for me, a gift I would cherish. Let me in so we can both claim them.”
“That sounds fair,” Ben answered lamely. He didn’t expect that it would reply. He walked to the window, soft on his feet. His stomach felt tied and his heart was beating quite fast, but his curiosity was stronger than his caution. He reached for the heavy lock, and clung to it. The magpie was watching him. “Will you make the voices go away?” he pleaded. The magpie’s head turned at an unnatural angle.
“If that is what you wish.”
“Then come on in,” Ben muttered, and opened the window. A gush of cutting wind rushed in, and the magpie with it. It didn’t beat its wings fast enough, and it dropped to the ground. Ben tried to close the window, fighting with the strong draft. The magpie got to its feet, and started hopping around and around. It wasn’t behaving like a proper magpie at all. Ben secured the lock and turned to the bird, a silent dread gripping his throat. He had to be brave, he told himself; he’d just have to be a brave boy and all would be well.
“My gift,” he requested in a princely tone, lifting his chin. The magpie peered up at him.
“Raise me up.”
Ben offered it his palm; the magpie jumped on it. It didn’t weigh anything at all. Ben lifted it up, mouth pressed into a thin line. His mother did it when she wanted people to obey her will, and it always worked.
Without a warning, the magpie knocked on his forehead with its sharp beak. Ben winced in pain, and dropped it, but it unfolded its wings and started flying around him. Ben touched the spot he’d been hit; his fingers came away clean, although he could feel something oozing from the wound, thick like blood.
“Do you hear anything?” the magpie asked him.
“Just you,” he said in a thin voice. “You and the wind.”
He could hear the guests conversing, and even some clamour from the kitchen; they’d soon start bringing the china out. His father would soon come to get him.
“I can’t hear them thinking,” he admitted. He didn’t quite understand why he was disappointed.
“My gift, my gift, my gift,” the magpie sang, flying in dizzying circles.
“What do you want?”
The magpie stopped. It wasn’t moving its wings, but somehow it was still hovering just in front of Ben’s face.
“I want your eyes,” it announced. Then it opened its beak.
Ben remembers he was screaming.
He remembers hearing his father rushing upstairs, shouting his name.
The next thing in his memory is himself, lying in his mother’s lap, panting and repeating “I can’t see” over and over, voice getting higher. He could feel Leia’s touch on his damp forehead, how she rocked him back and forth, back and forth, but all was tainted with a darkness, although his eyes were open. He could feel them; it felt like they were on fire.
“Get the salt!” Leia shouted at Han, and just becoming aware of the people standing around the door, she shielded her son with her body, curling over him. “Please leave — My son is badly hurt. Threepio, will you see our guests out?”
A hundred questions— what happened, General —but Leia wasn’t paying them any attention. She covered Ben’s eyes with her palm, forcing him to close them, and kissed the top of his head.
“Where’s the magpie?” Ben asked, shrill with panic that it could be still there, flying around the room on soundless wings.
“It wasn’t a magpie,” Leia said, so softly only he could hear. He tensed. “My darling, it wasn’t a magpie at all.”
Han returned, locking the door after barked apologies, and dropped to his knees next to his family. He got Ben’s hand, and squeezed. Leia lifted her palm, and Ben blinked against the tainted darkness.
“His eyes are all black,” Han whispered, sounding sick. “How—”
“Honey,” Leia said, cupping Ben’s face. “Honey, honey, listen to me. He hexed you; I will try to lift the curse. You need to open your mouth so I can start cleaning away the bad magic. It will be unpleasant at first, but I promise it’ll make you feel better. Han?”
Han put the pincher of salt to Ben’s mouth as Leia helped keeping it open, gently clutching Ben’s jaw. Han started to pour it in, and Ben screamed as his mouth filled. It burned and hurt, and he was soon coughing it up, his saliva dripping down his chin as Leia shushed him, and Han said, “I’m so sorry, there’s not much left, it’ll soon be over. Leia, isn’t it enough? Won’t it kill him?”
“All of it,” Leia whispered, and Ben could hear it was paining her, but could no longer be certain of her emotions. Blind to the world and deaf to thoughts, he swallowed painful gulps of salt until there was no more left. His stomach churned and his throat felt like he had eaten fistfuls of glass. He was crying, cursed eyes dry, and it felt like punishment for having wasted his tears on trifling sorrows. He knew with a certainty that he was about to die, to dissolve into the eternal darkness veiling his vision, that everything would vanish.
“Lock all the doors, all the windows,” Leia told Han. “Send away everybody but Artie and Threepio; after that, no one can come, and no one can go. Get me sage and juniper from the kitchen, and elder berries, if you can find them; get me milk and honey and the sharpest knife. Burn candles; there must be no shadows in the corners.”
“You must contact Luke,” Han pleaded. “The sooner, the better.”
“Give me a week.” Leia squeezed Ben’s hand. “I can save him.”
* * *
Seven nights and seven days were spent like this: he tossed and turned, being eaten alive by sickness and darkness; fever gnawed on him and spit him out, only to swallow him whole again. He was put in his grandmother’s bed, his mother by his side always, feeding him milk mixed with blood and honey and whispering words strong enough to light up stars. Ben never knew her capable of such power; he understood she did it only in order to save him.
On the seventh night it seemed all would be in vain. Han, tasked with guarding the fires, lingered, as if he sensed that leaving Ben’s bedside would mean seeing his son for the last time.
“Dream with me,” Leia asked him, grasping his hand in her palms. “Come, Ben. Come with me.”
In the dream they’d flown over an ocean; in the dream, there was an island. Uncle Luke was waiting for them, and Ben could see.
“You must send him to me,” Luke said.
“I’d lose him,” Leia objected.
“If you don’t send him on this journey, you’ll lose him forever.”
They woke before dawn, and Leia washed him and dressed him, and Han packed his belongings.
“You’ll read all these books when you can see again,” he chatted away, voice distant and breaking. It was getting harder and harder to listen to the world, as if he was underwater. Han tied a handkerchief around his head, from the tip of his nose to his brows. “I know you don’t understand everything yet, and I know that you’re probably angry and scared. Remember this for when it will matter: I married a witch, and she stopped practicing magic to protect you. You have power on your own: it was wrong of us to pretend, to hope you didn’t. It attracted something which is much bigger and much older than you, or even your mother. Your uncle will be able to fight him off, and keep you safe. We must send you to him, and we can’t come with you — not yet; but we will write to you and visit as often as we can, and we’ll rebuild a life together. I promise you that. Don’t become a stranger.” Han hugged him, and he couldn’t hug him back. His arms were heavy like lead.
He was brought to a steamship, a huge, hungry iron beast. Threepio and Artie were to accompany him, and he was given a new name: Kylo Ren.
“Kylo is from the first part of Skywalker and the last of Solo, so it’ll be easy to remember,” Leia explained, fussing with his traveller’s cape before he’d board. “Ren sounds just like Ben; keep the name you were born with close to your heart, locked in your chest. It has power. I’ll think of you every waking hour, and we shall meet in your dreams. Before you know it, I’ll hold you in my arms again.” She pulled him close, and whispered into his hair: “You’re my blood. Between my strength and your father’s devilish luck, you’ll be just fine. Promise me you will be.”
The long weeks of his voyage must’ve been hell; Threepio almost perished on the way, but he was numb to the pain. It seemed that his soul was a few steps away from his body, rotting in a corner like a forgotten teddy bear, discarded and useless. In his soul’s absence, the darkness filled up the frail vessel of his flesh. Whoever possessed him was patient like water, seeping in drop by drop but shunning the lingering taste of salt, the echo of his mother’s words, the milk, the blood, the herbs. The fires his father lit for him were dimming but warm, shining upon him like a last flicker of hope, a guiding light for his shadow to know where was home.
By the time they got to the shores of England, his mind was absent; what remained was a vague awareness of being put in a coach and making haste upstream. He was brought to Lowood, to his uncle’s institute for unfortunate boys, and under the cover of night, he was led to a chapel where a thousand lights burned. Vicar Luke was waiting for him.
“He’s catatonic,” Threepio bemoaned, voice reverberating in the air, which was thick with incense and smoke. “He doesn’t speak, we can rarely make him eat or drink; he used to be such a lively boy, and now, and now—!”
“I must confess I preferred his mischief to this,” Artie said. “Can you please heal him?” He led Kylo forward, tugging on his sleeves; he followed blindly, stumbling, head spinning.
“You’ve done your part,” Luke addressed them as he crouched down to Kylo. His clothes smelled as if they were kept in an old cellar for far too long, but it wasn’t unpleasant; it just made him smell like a memory. “Please leave us alone for now; you will find a kindly fire inside and some drink to warm your spirits.” Gently, he undid the knot of the cloth covering Kylo’s eyes. The cool silk slipped off; touch, smell, sound, everything was begging him to notice the world around him. The chapel was the first place which felt real, ever since he’s left the red room. “Please, look at me,” Luke asked him.
“I can’t see,” Kylo said, and heard a falter in Threepio’s steps, a squeak of his shoes on marble as he spinned around.
“Master Ren! Already, he speaks!”
“Please leave,” Luke repeated, then turned his attention back to Kylo; it had a warmth, like the light of the sun. “I’m right here. Look. See.” He put his thumbs over Kylo’s closed eyes, and rubbed on them gently, as if he was trying to scrub away a bad dream. Kylo heard the door shut, enclosing them in the chapel’s stillness. “You’ve got the magpie’s eyes,” Luke mused. “No wonder you cannot use them. Open your own.”
“I gave them away,” he confessed, and a choked sob escaped his throat. He trembled with fear and shame, part of him wanting to crawl back to the numb darkness, never to feel pain again. Luke’s light touch seemed to pull him back, anchoring him in a frightening reality, unbearably heavy with the weight of unwitting mistakes.
“You did nothing wrong,” Luke said, picking up his scrambled thoughts. “You have been tricked. It wasn’t a fair bargain. You’re not bound by it.”
Kylo nodded his understanding. Please make it go away, he thought, but these were the same words which damned him, so he dared not utter them. Luke rubbed his temples, and touched his forehead to his.
“Say it after me: I am no bird—”
“I am no bird—” he muttered, half-convinced. The shadow of the magpie was beating its wings in his mind, knocking on his skull: lies, lies, lies.
“And no net ensnares me,” Luke’s voice suppressed the noise.
“And no net ensnares me,” he said, louder.
“I am a free human being with an independent will.”
“I am a free human being with an independent will,” Kylo repeated, curling his fingers into fists. “I am a free human being with an independent will!” For the third time, he screamed: “I am a free human being with an independent will!”
The veil of darkness was torn, and he fancied hearing a shriek; then there was candlelight, like stars, floating in the air; and he could see Luke’s eyes, sky-clear and bright, and his brilliant smile.
“Welcome to Lowood,” he said, and ruffled up Kylo’s hair.
* * *
By the time he was ten years of age, the magpie’s curse was just a faint memory; but Luke wouldn’t let him forget it. He insisted that still, he wasn’t safe.
It was hard to imagine that any harm would come to him while he was at Lowood. It was a dreary place, but there was something comforting in its gloom. The sky hung low over the endless moor surrounding the school, and the eternal winds made the tall grass sing. There were huge stones, old like memory, and thorny flowers, and treacherous, deep waters. Who would come to hurt him; who would cross the no man’s land?
And the building itself: like a fortress, with its crumblings vaults and flying buttresses. The walls were always damp and cold, and they had that cellar-smell which inevitably stuck to Kylo’s plain clothes, the itchy, grey wool uniform they were to wear. About fifty children, all boys, of varying ages and diverse stories of forsakenness. Kylo never felt like one of them; he had his little secret, scented letters sent from abroad, sealed with his mother’s sigil, filled with words of adoration and encouragement. When he cried at night, curled up on the narrow bed in the sleeping hall, shivering under a thin blanket, he cried for his darling New England, his sunny Massachusetts, the busy streets of Salem; he dreamed of his glorious return, rushing to his mother’s arms, being embraced by his father, the three of them clinging to each other without a thought of ever letting go.
Luke never tried to fill the void the absence of his family left; he regarded him with the same calm kindness he had for everybody else, and warned Kylo not to stick to his identity, to his name and rank; that losing them helped him survive those short years ago. “I have given up my heritage as well, and it served me right,” he explained; but that was by choice, thought Kylo. He found himself unable to give up his birthright, the expectation of being treated as the exception.
It was because of his aloofness that he had no friends; he was also told he had a mean tongue, and that he was prone to wickedness. He regarded these accusations as nonsense; a sign of envy, with all probability, which made him resentful in turn. His anger fueled his solitariness, and he buried himself in books while the others wasted away their time with games. He wanted to master his lessons, to cultivate his mind, perfect his manners, and forget everything about magic; to prove he was better than the lot.
The events which brought changes started on a starless Sunday night, with the arrival of a boy with burning hair. They were all asleep when he was brought to the hall; deep in yearning dreams, Kylo fancied hearing hushed arguments, but it was washed away by his mother’s calling. When he woke, he discovered that the bed next to his, an empty grave since its previous owner was claimed by typhus, has been filled. Its new occupant had his back to him, only allowing a glimpse of neatly combed ginger hair and fine travelling clothes, complete with a nicely embroidered cape. He still had his boots on.
The bell rang just after Kylo noticed the presence of the curious student. He jumped to his feet, made his bed in haste, and raced to his little bowl of water waiting on a long table to wash his face. He heard the boy startled from his shallow sleep by the clamour the students were making, and getting to his feet. Kylo chanced a polite glance over his shoulder. The boy was tall and lean, the childish roundness of his face juxtaposed by sharp cheekbones and a displeased frown. He walked up to the bowl next to Kylo’s, and narrowed his eyes at it, as if unsure what he was supposed to do next. Kylo broke in the ice covering the surface, and grinned up at him with a gappy smile, proud to know better.
“I would rather have a warm bath,” the boy croaked, and the students within earshot snickered.
He was called Augustus Burns. Within a fortnight, he earned himself a reputation of arrogance; he never listened to his name, made no attempt at conversation, refused to join games, but he was an infuriatingly bright student, rivaling Kylo’s talent and even surpassing him thanks to his years and experience. Kylo felt a kinship between them; they were the only gentlemen in the mass of ordinary orphans, destined for greatness, superior in skills. Any attempt to make friends, however, failed; Augustus mistook him to be one of the wretched children without hope, without future.
It so happened that when they were ushered outside on a snowy Monday to get some fresh air, Kylo resolved to only watch Augustus from a distance; not so long ago, he would’ve been tagging along, chatting away and making a fool of himself, but I have matured since then, he assured himself. Augustus offered a pitiful sight, his uniform’s coat hanging limply from his narrow shoulders, his trousers too short for his long legs, allowing a glimpse of his calf peeking out from shoes quite insufficient for the weather. His cheeks and nose were red from the cold, and he just walked around the fences while the others were engaged in a snowball fight, running a stick over the wooden bars and listening to how it clanged. How dumb, Kylo mused, to refuse my company for this — the dullness of remoteness. He had smuggled out a book and was ready to make pretence of reading, sitting on the stairs, above them all. There was a delighted shriek, and a stray snowball got Augustus’ nape. Kylo winced in sympathy. Augustus tried to fish it out from his upturned collar, while the others laughed.
“Attack!” called their leader, Perry, a brawny boy of seventeen, and roaring and shouting, the children were on Augustus within a minute. He was besieged, snowballs raining on him like cannon-fire. He was brought to his knees, and made a sorry attempt to protect his head; “That’s cheating,” one of the boys shrieked.
“Take it like a man,” Perry said, grinning and grabbing his collar, “or fight back!” He tried to shovel more snow into his clothes with his big hands; Kylo heard a snap. A frightening scream followed. Kylo jumped to his feet, trying to see what happened. Perry stumbled back; the stick Augustus had in his hand, now broken in half, was poking out of his eye. Blood bubbled up between his ungloved fingers as he covered his face, and he screamed and screamed.
“Who dares lay a hand on me?” Augustus yelled, shouting over Perry’s pained cries, and stabbed at the air with the sharp end of the stick. The boys jumped back, and Augustus repeated on the voice of challenge: “Who dares to try?”
A teacher came running, shouting, “Put that down in that instant! Put that down!”
Kylo tore his gaze away from Mr. Watkins, and met Augustus’ eyes. He looked composed and calm, but when he handed over the stick, his eyes got round with shock, and with trembling lips, he said:
“It was an accident— We were playing… Oh, I am most dreadfully sorry! It was a game—a game, sir!”
None of the witnesses opposed his claim, and Perry just wailed and wailed.
* * *
“I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt,” Luke announced, “but even if what you did was just an act of carelessness, it shall not go unpunished.”
They were all gathered in the refectory, clothes still wet from melting snow, boots muddy and leaving puddles of dirt on the floor. Augustus stood before Luke with his head hanging low. Kylo had never seen Luke so furious; his wind-chafed cheeks were pale with it and his eyes were the burning blue of lightning, but he didn’t raise his voice. He presented an upturned bucket to Augustus, and pronounced:
“You are to stand on it for a day; you will not be given food, nor drink. We welcomed you into our community in a time of need; you must earn our trust, and repent.”
Augustus opened his mouth to say something, but then thought better of it, and stepped on the bucket. Luke was watching him with his arms crossed over his chest; Augustus was taller than him like this, but Luke must have felt he had the upper hand. He looked his pupil up and down, disappointment apparent on his face, and then stepped away from him.
“The rest of you: you will come to me one by one, and I want you to tell me in detail what you saw; and what you say shall remain between us, but have dire consequences for those they condemn. While you wait, please help yourself to breakfast. You will be supervised by Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Quattlebaum, and I ask you not to talk.”
No directive was of use; when Kylo was called into his room, he found Luke standing by the stove, looking quite crestfallen and saying, “They all say it was an accident.”
Kylo swallowed down a smile. “It was an accident, uncle.”
Luke sighed. “You know I can read minds.”
“Do you want them to know?” Kylo challenged. “What will you say? How did you find out the truth, if none of them told you?”
Luke tilted his head. “Why are you enjoying this, Kylo?”
“Because justice is served,” he snapped. “They were tormenting him; they’re wicked boys, the lot. They spread awful rumours and steal our food. Perry got what he deserved—”
“No child deserves to lose an eye,” Luke interrupted. “I would think you of all people could sympathise.”
“I do have sympathy; just not for Perry.”
Luke walked to his writing desk, and touched it with timid fingers. A quill and a heap of papers were lying there, the latter with crossed-out lines and angry scribbles.
“They will fear him,” he said. “Then they will worship him — seek his favours; an eye for an eye, revenge; it is all so ironically Biblical, and has the same appeal.” He sighed. “Mark my words, Kylo: the God of the Old Testament has been overthrown; all it took was a promise of forgiveness, of love and kindness.”
“You don’t believe in God,” Kylo blurted out, only realising this. Luke’s fingers sought out his cross.
“I know of bigger powers; and you are, sadly, right; those powers are not to be revealed, and I cannot lie about my evidence — children know lies all too well. Augustus Burns will stay with us, for now; and I am reluctant to alert his parents — as I said, no child deserves to suffer.”
“Are they bad people?”
“Very.” Luke dropped his hand. “Please, watch the inclinations of your heart. Don’t ever allow yourself acts of fervor or hatred; you know what happens when malevolent powers take a residence.”
Kylo contemplated this advice as he left Luke’s room, but he wasn’t meditating for long. After lunch, he sneaked some bread in Augustus’ pocket as he passed him, and at night, he sought him out with a glass of water.
“Quick, drink,” he whispered. Augustus seemed like a stylite to him, an early saint banished to live atop a pillar. Augustus’ hair glowed with the moonlight that touched it, and the surprise in his eyes was the first genuine emotion Kylo had ever seen on his face.
“What do you want from me?” Augustus whispered. Kylo smirked.
“I want you to drink.”
* * *
Luke was right about Augustus: his fellow pupils avoided him when he returned to floor-level, but it was more of a respectful distance. Any rumours of him being the bastard of some high lord who tried to hide his shame ceased. He also found his bed furnished with a supplementary blanket that evening. He was always given the chair closest to the hearth, the thickest slice of bread, two spreads of butter, sugar in his coffee — and Kylo was to share in these luxuries.
It was a reluctant friendship. Augustus initiated it by stopping next to him as he was chanting his Latin lesson, and scolded him with brows furrowed:
“Divide et impera,” he said. “Mind your pronunciation.”
“Dee-wide ey em-pear-eh,” Kylo said, overdoing his American accent, and grinned. Augustus almost returned it with a smirk, and took his slate. He looked it over, found no further faults, and handed it back.
“Where are you from, anyway?” he asked, in a voice suggesting it was of no particular interest to him.
“How do you spell that?”
Kylo wrinkled up his nose, and Augustus’ smirk finally made a full appearance.
“I have not encountered it in the written form as of yet,” Kylo mumbled. It was part of his mother’s address, but he always skipped that part of the letters.
“Let us find your home,” Augustus said, and offered his hand. Kylo took it, and he was pulled to his feet. He was led to the tiny library; it felt such an honour, being seen in Augustus’ company as they crossed the rooms of the school. Everybody pretended to be engrossed in their lessons, and even the teachers did not dare ask where they were headed. Perry was the best at pretending they were invisible, but that might have been because he wasn’t seeing very well.
Augustus got the only atlas Lowood School owned, and handed it to Kylo. “Shall we discover the Americas?”
Instead of an answer, Kylo just greedily opened the book and started turning the pages; Augustus gracefully lowered himself to the ground, and he followed suit, sitting cross-legged and putting the book in his lap.
“Tell me everything I need to know of your country,” Augustus requested. “Make it interesting.”
“If I tell you everything, you wouldn’t believe me, for this is the most fascinating place in the entire world. It all began when God created it first, and named it Eden—”
“He did not,” Augustus scoffed, but his eyes were shining with glee.
* * *
Having a friend for the first time ever, Kylo couldn’t understand how could he lived so solitary all these years—a decade!—for there was nothing more amusing than telling Augustus tall tales and lowly jokes and making him laugh. While Augustus had no interest in games, he was glad to offer his companionship and converse with him, sometimes late into the night in hushed tones, or after the service, Kylo still wearing his altar boy’s clothes, the both of them hiding away in the sacristy and eating what altar bread had not been turned into the body of Christ yet; Augustus even helped himself to the wine at times, but told Kylo he was still a child and shouldn’t even be close to alcohol.
Augustus’ company made him feel special, appreciated; even when Augustus was in a foul mood, it felt good just to linger, to offer his understanding silence. When Augustus’ spirits were high, he was an absolute delight. They sneaked out for evening walks, and conversed; they would pick marigolds and Lazarus bell, and pick at their petals. The peculiar smell of wildflowers lingered, and Kylo used it as his smelling salts when his temper worsened: a quick sniff at his wrist during an endless lecture would bring him back to the moor, and he could almost make out how the breeze tamed the flames of his friend’s hair. Augustus didn’t appreciate it when Kylo made faces at him while they were supposed to be engrossed in their lessons; he sat with the older boys in the back, and he found Kylo trying to get his attention from the front rows a distraction — but smiles were exchanged, and later, gossip behind the possible reasons of a teacher’s faults or a pupil’s misbehaviour.
They grew inseparable. They always sat together to consume their meager meals, and people would make way for them in the hallways. Kylo always matched Augustus’ pace, and found himself imitating his manner, keeping his lips stiff and letting his eyes cast judgment.
Augustus was often sick, but Kylo never minded it. He’d stay by his bedside, and be allowed to read to him. His studies were far more exciting than Kylo’s own, and he demanded the parts he couldn’t understand to be explained. He imagined walking the streets of ancient Rome with Augustus, riding camels through the Saharan deserts, fighting along with the warriors of the Ottoman Empire together; and when he was in a less fanciful mood, he imagined bringing Augustus home with him for a visit, presenting him to American society and showing him the Aquinnah cliffs, the Royalston falls, and—as they often joked—the World’s End in Hingham.
April found Augustus severely ill again, but Kylo did not think it was cause for any concern; Augustus had it far worse in the winter, coughing up blood and losing weight rapidly. Now, he was merely feverish, and the dry coughs he choked up didn’t sound all that alarming. He couldn’t get up in the morning, burning up and trembling. Kylo fetched the nurse, left his friend with the promise of seeking him out during nooning, and attended his morning lessons. When he returned, bursting to tell Augustus every single detail about his day, he was nowhere to be found.
He sought out Luke, who was helping the gardener with the lilacs. Still clutching his books and frowning in the sunlight, he called out, “Where is Augustus?”
“In my room,” Luke answered without turning to him. “I’m afraid he’s very sick. He needed a proper bed close to the windows, so he can cool down and breathe fresh air; we sent for a doctor, and alerted his family.”
It was absurd. The garden was blooming merrily, and the air was balmy, sweet; the moors were vivid with the thousand colours of spring, bees and butterflies roaming about; it was unimaginable that death or danger would lurk here, not now.
“Is it that bad, or are you just being very cautious?” he asked, voice thin.
Luke looked at him, worry settled over his brows and his eyes distant. “We’re doing what we can,” he said, “but I’m afraid we can’t do much.”
Kylo spun on his heels, dropping the bundle of books, and raced to Luke’s room, storming through the school. His heart was beating in his throat, and he was chanting, “No, no, no!”
By the time he reached the door, he was blinking away angry tears. The door was yanked open without him even touching the knob, and he hurried to the bed and fell to his knees. Augustus lay there, as white as the puffy pillows, dressed down to his nightgown. Clearly, he was breathing, but the first sob escaped Kylo’s throat seeing him like this, so frail and pale. He grabbed his wrist, and squeezed.
“Wake up! You must wake up!”
Augustus grunted, and sank lower, so the blanket creeped up to his nose. He looked very sullen, and his hair was a mess.
“Why would I do that?”
“They are telling me you might die,” Kylo cried.
“They’re probably right,” Augustus mumbled, but pried his eyes open, and peeked at him over the hem of the blanket.
“Please, please don’t die,” Kylo begged, taking his hand with an urgency and pressing it to his cheek. It was cold and damp with sweat.
“I will try my best,” Augustus promised. “Don’t cry.”
“I didn’t even have the time to get to know you,” Kylo bawled.
“Now, that’s just rude; you’re my sole companion, Kylo Ren. I’d say we know each other quite well.”
“That is not even my real name.”
“Nor is Augustus Burns mine. See how much we have in common?” He laughed, dry, then closed his eyes. His light lashes trembled as his face twitched.
“How can I help you?” Kylo forced out between wretched sobs.
“I’d very much like to sleep; I’m so tired, and weak.” Distaste was evident in his voice. Kylo rubbed a soothing circle over his knuckles.
“Can I stay with you?” he pleaded.
There was a short pause. “If you insist,” Augustus muttered. “I’d appreciate the company. It’s awfully dull here, and your friendship has always been a solace—”
“Don’t say your goodbyes yet,” Kylo interrupted. “Don’t get nostalgic; we’re right here.”
Augustus smirked, eyes still closed. “Will you read me a bedtime story, little friend? Something to remember— So I can brag in heaven, I used to have this schoolmate—”
“Go to hell,” Kylo grunted, and punched his shoulder.
“And I will say to the devil,” Augustus teased, “there was this infant, the brother I never had—”
“You only have five years on me!”
“And he used to read me Shakespeare,” Augustus finished with a satisfied grin, and peered up at him. “Didn’t he? Richard the Third, I think, or any of the Henrys.”
“You don’t deserve me,” Kylo announced, but got up to get the volumes anyway; and he was no longer crying.
* * *
Seven night and seven days and countless plays brought little hope; Augustus’ coughing fits grew even more violent, but they both believed he might survive just by sheer power of will. Kylo neglected his studies, and sat by his side, guarding his uneasy dreams as his mother used to do for him.
“Is there nothing more I could do?” he asked Luke in hushed tones; Augustus was lying senseless, chapped lips parted for rattling breaths.
“You shouldn’t,” Luke said solemnly.
“And you? Is there no spell, no charm, no herbs? Don’t you have healing powers?”
“There is nothing preternatural in consumption — or death, for that matter; it’s painful and unfair, and it happens. We can only hope it won’t happen to him, not now.” Luke suppressed a yawn; giving up his bed meant he was sleeping in the stables, accompanied by all the animals the school owned and a thousand biting bugs. He looked ready to drop, but Kylo had no pity for him; he should do more than wait out the catastrophe.
“Leave us, then,” he said, “if you cannot help.” He turned his back, but caught a glimpse of Luke’s reflection on the window — how hurt he seemed, how offended before he left. He neglected to close the door, so Kylo got up and shut it behind him with more force than necessary. It startled Augustus from his dream.
“What time it is?” he demanded, sitting up in the bed.
“Around nine, I think.”
Augustus frowned, and collapsed back to the pillows. “Will this night never end?”
“It has barely started.”
“I’m sick and tired of it,” Augustus complained. “How darkness bleeds into light, how morning passes and afternoon comes. Idleness irks me; what wonders could I achieve, and here I am, a useless burden—”
“You’re not a burden,” Kylo objected, but August was overcome with coughing, and couldn’t answer him. Kylo took his seat on the stool he had set up next to the bed, and reached for Augustus’ hand. Augustus shook his head.
“Read to me,” he pleaded, delirious. “Fill my mind; pour in your stories. Give me Shakespeare; my kingdom for some Shakespeare! There’s nothing left in the world which would entertain me; have I ever told you that it’s your accent that does the wonder? I don’t care too much for him — the cursed iambic pentameter hurts my ears, it’s so dull, so simple; not in your voice, however. You have Puritans and prisoners to thank for that; when they arrived in the New World, they kept the old ways: your speech is closer to Shakespeare’s pronunciation than mine will ever be, and all the actors in London would envy you. Lines work; rhymes work; puns work. There you have it: do your magic.”
Kylo was blushing to high heavens, and quickly averted his gaze. The next play in line was Macbeth: he found it fitting to Augustus’ mood, his mind full of scorpions.
“‘When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’”
“Again,” Augustus repeated, imitating his way of speech, and Kylo took it as an order.
“‘When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’”
“‘When the hurlyburly's done, when the battle’s lost and won,’” Augustus quoted.
It was a short play, and it was over too soon; Augustus nodded off before Kylo had reached the final battle between Macbeth and Malcolm, so he finished on scene five in the last act, and marked the page; Augustus wouldn’t want to miss the final speech, the flourish and the hailing. He climbed in bed with him, curling up to the feverish heat he emitted, and slept, resting his cheek against his chest to listen to his breathing.
When he woke, he was alone. The windows were open, and he heard the calls of the meadow pipit, and the breeze rustling the shrubs. Augustus was nowhere to be found. His first thought was that he might’ve escaped, but why would he go without him, and where? He leant out the window, and shouted his name; no answer came. Something was moving in the distance, but it was much bigger than a boy running away in his nightgown.
“Augustus Burns!” he yelled again. “Augustus!”
Luke appeared in the door, wearier than ever, his floppy blond hair hopelessly tousled and eyes eternally tired. One look at him was enough of an answer. Kylo clutched the windowsill, nails digging into the soft wood.
“He died,” he cried, heart sinking, “didn’t he? Died during the night. Oh, why didn’t you wake me up?”
“Why didn’t I...” Luke repeated weakly, and rubbed his temples. Time seemed to still; Luke looked like a portrait titled Denial , and Kylo, Grief ; a tearless fury washed over him, and he could hardly hear Luke saying, “His father came to fetch him; they’re taking him down South. It has a better climate, salty air; he might survive.”
“His father wants him to vanish,” Kylo said, voice a tremble. “His death would be welcome. He wouldn’t have come.”
“I was surprised,” Luke confessed.
“Are you lying to spare me?” Kylo demanded.
“I have no patience for your accusations to-day,” Luke said, firmly. His regret and guilt were palpable even without Kylo’s stolen senses.
“Liar!” he screamed; Luke’s shoulders dropped, and wordlessly, he closed the door.
Kylo’s double defiance slowly poisoned his own mind; he denied that Luke could’ve said the truth, but he also protested Augustus’ death. Time would offer a solution; surely, Augustus wouldn’t forget about him, and write him a letter, send his regards, whisper to the wind to greet his friend; but no news came, and no new evidence.
Kylo’s heart panged; he was distracted, half-mad. There was no body to bury and no resurrection to celebrate. He interrogated Luke over and over again, searched the perimeters, made weekly trips to the post office; nothing. A month passed, then two, three, and on a hot summer night, he found himself in the school’s little graveyard, quite ready to dig up the unmarked graves. Mr. Watkins dragged him away, and he was banned from the garden for a week.
His fellow pupils were relieved, sickeningly so; they never cared whatever happened to Augustus Burns; what mattered was that he was finally gone. Soon, his bed was occupied by a new boy named Clement, who was very little, and in the habit of wetting the mattress. Once again, Kylo was without friends, and from all games, he’d been excluded.
Years passed; he never shed a tear for his friend, still hoping that he’d come back from the South, happy, healthy, and with an intricate tale full of twists and misfortunes which prevented him sending a letter.
Near his sixteenth birthday, a very special message was waiting for him; but it was from his mother, and he came to receive those communications with disappointment. Two words— I live !—would have outweighed the pleasure of his mother’s letter. She announced that they’d come visit shortly, to celebrate; a surprise she was more than happy to finally reveal. Kylo was pleased, but not overjoyed, and he scorned himself for it. He knew he should be euphoric; how long he’s been waiting for a reunion, and now that it became a reality, it seemed more of an ordeal. His parents wouldn’t come to Lowood, they wanted him to travel to Chandrila in Cumbria on his own. He told himself he shouldn’t take offense; they had crossed an ocean for him, after all; yet he was anxious, feeling out of his depth as he had to navigate roads he never travelled, so far from the safety of his alma mater.
Leia and Han were staying with an acquaintance, at Miss Mon Mothma’s residence. They had neglected to mention that it was a proper castle, in the possession of Mothma’s family since the rule of the Tudors, and as Kylo stood there in his ill-fitting schoolboy’s uniform, clutching a luggage he had had to borrow from Luke, he felt like an intruder.
He remembered his mother with pearls in her hair, a celebrated beauty with a smile on her lips, but she has aged, and sorrow and worry had caved her kind face and faded her hair; and his father, the hero of his childhood, looked a proper embarrassment, his simple attire ridiculous contrasted by the castle’s fine elegance. He banished these impressions, and flew into to their arms — but found that he couldn’t leave the weariness of his travel behind, that he was fatigued and irritated, and his present mood suppressed the mirth of seeing his family again.
They were to spend a month in Chandrila together; and on the very first evening, they already seemed to run out of topics of conversation.
“So Luke is treating you well, huh?” Han asked for the third time over dinner, and Kylo confirmed that he was content. The dessert was eaten in silence.
“You must be so tired, darling,” Leia said, excusing him finally. “You should rest; to-morrow is a new day, and it has such joys in store.”
The joys in store turned out to be a walk on the perimeters, luncheon, tea, dinner, and the general unease he caused by attempting to clean the table himself. Word got out that he had even made his own bed.
“There’s no shame in work; I work,” Han said, making everything worse. Miss Mothma discreetly glanced away, playing with her parasol as they sat in the garden. It dawned on Kylo that her mother married way below her rank; he didn’t know why he never considered it before. In his memory, he saw his parents through a child’s eyes; but now he wondered — why did Grandmother Padmé leave England, and why did Luke return? What happened after he left? How did his mother explain away the scandal? And oh Lord — what about the secret of witchcraft?
He didn’t sleep that evening; he was bursting with questions, but didn’t want answers. His heritage was tainted; his magnificent return to Salem, awaiting for him in the future, was a child’s dream. His reintegration to society would be a hard and humiliating process. He knew so little of his homeland — and there was nowhere he belonged.
Each day spent at Chandrila revealed that his manners were lacking, that he was seen as awkward and fumbling in polite company. His parents bored him, although he fought against the realisation — it was a losing battle. Leia treated him like a child, Han like a fellow adult, and he was neither. He found himself longing for the familiar misery of Lowood, a chance to return to his studies and to a bed which was not suffocatingly soft.
He knew he should appreciate the luxuries offered him; moreover, he should take them for granted. He felt like a fraud, an impostor: he didn’t fit into the the role which was expected of him. He felt as if he had stumbled upon a stage in borrowed attire, and amidst the admiring cheers of his audience he realised he didn’t know his lines.
Miss Mothma must have noticed his angst, even if his parents were blind to it, and with a discretion Kylo could only envy suggested they seek out excitement and go to a ball.
“A ball!” Leia objected. “I don’t believe I would be welcomed.”
“A general of the army of the United States, a champion of justice, a thinker, a writer?” Miss Mothma said. “Darling, you would be celebrated.”
“Shame you don’t show the same appreciation for herding livestock,” Han noted, and Kylo excused himself. He was making his ways upstairs, planning to lock himself into his room for a week and not talk to anybody, when he overheard Leia:
“If I go, I’d rather go anonymously.”
“Please do come!” Miss Mothma urged her. “Think of it, Ben—Kylo, excuse me—should be introduced to girls soon! He hasn’t even seen one in that dreadful school, has he?”
Make that two weeks, he told himself. A fortnight of exile.
Miss Mothma was not to be stopped. She not only made him come out of his room the very next day with the promise of coffee, she managed to convince Leia that attending the ball would indeed be a fine idea, and that they all needed to get new clothes made.
“It’ll be a masquerade,” she explained. “A small gathering, some fifty families. What would you like to be, Kylo dear?”
“Dead,” he said.
He ended up wearing a simple mask, compensating for the lack of flourish with a smart cape and a tricorn hat. Leia dressed as Titania, queen of the Amazons; Han chose the donkey-headed Bottom over Oberon. Kylo tried his best not to be associated with them, kept his distance, and helped himself to generous servings of champagne in the refreshment room when no one was looking. More food was laid out then he could ever dream of, and what a delicious variety: biscuits, crackers, bon-bons, sandwiches, and the queen of the table: cups of trifle. He couldn’t work up his courage to touch the sweets, and drowned his sorrows discreetly.
Two things became painfully clear. Firstly: upon observing the flock of girls present, he had to admit to himself that he was not interested in them, not in the slightest. Secondly: he knew none of the dances, which came as a surprise to everyone involved — as if his blood would make up for a lack of proper upbringing. The floor manager was in agony when he refused to sign up to any set; there were young ladies in most desperate need of a pair for the quadrille and the waltz, especially. Against his wishes, he was given a card and was told to approach any lady who took a seat for longer than a minute, and ask their hands in dance, or else (it was implied) he’d lose his honour forever.
Having no other choice, he climbed the stairs to the gallery, and hid himself from searching glances. He fancied himself invisible, observing the jolly masses from his hiding spot. Admittedly, it proved some entertainment, from a distance — the dancers twirled into kaleidoscope-formations, broke up the pattern, reunited; but as the trumpet announced several sets, it started to look more and more monotonous, until even the music was reduced to a repetitive buzz. His feet were aching, and he was playing with the curled edges of his empty card absent-mindedly. The ballroom blurred out in front of his eyes as he dozed of for a minute, and when he blinked himself awake, he started, having noticed an apparition: a beautiful youth with flame-bright hair.
The world halted; the music stopped; the dance hall spun around — Kylo leant over the railing, ready to shout the name always on the tip of his tongue; but what if he was mistaken? The youth was taller and older than his childhood friend — but of course he would be, if he survived, he must’ve aged. He was wearing a general’s uniform — it seemed genuine, even: a scarlet coatee with fringed epaulettes and white trousers; he had a limp in his steps as he approached the dance floor, looking around to avoid collision with the ladies’ enormous ball gowns. A mask was covering most of his face, and Kylo couldn’t make out the rest from this distance.
He contemplated leaping over the railing and rushing to him after a dramatic landing, but he didn’t want to risk the injury. He made for the staircase, stealing glances just to check whether the general was still there. He seemed to find whomever he was looking for, a broad man with a ginger beard, leading a sharp-faced woman half his age on his arm off the floor. He said something to him, and the man made an impatient gesture: away with you. Kylo quickened his steps, rushing down the stairs.
He was late; the next dance had begun by the time he reached the ground, and it was impossible to cross the dance floor. He searched for the general frantically, running around on the fringes, peeking over shoulders and earning shocked scoffs. It seemed he had disappeared, as if the earth had swallowed him up. His mother grabbed his elbow, and discreetly guided him behind a column.
“What happened, honey?”
“I think I saw somebody,” he said, restless gaze sweeping over the guests. The hall seemed to be washed over by a storm of colour and noise; among the many spots of white and red and gold, none belonged to his long-lost friend.
“You look like you saw a ghost.”
Kylo shook his head, freed himself, and rushed to check the dressing rooms, the refreshments room, even the privy, and all of them twice: nothing. The lights of the chandeliers were hurting his eyes, the curious glances with which the guests regarded him made him anxious. He must’ve given the impression of a madman.
He ran outside. It was a balmy spring eve, just like the one when Augustus Burns had vanished. The coaches waiting in long lines were all empty, and he didn’t encounter anybody in the garden, save for a little girl counting down to hide-and-seek, some servants, and a pair of young lovers. Defeated, Kylo headed back to the building, mind racing, but his heart seeming to halt.
After the odd encounter, his mood gradually worsened. He spent the entirety of his last week in bed, ate little, and talked even less.
“I wonder what ails him,” he overheard Leia’s whisper. She and Han were lingering by his door after saying their goodnights.
“He’s sixteen,” Han opinionated.
“When I was sixteen, I was writing pamphlets against the gold standard.”
“I had a pet racoon, and Lando and I got banned from every saloon in Colorado.”
Leia scoffed. “He takes after you.”
“He takes after his grandfather,” Han said, and an uneasy silence followed. Kylo rolled onto his back and stared up at the canopy. He wished to tell them everything about Augustus, but the thought alone made him flustered. Their tale, recounted, sounded pathetic: they spent so little time together, and yet he’d been obsessing over his apparent death for six years. If only he knew what had happened; if only he wasn’t being reminded of him constantly; if only he wasn’t being haunted.
He wanted to ask Miss Mothma about the generals in attendance; maybe he could find out Augustus’ real name, and learn his destiny — but if he didn’t care enough to reach out for Kylo, why would he try to contact him? And what if Miss Mothma would just look at him — a general with orange-brown hair, twenty-one years of age? Never heard of anybody like him! In his mind, he searched the dancing hall again and again, the rooms, the garden. It’s not that I couldn’t find him, he told himself. He was never there. It was a figment of my imagination; or it might’ve been someone with his likeness and quick steps; I could barge the door of a stranger.
He was so disturbed by the encounter he couldn’t pay mind to anything else. Their stay came to an end, and he only realised what goodbye meant over breakfast, as he heard the servants struggle with their luggages. (He packed his himself, as an act of defiance.) He looked at Leia politely sipping on hot chocolate and Han engaged in an epic battle against a hard boiled egg, thinking that he was more likely to encounter Miss Mothma again, this lady he’s just been introduced to, than his own parents; of time and place coming between them again. How he wasted these blessed weeks, how selfish he’s been. Still, when Han said, only half-joking, “We could build you a kayak; hop in and come with us, huh?” he got irrationally scared that it was a plan.
“I wish to finish my studies,” he blurted out, “here, where I’m safe.” He shot a pleading glance at Leia, who replied with a sad smile.
“Luke will look out for you as long as you need him to; and when you feel ready, you’ll come home. Your room is waiting for you exactly how you left it.”
That sounded disheartening. He imagined himself sitting on the carpet, lanky limbs folded, surrounded by all his toys, and was filled with dread.
This time around, he was accompanied to Lowood, which made the journey awkward and tense. He already said his goodbyes in his mind, but his parents didn’t vanish with the last adieu . He didn’t know how to conduct himself, what was appropriate, and found himself bitter.
Luke was waiting for them by the gate, and Kylo was almost touched; but Luke didn’t even spare him a glance, he ran to his sister’s arms. Kylo struggled with his luggage as they held each other close, laughing with an unadulterated joy alien to his ears.
“You should’ve come to Chandrila!” Leia exclaimed. “I so yearned for your company!”
“I’m afraid I’m quite busy.”
“Am I not?” Leia scoffed, and poked him, as if they were children.
“Little Luke, as I live,” Han grinned. He was pulled into Luke’s embrace, and got a peck on his lips; Leia smiled fondly, seeing this, while Kylo frowned. He felt like he was standing at a much greater distance, spying on them, an outlander unfamiliar with the geography of their island of joy. He never saw Luke showing so much affection, to the point that he thought him incapable of possessing it: his love was impersonal, remote. His family seemed to consist entirely of strangers, their history nothing but secrets. He turned his back, just when Han asked: “My kid wear you down?”
“Not at all; he’s one of my brightest students, reserved, but talented,” Luke boasted, and they all turned to him.
“I’ll be in my room,” he mumbled, when it occurred to him that he won’t have a room anymore.
“We might go for a walk; are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Luke proposed, and he just muttered, “No, thank you.”
He made his way through the garden; all the flowers were but mere weeds, and the grass was patchy. Now that he was back, he couldn’t understand how he could ever miss the place; he was always cold here, always hungry, and so solitary. He’d have to listen to the nightly noise of his fellow students, be startled from his sweetest dreams; unrewarding work was waiting, black bread, tepid coffee, and swollen feet.
Escape awaits, he promised himself. To hell with Lowood; to hell with Salem; Chandrila, farewell; I will make my own way.
His vow was fulfilled when he was twenty-one; an adult by all measures, with no more reason or excuse to stay away from his paved destiny. Luke made him a teacher three years prior, but urged him shortly after his birthday to leave for the States.
“Your place is with your family,” he said.
“So why is your place here?” Kylo stepped in front of him, challenging. He’d grown; he was tall and well-built, chopping wood and a love for exercise giving him a quite threatening frame. Sinewy Luke was not to be intimidated; he regarded him patiently.
“Never love the same man as someone else,” he said. Kylo refused to be shocked.
“I don’t think I should be too worried about that. Suitors are not exactly lining up at the doorstep of a man of my inclination and fortune.”
“I might have left out of — consideration, a selfish sort of self-sacrifice, an unasked-for martyrdom; the reason I stayed is much more complicated.”
“Tell me,” Kylo urged. They were in the chapel; Luke began to light the candles, without the use of matches. They started to hover, one by one, and Luke was watching them with something akin to sadness.
“I followed a wandering spirit,” he said. “I went to the swamps where time stopped; a toad told me its secrets; I walked the stars and destroyed what was left of my past. I had hopes of building a coven; I sought out peculiar children. Inadvertently, I had brought doom to them — people might no longer burn or hang witches publicly, but don’t think for a second the practice doesn’t live; and don’t think some might not turn against themselves, or others, when they discover what powers they possess. The only lesson I can teach you about magic is this: don’t meddle with it, and you’ll be safe. I only know one truth: it’s time for the witches to end.”
“A toad told you its secrets,” Kylo said slowly, not being able to filter the humour from his voice. Luke was not amused.
“You gave your eyes to a magpie,” he recounted sharply.
Kylo raised his shoulders. “It seems like a dream.”
“It was real.” Luke stepped closer, and tipped his chin up so he could look Kylo in the eyes. “It’s time you face that reality again. You were a suggestible child, naïve, eager when you left Massachusetts — life hardened you, and it did you well. You know now how to guard your mind; you have a perfect sense of self. I healed you, sheltered you, fed you, clothed you, taught you, employed you, protected for you as long as I could — there’s nothing more for me to do. You are on your own, come the fall. I release you.”
“And I damn you,” Kylo answered. He turned on his heels, and marched away, wishing his words had power. He went straight to the teacher’s room to pen a letter, but it was not for his mother.
A young man accustomed to tuition is desirous of meeting with a situation in a private family where the children are under sixteen. He is qualified to teach the usual branches of an English education, together with French, Latin, Drawing & Music. Address K. R., Post-office, Lowton, —shire
He figured his advertisement would be welcomed favourably in many families, and was disappointed to learn a week later that there was just a solitary envelope waiting for him in the post office. He pocketed it, nevertheless, and felt his heartbeat against it on the long walk back to Lowood. Whatever the letter entailed, he swore it would be the last time he crossed these paths. Mist rolled over the moors, thick and heavy. He watched his steps, and clutched the letter. The scene of his childhood blurred out, the colours of the wildflowers dimmed, and the horizon seemed to close in on him. He breathed in the smell: rot and wet and smoke mixed with sweet blossoming; he wagered it’d be the last thing he forgot about the place, and just before that, the buzzing silence.
The school came into view, its thick stone walls and wooden hedges. Luke’s window was dark, although dusk had began to gather. He kept his eyes on it as he neared the building. He crossed the shabby garden, which echoed with laughter and a piercing scream; he climbed the steps — he used to take them by two; he stopped by Luke’s door, and listened. No noise. It creaked as he opened it, and stepped inside. His gaze fell to the bed. It was neatly made, empty. His imagination filled it: a boy refusing to die, and his little friend keeping vigil. He wondered whether Augustus truly liked his company; from the distance of his present years, the behaviour of his former self was an embarrassment. Too keen, too wild, too much heart and little mind.
“To-morrow, and to-morrow,” he said, lingering by the door. “These were my last words to you: ‘to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.’ I told you that life was a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. A walking shadow. A poor player fretting on the stage. Is it any wonder you left it behind?” He let out a soft exhale. “Augustus Burns, you died.” It was nothing but a whisper. He walked to the bed, trying to remember what did Augustus say to him last. When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won. For a brief second, he saw the general. When shall we three meet again? He blinked a few times, sparkles dancing in the twilight. He lowered himself to the bed; it was so small, he wondered how did they ever fit into it. He pressed his back to the window, and tore the envelope open. He angled the letter so he could see it in the thinning light, and began to read.
If K. R., who advertised in the —shire Herald of last Thursday, possesses the acquirements mentioned; and if he is in a position to give satisfactory references as to character and competency; a situation can be offered him where there is but one pupil, the Honble. Millicent Hux, nine years of age, sister of G. The Lord Arkanis; and, where the salary is thirty pounds per annum. K. R. is requested to send references, name, address, and all particulars to the direction:
Dopheld Mitaka, Stormfield Hall, near Millcote, —shire