"A strong government is a strong people," your father says across the table. He waves his fork in emphasis, and you watch to see if any particle of food flies off the tines.
"Yes, my darling," your mother answers, with no smile except for the one in her eyes. She casts it at you and you do not return it, as much as you'd almost like to, for her sake. You do not feel like smiling. The three of you are eating dinner alone, and your father might as well be alone entirely. Or, it might as well be anyone else he's talking to. There should be someone. He likes to have an audience when he talks about his work. He likes to have an audience always. You can understand this—you like an audience yourself. Sometimes you get a little tired of hearing your father argue to himself, though. Sometimes you get tired of hearing your father.
Sometimes you want to sigh and stick your face in your dinner, just for a change of pace.
Sometimes, though your father is older, bigger, and more educated, more grown up and respectable than you, you wonder if maybe he's not actually smarter or wiser. He says something, something he's said a thousand times before, and it doesn't seem right. You don't say a word, because he'll just roll on over it like a heavy wheel, but you think it. Just once in a while, you think it, and when they finally send you away to school (which you hate), and he does not tower over you at every meal, you take a great breath and you square your shoulders back and you start to say everything you've ever thought. You say it, and he is not here, and the audience is yours. (You don't hate that.)
You speak and speak and they come to you, followers, like iron filings to a magnet. You gesture out spells, wrapping your lines around your fingers and casting them into the crowd. You can be as angry as you like, as strong-minded and polemical, and whether or not it is what your father would say is for once irrelevant. You cast, and you catch, and it feels intoxicating and true.
You catch one eye, and it catches you back—catches like a cat's claw in a sweater, but it goes both ways, and in the struggle to get free of each other, you and he—you and Joseph—somehow accidentally get tangled up together. The fire that freedom has let loose in you—and however you hate this place, with its boundaries and its rules and its terrible beliefs, it is still a greater freedom than you have known before—burns more fiercely and with greater intent when Joseph is there to quietly, piercingly, intelligently correct, challenge, refuse to agree. He is the greatest teachers' pet of Castalia, but he is smart, and he argues like it. Except when it's twisting your tongue in knots and leaving you red-faced and foolish, arguing with Joseph is the best thing that's ever happened for you. It makes you better.
It's not enough.
You have aimed to bridge the classes and teach them to stand one another—no more snobbery from the Castanian academics, no more bullheaded party-worship like your father's. You fail. For all your speeches, nothing in Castania helps you do achieve what you really wish to. Joseph has changed you, but he hasn't changed enough. You know this. It's heartbreaking. For awhile, you're at a loss—even when you speak, you feel like the fire is as big a lie as what you're combating against. You're afraid that you're still a boy, and you've already lost the only battle you will ever fight.
Of course other things come that seemed to shine brighter, and you are back on the path. When you go to university, you meet a man who outspeaks you, and certainly outspeaks Joseph in his pure charisma, promises greater ideals—ideals that match yours, as opposed to the philosophies of Castania. Joseph drew you down into his space, fierce, quiet, patient and passionate. Every step with him was a struggle on either side. Veraguth is not like this. Veraguth draws you up into a place of bright colors and waving flags, torn or otherwise. Following Veraguth is like catching hold of a dolphin's fin as it skims past you, and not letting go. You are carried away by Veraguth's truth and his powerful voice and his fine face, carried so far that you believe yourself gone from Castania forever. You are prepared to leave in body. You regret not leaving fast enough.
Your father hears, somehow, about his loudmouthed son latching himself onto some fine-jawed, quick-tongued rabble-rouser, and he comes to Castania like a cannonball. You are speaking to a crowd of some when he arrives, and seeing him transposed against the backdrop of a Castanian courtyard—he doesn't belong here, it's isn't right—chops the end off of your argument, and it drops with a thud against the pavement, a dead heap. Your crowd waits with wary eyes, and your father, sure and large and loud, storms up the cobblestones and stands with his fists at his sides and his face dark while he roars into you everything he thinks of Veraguth, and of Veraguth's "justice," and of you.
"He is the enemy of our people, boy!" your father booms. "An empty-headed, irrational, idealizing, sanctimonious pig! A foul stain on our society, a danger, a leech, sucking the life out of young idiots like you, who are stupid and young enough to follow his damned words letter to letter, as though they could ever mean anything in real society. As though they could be anything but a danger! His ideas would destroy the country, would kill thousands upon thousands if they ever came to anything!"
You stand through this and do nothing but glower. Some of your audience stay. Some begin to creep away.
"Well? Do you have anything to say for your great prophet?" your father demands. You stick out your chin and he snorts in disgust, shaking his head.
"You don't yet see," he says, "you are too young to see, that such extreme views can never live up to their promises. You do not understand the value, the history, the foundation of family, of tradition. You think everything is high ideals, that this is all there is to live for. You think everyone who follows something else falls short, is dirt."
You meet his eyes with all your fire and he slaps his thigh hard with a huge hand. You jump back, losing another member of your audience, thinking you are the one he is going to hit. It is terrifying, because your father has never yelled at you before; he has only ever yelled.
Your father says, "You don't know the worth of what you have, boy, but you're a traitor. You turn your back and speak against everything your family believes in, that makes you a traitor. Does it trouble you? Are these worthless, idiotic ideals worth more to you than your family, your family's traditions?"
You stand straight and say, "I have not spent over a dozen years in schooling to the purpose of destroying my power of judgment. I possess enough of my own mind to not let a hoard of greedy landed men interfere with my opinions on the government, and economics, and justice."
Your father laughs, which is the most frightening thing, because it sounds like brine and lightning.
"Perhaps you should have done with your schooling," your father says, "before you decide what you know better than all the generations of noble landowners who have come before you! Perhaps you had better be done with your schooling before you try meddling in the affairs of adults! Perhaps you'd be better off no longer a schoolboy before you choose to stab everything you are in the back! Perhaps you'd better no longer be a child before you defame our name and break our trust and force us to cast you out as you so obviously desire!"
He cuts off, and you are both standing in silence. No one is watching you now, and your father's face slips. Your heart beats hard and fast, and you don't know whether it's still anger, or the inevitable fear that must come when your father has already walked irretrievably away.
But he already has walked away, and you cannot follow him. Your one argument is swallowed up, and for the moment, no argument is strong enough. No will is strong enough, to send you after him. You already regret it before your anger has faded. But you won't do anything to change it.
You console yourself with being right. You are right, very very right, and you make yourself believe it until you no longer have to try. You are in love with Veraguth, with what he says and how he moves and you are in love with being where he is. You are in love in the way of the most devoted apprentice, at least—you decide on saving the other 'in love' for his daughter, who, you think, is the right person to marry, daughter of your mentor and not a bit unlovely. You think that the crook in her nose is charming, and the way her hair curls in at the bottom makes you bite your tongue inside a closed mouth.
Your parents do not come to your wedding. You try very hard to be angry at your father all the time. You try not to think about your mother, whose not coming makes your anger melt off and leave you with nothing but slush and disappointment.
You wonder if it's your fault when she dies.
It happens only two months after you and Veraguth's daughter are married. You did not know she was ill. You only know that she is dead because your wedding invitation—sent so that she would know, sent to inflame argument with your father, because even now you have still not grown up somehow—is returned to you, violently opened and resealed in a new envelope a very brief missive in your father's sharp, angular hand.
My wife is dead, it says. I hope you are pleased.
You take the letter to a quiet place where no one is, because for all your talk and love of companionship, certain things only belong to one person at a time. You sit on a stone bench and sob, wrenching the invitation and the note in your hands until they barely resemble what they were. You think they suit the situation much better this way, but knowing so doesn't make you happy.
When you return home, your wife tries to ask you what the matter is, but you won't tell her, not for days. When you do, she is far too nice to you for not saying so in the first place. You tell her she is being far too nice, and start an argument. Somehow that feels better than being comforted, because at least you don't have to think about the reason you are sad.
It isn't your first argument with your wife. It isn't your last. It grows harder when you begin to feel that your wife's father is not everything you thought. You step into the world, working for yourself, and you have others to provide for—and the universal truth and justice seem to matter far less than the individual's bread and hearth. You hear your father saying, Are these worthless, idiotic ideals worth more to you than your family?
You blame Veraguth, and because your wife is still foremost in your mind Veraguth's daughter, you blame her as well. Possibly the baby can tell, because Tito, who would run to you from across the room when he was three, looks now more and more wary every time you approach. He hides his face in his mother's skirts, and the apology of her look is laced with, What do you expect? Too many fights, and just enough of your old spark. You don't fight anymore. You just grow stoic, and try to pretend, as you always do when you are silent, that it is a philosophical choice, and not cowardice or pain.
When you can't pretend even that anymore, you start wanting to go home. The problem that you have is that you have no idea where home is—who home is. It isn't your father. It isn't the university or the elite school. It must not be your wife and son, because they belong to each other, and it is looking at them that makes you the most lonely. It is not Veraguth.
When you go, you tell your wife that you are going. You kiss your son goodbye (or you try). You do not say whether you are coming back, because you do not know. You are not sure you will live long enough to reach where you are going, because everything, now, seems endless, and where you are going could be lifetimes away.
You make it, though. When you stand at the back of the room and he sees you, you should feel ashamed. You used to be his equal, his rival, his compliment. You used to be opposite colors, clashing magnificently. Now you are only desperate and he is the only hope you have. It should be terrible. But you are too tired for shame, and he isn't cruel; you are only glad that you have come, the first gladness in far too long. It is good enough.
"Plinio," he says, like a greeting and a blessing.
Your eyes meet, and they don't catch like claws—only like flames, illuminating lost things to be reclaimed from the dark.