The moment Liam falls into Neverearth, the Mirths take him in. Berndt Mirth, a brother only in title, tells him that his attempts to return to his past life is more trouble than they are worth. And he would be lying to say he hasn’t once thought the same, back in Dolemrok, when he had been upset and alone with a dying mother, three siblings and an estate to look over. He had been barely of age when father abandoned him to serve the country. He couldn’t understand it then.
He refuses to understand it now.
“If we are serious about controlling the outcome of the future, we have to start expecting the unexpected,” Berndt says.
Liam sees his past self sometimes, a flicker in a reflection, a flash in his memory: the oldest son of a noble descent, some heir to an empire, a half-English boy with a collar of obligation around his throat and responsibility heavy on his shoulders.
He once wished for all of it to go away.
Now he’d do anything to have it back.
“You are a fool for thinking you can control the future,” Liam says. “It amuses me how you people idealise the corruption, the bloodshed and the power struggle of my world. This revolution you speak of, the war you believe will bring you greatness, is but an exercise in futility.”
Liam recalls how he used to look up at the Dolemrok sky after the air raids and think: let me tear your heart out like you have been tearing mine. He’d only been sixteen and some, yet he could recognise tragedy by scent.
Things are different now.
In Neverearth, he has a family and a worthy reputation. He is well liked everywhere not because of his achievements but in spite of it. He is smart, extremely so; nobody knows just how badly his own sharp mind cuts him. They think Liam has it all figured out, so he does his best to look the part. If there is despair behind his smile, that is his business.
At the Detention Centre, Berndt visits him. There is a thick glass window that separates them, and Liam cannot help but compare himself to a caged animal.
Berndt scowls at him from the other side. “Remind yourself why you are here, Liam.”
Liam closes his eyes, thoughts cored out, because if they aren’t, he might do something he’ll regret. “You are conditioning me to view the world only as a chessboard and its people my chess pieces.”
Berndt nods, slow and deliberate. Behind that handsome face and fetching attire is an abomination. Monsters are everywhere.
“Once you attend Saperaude School, things will be different. I believe you may have to…play nice,” Berndt says smoothly.
A scowl threatens to break across Liam’s carefully carved demeanour. “Aren’t you afraid I might recover my humanity?”
His name is Liam Mirth, and he feels himself slipping into the role with despair. It is nothing, really, just as his life is nothing.
In Saperaude, Liam notices that he intimidates some of his peers. So he responds, moulding himself to present the type of perfection they prefer. He modulates his speeches and actions accordingly, and after a while they forget that he used to frighten them, that his eagerness to throw himself in the path of danger had once been the talk of the school.
Lack of self-preservation does not a courage make.
He is still as capable as ever, spotting the tiniest of inconsistencies and following them, leaping across the landscape of suicidal impulse, a chance to rid himself of a living burden. But he slows his racing thoughts, picks his words with meticulous care, careful in how he presents himself. Righteousness, not the fact that he simply is willing to die, is the reason he rises above them.
Liam Mirth will go far, they say, and he knows it also and does not care. He knows that if he just have the right tools he can leave this world, never mind the idiot revolution or being the greatest wizard, and all Liam’s achievements become nothing with this twisted hope.
“I’m Liam Mirth, student representative. Head Bones have appointed me to accompany you through your first term.”
Then along comes the Stolen Protege. The one who promises to save him is a girl who falls out of thin air. She stirs her tea with a lollipop and drowns her pancakes in honey. She cannot tell left from right yet she is the first to figure out who he really is.
“Rupert,” she says.
Her smile is otherworldly and, for the first time in this life, Liam doesn’t know where he stands.
“Only joking. I am Rue,” she says.
It happens that Ruelle upsets the rules, says the most profound things in ill-fitting circumstances, chooses Morgen-no-mates-Stein as her new best friend, believes dying is a reward and has a brain that is made up entirely of her heart.
“It’s quite clear you are not from here, Rue. Tell me about your world,” Liam says, but pretends he doesn’t care otherwise.
“Dolemrok is as sorry-some as they say it is. You are not yourself there. You forget. You forget faces and people and reason,” Rue says. “It’s lonely when you’re the only one who remembers.”
When Liam looks in a mirror these days, everything is wrong. The ink gets smudged and life has scraped away the remnants of who he was, who he could have been, if things had been different.
The time is out of joint…
So, Berndt is wrong. Those nightmares are worth remembering, because they are real. It is this world that isn’t.
…o’ cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.
His memories return in spades.
He has lost things he doubts even Ruelle can understand. He saw the deaths of all his brothers. He watched their time run out until nothing but their bones remain. Until not even that. Until it is just him. Here.
“You look like you’re carrying the whole world,” Tojo says, patting him on the shoulder. “Let loose, Liam.”
Sometimes he forgets to be careful and his peers catch him scowling before he catches himself. They jab at him, call him silly names of affections that leaves him more upset than before, angry at their carelessness, angry at his own.
And then there’s Ruelle who comes out of nowhere and says, “Love tastes terribly like homesickness, don’t you think?”
Here they are, trapped in this foreign world where the dead remain conscious, where time does not flow. Life becomes a self-manoeuvring, double-edged blade, and yet Ruelle More has the decency to give him hope.
A philosopher back in his world once said that if you don’t love too much then you aren’t loving enough. And Liam feels that way sometimes, carrying that sort of love that makes his heart ache, makes his every breath their names.
Nothing here is real.
The sun rises in the morning and falls in the evening, but these are just mimicry, an attempt at cosmic normalcy. Death is wise and all but he lacks imagination; using Dolemrok as a genuine model is bound to end in disaster.
Liam is glad Rue doesn’t understand. There won’t be anyone left to fight if she does. Liam has been living for ages, longer than most, so long that he almost forgets there is an alternative. If he is still in Dolemrok, that is.
There is no way out. He should be used to it but he isn’t. Once upon a time, he had thought he’d get there, but now, with hope crash-landing at his feet, with Rue worming into Liam’s life, he is not so sure.
The Right Thing is written in Liam’s blood just like it is written in Rue’s. And whenever he indulges himself to the looking glass, the Right Thing is written in spades.
On one of those lonely nights he uses to spy on the remains of his real family, Rue catches him.
It had been years since somebody catches him off guard; for the first time in a decade he feels awake.
She steps away from the dark, giving off the same creepy effect as a shadow detaching itself from its owner. She slips to his side and takes his hand.
Like this, he imagines Ricky, his sweet little brother, who used to slip into his room during those bomb-filled nights. Ricky who was both terrified and fascinated with the world, who used to wonder out loud if anything scared his brave big brother at all.
“You scared me,” Liam says now.
“Do you hate it?”
There are plenty of things Liam hates. For instance, bugs, Amanus, the Mirths, birthdays, the cold, the war and the rain. But he never hates his fears. After all, there is a fine line between fearlessness and idiocy, and Liam lives his life actively avoiding the latter.
He suspects Rue falls straight into the second category. He does not tell her.
She calls his real name.
“Shut up. Please.”
“Your brother, real brother. He wants you to go home.”
“He’s long dead now. All of them,” Liam says in a clipped tone that he doesn’t like. “Besides, this is a one-way trip if you haven’t noticed. You can’t leave Neverearth.”
“We’ll find a way.”
He barks out a laugh of absolute exasperation. “And what d’you suppose I have been trying to do for the past century? Keep your false hope for yourself. You are going to need it.”
Rue looks at him, equally dark, equally determined.
“Alright. Then I will find a way. And I will send you back,” she tells him with such certainty that he thinks he might lose it. He wants to choke her, choke himself. Because you just don’t go around handing out hope like that.
Behind her, the looking glass shows a gangly boy with sandy hair, fierce eyes and freckles. Beside him is a girl with a blonde ponytail and big blue eyes.
Before the magic picture, Ruelle More stands, dark and alone and real.
And because Liam has never succeeded at being the good person everyone believes he is, he nods.
“Promise you’ll come with me.”
The reason he doesn’t tell her to look at the celestial glass? He wants her to witness it in real life; he wants to watch her heart break.
Then Rue smiles. Her mouth is full of stars and her arms are much more than a promise.
“We’ll find our way back and you’ll be happy again,” the girl says.
For a couple of days, Liam cannot look her in the eyes. That bewildering sincerity of hers will tear him apart. He should be nicer to her, he thinks. But that is easier said than done. Even so, Liam cannot help but regain a little hope. There is a silver-lining somewhere, and breathing becomes a tad easier.
Hope is scary.
He’s learnt that it is much easier to pretend you don’t want something when no one else wants it either.
Rue is now at her most serious. This Ruelle makes an appearance every once in a blue moon, like an aligning of the stars, a solar eclipse. An apocalypse, perhaps.
The most important thing Liam has learnt during his time in Neverearth, is that this sort of silly people will not hesitate to snap your resolve as if it’s something solid, like a crooked joint, just to try to mend you back to the way you wish to be. For better or for worse, they do have your best interest at heart.
The second thing he has learned, is that this is the worst sort of interest. Because it means that Liam will also have to make the effort to rise, so that Ruelle’s heart may well be preserved. But for now, he is Liam Mirth; he cannot allow a barmpot like her to breach the barriers he had so carefully built, this perfect veneer, the all-around Wizard from the City of Red.
And what does it matter? He might be broken inside but his veneer is perfect.