Island of Silence (Unwanteds) (11 page)

“Yes, about five times.”

“Why do you keep meeting with him, then?”

“I have no idea.” Alex sighed. “I mean, I said I’d help out, so maybe that’s why.”

“Did you ever think about suggesting a different leader?”

Alex laughed. “Who, you?”

“No.” Samheed scowled. “I don’t want to do it either.”

“Then who?”

“I don’t know. Don’t you think there’s someone you know pretty well who would be a good partner for High Priest Haluki?”

“Well, sure. Lani. But she just seems mad that I said no. She hasn’t said five words to me since I told you guys about it. So I don’t think she’d want it, or she’d have said something.”

Samheed flopped back on the grass and stared at the stars that were just beginning to pop out for the evening. He sighed and muttered, “Why does everything have to be so complicated?”

“You’re asking me?” Alex said.

» » « «

The next afternoon Alex made his way as usual to Mr. Today’s office. When he stepped inside, he stopped abruptly. There he found Ms. Morning, dressed in riding jodhpurs, a vest, and a cap. Her long honey-colored hair was mussed as if she’d been out in the wind, and Alex wondered idly if Mr. Today had randomly created horses around Artimé or if there were just the magical kind that Samheed had once used.

She noticed his look and laughed. “Small group training on invisible steeds,” she said.

“Ahh.” Alex smiled and then noticed a stranger in the room.

On the far side of Ms. Morning sat a rigid elderly woman. She startled when she saw Alex, and her face grew fearful.

“Oh, wow, I’m sorry,” Alex said, his face flushing with embarrassment. He took a step backward. “Did I get my meeting time wrong?”

Ms. Morning smiled. “Not at all, Alex. You’re right on time. I think we’re all meeting together.” She turned to the woman and patted her hand. “He’s not who you think. This is Aaron Stowe’s twin, Alex. The resemblance is startling, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” the woman said, still wary. “Quite.” All Eva had ever wanted in life was her job, and a boy who looked exactly like the one facing her had been the one to take it away.

“Alex Stowe, please meet Eva Fathom.”

Alex wiped his hands on his pants’he’d just finished working with chalks’and nearly tripped over the chair leg as he walked over and reached out a hand to the woman. “Good grief,” he muttered at his own clumsiness, and then to the woman he said, “It’s nice to meet you,” thinking how strange it was that someone here in Artimé knew Aaron but not him.

Just then Mr. Today breezed in. “So terribly sorry to be late!” he said. “I was just checking in with Charlie, as I was a bit worried about how he’s doing here without Matilda. But they are in constant communication, so neither is feeling too badly, much to my relief. And both understand their importance in helping us during these uncertain times. How are we all? Have we met?”

Alex nodded.

“We’ve met, Father, but I think we’re all waiting for you to explain the connection,” Ms. Morning said.

“Ahhh,” Mr. Today said, rubbing his hands together and smiling. “Well, Claire, Alex, and my dear Secretary’oh, pardon me! My dear Eva’the meeting is somewhat coincidental, as Ms. Fathom is here as an old friend and a new resident and I’m excited to welcome her. And, incidentally, glad to know your magic has indeed been restored, Eva, because without it you wouldn’t have been able to get into my office. So . . . well done,” he said, extraordinarily pleased. “Well done. Additionally, you three are all part of my future plans. Claire, you and Alex will begin learning more and more about the nuts and bolts that hold this place together, as you’ve offered to cover things for me while I take a holiday, hum hum,” he said with a little note of pleasure that he couldn’t contain, “and the delightful Ms. Fathom would like to accompany me on my holiday to the nearby islands and visit old friends, now that she remembers them. It’s always nicer to travel with someone, don’t you agree?”

As Ms. Morning and Alex had never traveled before, they only nodded politely, keeping their puzzlement at Mr. Today’s strange statement to themselves, which people sometimes did with the mage. Ms. Morning said, “Oh, yes,” to acknowledge that they were listening, but it didn’t really matter since Mr. Today was talking excitedly now.

“Now, Alex, you said that you’d do your best to help out, correct?”

Alex shifted in his chair. “Sure, I guess,” he said.

“Wonderful!” Mr. Today said. “Well then. Claire, Ms. Fathom will be staying here in Artimé from now on. Will you show her to her room?”

Eva Fathom, who’d said barely a word, had that anxious look about her eyes like most visitors from Quill. “It’s a large place here,” she said now, a bit uncertainly, as if doubting her decision to move in. “How will I find my room?”

“Never fear, never fear. Your door will magically call out to you. Just don’t forget your name and you’ll be all right.” The old mage grinned cheekily, which, after a beat, produced a reluctant chuckle from the former secretary to the High Priest Justine.

“All right,” she said, warming up a bit. “I thank you for your hospitality. Are you sure I’ll be . . . accepted here after the position I held?” She glanced again at Alex, whose resemblance to Aaron was so strong that she could hardly hold herself from showing him the contempt she felt deep inside.

“Perfectly accepted,” Mr. Today assured her. “Alex may look like Aaron, but he is the opposite of his twin. And Alex has none of his twin’s drive to take over anything at all, so please don’t worry about him.” He laughed and held out a hand.

Alex felt his smiling lips freeze into position. It was like everything continued around him, Eva Fathom getting up and Ms. Morning ushering her out the door, but Alex couldn’t move as Mr. Today’s words sunk in. He knew Mr. Today meant to imply that Alex wasn’t an evil person who was trying to take over anyone’s position or land or community, but the way the words came out in that particular order felt like a fire-breathing origami dragon had attacked and penetrated Alex’s chest, taking away his breath.

Door Number One

M
r. Today left the office to accompany Ms. Morning and Eva Fathom to the new Necessary hallway where Eva would be staying, giving Alex a few moments alone to recover, at least physically. By the time Mr. Today and Ms. Morning returned, Alex’s frozen face had thawed and he’d coaxed himself into letting the sting go away. After all, it was true, wasn’t it? Alex just didn’t have the drive to become leader of Artimé. Was there something to be ashamed of because of that? Alex didn’t think so. He sighed deeply and tried to relax in his chair, prepared to find out what he was supposed to do to help Mr. Today and Ms. Morning.

But when they returned, Mr. Today didn’t sit. “Come with me,” he said instead, and he turned abruptly, walking back out the door. He hastened up the mostly secret hallway to one of the two doors on the opposite wall. He paused dramatically as Alex and Ms. Morning caught up to him. “This isn’t quite as exciting for Ms. Morning as she’s been in here a time or two. But it’s a fascinating place, and I think you’ll enjoy it, Alex. I call it . . . the Museum of Large.”

It was a door Alex had often wondered about’one of four doors in this part of the secret hallway that he’d never seen opened, nor anyone entering or exiting. He assumed the two doors on the same side of the hallway as Mr. Today’s office were his private living quarters, which made sense when Alex remembered that Mr. Today had once come in through the back wall of the office. But the two on the kitchenette side of the hallway had remained a mystery until now.

All negative feelings forgotten, Alex watched eagerly as Mr. Today touched the handle and uttered a spell. “Door number one.” The door swung open with a low creak and Mr. Today stepped aside.

Alex walked into the dimly lit room, squinting to see. His footsteps sounded louder than life, as if the room went on for quite a long way, and he could hear things whirring and clicking, and what was possibly a distant waterfall or a fountain.

Ms. Morning and Mr. Today entered behind him and closed the door, and just as Alex’s eyes began to adjust, Mr. Today commanded light to appear. In an instant, torchlike lamps that were attached to the walls lit up one by one, chasing around the perimeter of what seemed like an endless room . . . or cave . . . or . . . Alex didn’t know a name for it. He sucked in a breath as his eyes leaped from one large item to the next.

“Go on then, have a look around for a few minutes,” Mr. Today said, chuckling. “You might not want to touch anything unless you’re absolutely sure of what it is.” Ms. Morning smiled, nearly as eager as Alex. It looked like a place where you could visit a hundred times and still never see everything.

Alex looked to his left along the wall. The length of it as far as he could see was covered in tall shelves. Books overflowed from them, some carelessly so, and none looked like they were in any particular order. There were giant maps and an enormous marble ball with etchings on it and a ring around it, floating on a bubbling fountain. In a way this part of the Museum of Large resembled the Artimé library, but this seemed more massive yet more intimate at the same time.

“What are all these books about?” Alex was secretly delighted to see them in such disarray. It felt very homey despite the vastness of this room. “And how is it possible that this room just goes on forever? It seems like it would bump into one of the other mansion hallways.”

“The books’many of them penned by me’are about a lot of things. There are also duplicates of most of them in the library. As for the room size, it’s magic like the lounge or the theater. It takes up no real physical space, which is why it doesn’t encompass the entire upper level of the mansion.”

Something looming to Alex’s right caught his eye and made the boy turn toward it, away from the books. He gasped. Just dozens of steps away was an enormous statue of an elephant-like creature so large that it nearly touched the ceiling. Alex had seen a picture of elephants in the library, but this one was ridiculously huge and had two long, sharp tusks along with a smaller pair that gleamed. Alex looked at Mr. Today. “Is it alive?” he whispered.

Mr. Today put his hand on Alex’s shoulder. “No. Sadly I had to pull the magic from old Tater many years ago. He’s a mastodon statue’a prehistoric sort of elephant that I’d seen a picture of once. I thought he’d be useful in moving things around, but I never did get his mind quite right in the creating process. He grew to this size in a matter of days and soon became violent with the domestic creatures. So I sent him to live in the jungle for a while, but it didn’t suit him, and he began to destroy it’uprooting trees and wandering back to the lawn, scaring everyone. He grew quite beyond what I’d ever intended, and he was becoming vastly uncomfortable in his own skin, so to speak. And try as I might, there was nothing I could do to change his disposition. I had made a mistake, and the rest of Artimé was suffering for it.”

Mr. Today reached out to pet the beast. He was only tall enough to reach the creature’s knee, so he patted that. “It was a hard day, but in the end Tater requested it’he was incredibly unhappy, I could tell. Once the magic was gone from him I couldn’t bear to destroy him completely, so he lives on in here as a little reminder. He was the last statue I made’I just couldn’t stand to go through that again, so I stopped creating them.”

Ms. Morning gave her father’s hand a squeeze. He looked at her, his eyes the tiniest bit shiny with regret.

But Alex didn’t notice the sentimental exchange’his gaze had already alighted on something new, and his jaw dropped. Standing near the middle of the room, beyond an old refurbished Quillitary vehicle and a gray shack that looked eerily familiar, was an enormous pirate ship, tilted slightly to its port side. It had three masts with beautiful yet ominous-looking sails, and a deep brown wooden hull that shone as if it had been polished endlessly. Magnetized, Alex moved toward it. When he got close, he put his hands on the hull, running his fingers along the smooth wood. And then he cocked his head and stood very quiet for a long moment.

He turned to Mr. Today. “Do you hear that?”

Mr. Today smiled and touched the hull. “Yes. I’m not sure what causes it.”

“It’s whispering, like it’s coming from inside the boat.”

Mr. Today nodded. “It’s done that all along. I’ve never been able to understand what they’re saying. Can you?”

Alex shook his head.

Ms. Morning, who had followed Alex, approached. “I think they’re speaking in a different language,” she said. “I’ve tried to understand it but admittedly without luck as well. I meant to ask Siggy about a book on languages.”

Alex looked puzzled. “Languages? You mean, not what we speak? Like animal language or something?”

Mr. Today smiled. “When I was a boy, people spoke different languages depending on where they lived. They may still do so, I don’t know. I hope to find out.”

Alex looked back at the ship. “So . . . what is it for? Did you make it?”

“No, I didn’t actually make this. It washed up on the beach one day a few years ago’does that sound accurate, Claire?”

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