Island of Silence (Unwanteds) (13 page)

But Alex thought of none of this today. After a restless night and nearly two weeks of the silent treatment from Lani, Alex woke a bit bleary-eyed but determined to get on Lani’s good side again. Because even though they fought sometimes, he liked her more than he dared to admit to anyone, and he was miserable when they weren’t speaking.

Ten minutes passed, and Alex began to wonder if Lani had already gone downstairs. His mind wandered to breakfast, but getting things straight with Lani was even more important than food. Finally she burst through the wall wearing a pretty blue top that matched her eyes and reading from a book as she did almost every day.

“Lani,” Alex said.

She turned her head, bewildered at first, a bit lost in her book, but then she saw him. “Oh,” she said. “Hi.” She glanced at the stairs, tempted to continue down them, but then bit her lip and stopped. “Hi,” she said again. “I didn’t see you there.”

Alex smiled and pointed at the book. “I know.”

They stood facing each other awkwardly, the top of the balustrade between them, others rushing past to get to breakfast before classes started.

“So . . . what’s up?” Lani asked. “Are you going to breakfast?”

Alex swallowed hard. “I’no, I’m not. I want to talk to you.”

Lani looked at the floor. “What about?”

“About why you’re mad at me. Look, I’m sorry, okay?”

Lani closed her book and sighed. “What are you sorry about? Did Sam say something?”

“You talked to Samheed about me?” Disgusted, he shook his head. “No, I’m actually perceptive enough to know when you’re mad at me all on my own, believe it or not.” It came out harsher than he meant it. “You’ve been avoiding me for two weeks.”

The crowd around them thinned as the last stragglers made their way downstairs. Alex glanced over the banister to the entryway below, where Florence and Simber stood in their places, focusing on the dining room, or perhaps pointedly
not
looking at the top of the stairs to give the two some privacy.

Lani put her foot on the top of the landing, lining her shoe up next to Alex’s. “I know,” she muttered. “You don’t have to be sorry. It’s not your fault.”

“Well, I could have said yes,” Alex admitted, “so in a way it’s my fault, but I’m glad you see it from my perspective.”

“Wait,” Lani said slowly. “What?”

Alex’s eyes widened. He got the feeling he had just done something wrong again. “What, what?”

“What are you apologizing for, exactly?” she asked, her free hand moving to her hip.

Alex could see the tension come back to her face, but he didn’t know what else to say. “I’I’m apologizing because you wish I had told Mr. Today that I’d be the next leader . . . of . . .” He faltered.

Lani waited a moment, daring him with her eyes to say the next word. But there was no way he was going to do that. “Boys,” she muttered before she turned on the ball of her foot and strode regally down the stairs.

“Crud,” Alex whispered as he watched her silky hair bouncing against her back at each step. He felt like poking his own eyes out. When she neared the bottom, she continued walking straight ahead to the massive front door. She opened it and walked out.

Florence glanced at Alex at the top of the stairs, trying to hide her amusement, but Simber stayed completely still except for his ears, which suddenly twitched and turned sharply, as if sensing something. Alex debated what to do for a moment, but then decided he didn’t need to starve to death over it, so he headed down the stairs as well to grab some food to bring to class with him.

At the bottom of the steps, Simber tensed, and then quickly extended his wings, bumping Alex and knocking him flat, and scaring him a great deal.

“Attention!” Simber roared, jumping from his pedestal and charging to the door. “Florrrence, to the gate. Alex and everrryone else, come. We arrre underrr attack!”

The giant cat pushed through the door and bounded away, his rippling stone body a mere flash by the windows that overlooked the lawn. Florence bellowed a sharp, “Marcus!” that shook the entire mansion.

Alex took off out the door after Simber, the boy’s hands automatically digging in his pockets for spell components. Lani had had a head start, and Alex’s stomach twisted when he saw her’she wasn’t wearing her component vest today. “Lani, wait!” he cried out, but she didn’t hear him in all the noise between them.

 

Intruders

A
lex ran toward the gate at top speed as a dozen others, including Ms. Morning and Sean Ranger, fluidly exited the mansion from all doorways. There was shouting and confusion, girrinos rearing up, and a number of screams. Simber thundered across the lawn making the ground shake, and Alex could see at least fifteen Quillens running about and yelling, attacking the girrinos with long pieces of rusty metal. Lani stayed on the edge of the fight, ducking and shoving Wanteds, avoiding attack and trying not to get trampled, but unable to cast any spells without her components. Three girrinos took the brunt of the attacks and the fourth contorted and shuddered on the ground, squealing and roaring in pain.

Alex shot off a series of scatterclips, catching one Wanted in a wide open space and sending him flying backward several hundred feet into the Quill wasteland until he hit up against something the scatterclips could stick into.

Ms. Morning ran up to the entrance, shooting spells and staring hard at the men and women who were attacking Artimé, trying to identify them. She ran up to one who was attacking the girrinos, disarmed him, and began to cast a spell when he turned. When she saw his face, she stopped mid-spell. Her mouth slacked open and the Wanted’s eyes grew wide with recognition, and then with fear. He took a step back and held his hand up as if to protect himself or beg for mercy.

But there was no time for anyone to react further. Simber thudded to a stop at the gate and gave an earth-shattering roar. The Quillans took one look at the invincible beast and shrieked. They turned abruptly and fled down the dirt road toward Quill. Simber chased them several yards. Sean and Ms. Morning followed and stood in the road, watching them go. Ms. Morning’s fingers covered her mouth as the man she’d disarmed looked back. Simber whirled around and stampeded back to the entrance where Arija now lay completely still.

A crowd of Artiméans gathered around Arija, including Lani and Mr. Today, who knelt by the girrino’s side. Alex, breathless, stopped at the edge of the crowd and peered through the spaces between people and creatures. All was eerily silent.

Mr. Today murmured something undetectable over and over again as he moved his hand over the girrino’s neck. For several agonizing minutes he worked, and when he finally looked up, he had tears running into the deep wrinkles around his eyes. “I’m afraid’” His voice broke. He took a deep breath and rested his hand gently on Arija’s soft fur. He shook his head. “I’m not able to save her.”

Everything was silent for the tiniest moment as Mr. Today’s words sank in. And then the remaining girrinos sent up a cry so loud, so sorrowful, that it broke the hearts of every hearted person and creature for miles.

When Aaron Stowe heard it from deep within Quill, he smiled.

 

A Grave Danger

A
s word spread around Artimé about the attack
and the shocking death of sweet Arija, no one was surprised to find classes canceled and
an order on all blackboards to report to the theater immediately.

Lani walked willingly with Alex now, the argument between them forgotten
for the moment. The two entered the theater in shock, Alex putting his arm around Lani’s
shoulders, and Lani letting him, as they made their way to where they usually met their
friends when there was a crisis.

Meghan and Samheed were there already, Meghan crying and clutching
Samheed’s hand. The four of them stood, not saying much at all, each thinking about how
weird and horrible it was to see somebody alive one moment, and see them dead the
next.

Alex told Meghan and Samheed how it all had happened, and how Lani was
fighting valiantly, and how Simber scared the Quillens off, but it had been too late.
Samheed, in a rare moment reserved for such tragic occasions, nudged Lani and whispered
gruffly, “I’m glad you’re okay. Wear your stupid vest, okay?”

A moment later a ripple went round the room as humans and creatures
bustled to get seated, or to find their spots in the air as Jim the winged tortoise did,
for on the stage was Mr. Today waiting patiently for silence. After everyone had settled
and the room was quiet, Mr. Today spoke.

“I wish to keep this brief,” he said in a gravelly voice. He cleared his
throat and began again. “I am deeply saddened by this attack. Arija was a friend to
everyone, and she guarded our entry faithfully for many years. No one was more dedicated
to the safety of Artimé than she.”

Tears fell around the room.

“The attack makes it all too clear: Quill is struggling mightily to accept
us’more than anyone had imagined. As much as our friend, High Priest Haluki, is doing to
make this transition possible, it is still incredibly hard to introduce new ideas into a
society that has been so set in its ways for all these years.” He scanned the audience,
now fuller than ever with hundreds of Necessaries and even a few Wanteds joining them.
His eyes landed on Eva Fathom, near the front of the theater, and he smiled sadly. Her
form seemed less rigid than before, her head bowed.

“Clearly, we didn’t expect this kind of violent, organized attack.
Clearly, we should have.”

Just then Charlie the gargoyle meandered to the stage and approached Mr.
Today. He made rapid gestures with his hands, as if speaking in a kind of sign language,
and Mr. Today watched him with great attention. When Charlie had finished, Mr. Today
thanked him, and the gargoyle left the stage and wandered back to the tubes.

“High Priest Haluki sends his deepest condolences. He was as shocked to
hear of the tragedy as we were to witness it. He asks anyone involved in the skirmish
who might have recognized a member of the party, whether Quillitary or otherwise, to
please contact him.”

At the back of the room, Ms. Morning twisted and worked a handkerchief.
She didn’t look up.

Mr. Today gave a tired sigh. “Ah, me. Here we are, back where it all
started,” he said, almost to himself. “You know what to expect this time. Florence will
begin Magical Warrior Training with the new residents, and the rest of you will sharpen
your skills once again.

“Simber will be stationed at the gate for now’he is there already. Tina,
Opal, and Penelope will take some much needed time off to mourn their sister and leader.
From this moment forward, everyone is to wear their fully stocked component vests at all
times, stay tuned to your blackboards, and be prepared for battle at a moment’s
notice.”

Lani glanced at Samheed, who was looking sidelong at her. She nodded and
looked down at her hands in her lap.

Mr. Today asked, “Are there any questions?”

“Yes,” came a loud voice. “I have a question.” Sean Ranger stood up. “Mr.
Today, why don’t you put the gate back up? Haven’t enough of us died?”

Mr. Today paused a long moment, and then he spoke. “I don’t know anymore,
Sean,” he said simply. “I ask myself the same question daily.”

“Is it pride? Because if it is, I think it’s reckless.” Sean stood his
ground.

Mr. Today didn’t seem offended. “Perhaps you’re right. Thank you for
speaking up. I’ll consider it.”

A murmur rose up in the crowd. Alex sat up in his seat, shocked and even a
little angry. Before he knew what he was doing, Alex stood and said, “Mr. Today, how can
you say that after everything you’ve taught us? You taught us that we shouldn’t hide.
You taught us that we have the right to exist and live freely! You saved us, and we have
to save Artimé’that’s the price we pay for getting a second chance to live.” The room
was quiet again. “And anyone who doesn’t agree can just go somewhere else.”

Sean Ranger’s eyes flared as he sought and found Alex in the crowded
theater. He opened his mouth to speak, but then one by one Samheed, Lani, and others
around Alex stood in agreement.

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