Meghan, her expression hard, spoke up first. “I think you should say no
right off.” She bit her lip to keep herself from saying more, and her eyes filled with
angry tears. She blinked hard to disperse them. But she couldn’t contain her thoughts.
“It’s not worth it, Sam. It’s not. All they do is tell you how much they wish you really
Alex looked earnestly at his best friend. “Aw, Meg,” he said, shoving his
hands into his pockets. He didn’t know what else to add’nothing seemed to comfort her
these days. She and Sean had gone into Quill to approach their parents early on, hoping
to be welcomed. But while their parents seemed almost pleased to see Sean again after so
many years, they held some sort of bitterness toward Meghan, blaming her for their sorry
lives because she was the second Unwanted they’d produced, which made them outcasts in
Quill. Meghan hadn’t been the same since then.
All Alex knew was that his own parents hadn’t come by looking for him, and
that he hadn’t gone into Quill to seek them out, either. It was an easy choice. He knew
his parents put their full support behind Aaron because Aaron was a Wanted. And they
always would’that was just the way Mr. and Mrs. Stowe were. Alex knew better than to
expect a happy reunion. Or a reunion at all.
Lani touched Samheed’s arm. “You’ll never know unless you talk to her. It
might be okay,” she said. But they all knew that hers was the rare example of things
working out okay. Her mother and younger brother, Henry, were now living here in Artimé,
while her father, Gunnar Haluki, the former spy and new high priest of Quill, resided in
Quill’s palace for the time being to govern, now that the former evil High Priest
Justine was dead.
Samheed twisted the toe of his boot in the grass. “You guys don’t
understand,” he said. “It’s different for me.”
“Sam, come on. You didn’t have a choice,” Lani said wearily, as if she’d
said it more than once before. “And besides, it wasn’t you. It was Mr.
“Because of me.”
Lani’s eyes sparked. “If he hadn’t done it, there’d only be three of us
standing here right now.”
No one could refute that, so they remained silent.
“Mr. Today?” Samheed asked, looking up. He searched the man’s face for
But Mr. Today had none. “The decision is yours alone,” he said. “I’ll stay
with you if you choose to speak with your mother. And if you choose not to, I’ll ask her
Samheed gazed out over the lawn to the strip of sand at the shore,
thinking, his jaw set. He muttered bitterly under his breath and turned back to seek
wisdom once again from the old mage’s eyes. Finally, angrily, he kicked at the ground
and shook his head at Mr. Today. “Tell her no.”
Blindly he broke through his circle of friends and headed toward the
shore. They watched him go, but no one followed. They knew Samheed well enough by now to
let him brood alone.
That Mess Called Quill
aron Stowe stepped outside the university into the hot, gray morning and scanned the road toward the palace, the peak of which he could just barely see from this distance. This tallest point of the palace was bent just slightly to one side, almost as if it had to hunch over to fit under the barbed-wire ceiling of Quill, or perhaps it helped hold up this sky border along with the forty-foot-high walls that encircled the land.
Aaron remembered the times he’d spent in the palace as assistant secretary when the High Priest Justine was alive. Only months ago he’d had so much going for him’his highly praised creation of the Favored Farm for the Wanteds, the solution to the poor Quillitary vehicle performance, and the big fix for the water shortage throughout Quill. He’d had vast plans to work his way into senior governor status and someday rule the land. But all his hopes and aspirations were shattered by former Senior Governor Haluki, who had stripped Aaron of his title and all the privileges that went with it, sending him back to university like an ordinary Wanted.
Aaron cursed the name of Artimé and all that belonged to it, for it had opened up so much chaos and insanity into his structured, regulated world. The only good thing was that Haluki was being extremely cautious about making changes, and hadn’t ventured to do much of anything yet. Though, Aaron mused, if Haluki did make a drastic change and Quill rebelled, Aaron might just have the faintest chance at becoming
He wrinkled up his nose. The smell outside was getting worse every day. Garbage piled up along the streets, and waste of all kinds was not getting buried properly. Quill was turning into a giant cesspool now that half the Necessaries had left their duties here and flocked to Artimé. None of the Wanteds would take over such menial, dirty tasks’that was sure. It was far beneath them. So things sat as they were until the remaining Necessaries could get around to it after their regular tasks were completed. It wouldn’t be long, Aaron knew, before Quill was in real trouble. The only question was how Aaron could capitalize on this latest development now that his glorious leader was dead. He pinched the bridge of his nose, remembering. Wishing.
Dear High Priest Justine . . . if you only knew what they’ve done to us.
He felt a rare pang in his chest at the memory of her but stifled it immediately knowing full well she’d have condemned anyone for feeling things.
Across the narrow road two men paused in their walk to look at the mess in the ditch. “I went to Haluki yesterday about this,” one said to the other.
“Shh,” the first said, looking over his shoulder. “He’s the high priest.”
“Still,” said the second. “What’s he doing about it? What’s his big solution to this mess? S-s-songing?” He stumbled on the unfamiliar word.
“He suggested we clean it up ourselves,” the first said, picking his teeth with a makeshift toothpick and then tossing it onto the pile of junk. “And milk the cows, too, while we’re at it. Can you imagine that?”
A group of three walkers approached and overheard the conversation. They congregated to offer their complaints as well. “He told me to pick my own corn if I want corn,” one said. “Looked me right in the eye and said it.” The others shook their heads in disbelief.
Just then a group of university boys brushed past Aaron on their way into the building. “Hello,” Aaron said, but the boys ignored him, as everyone had done since the battle. Ever since people found out he’d had a hand in this whole mess. Aaron kept his expression cool. He looked down at the dirt and then he closed his eyes for a moment. With a heavy sigh, he turned and followed them inside.
» » « «
Aaron sat down on the edge of the meager bed in his university dorm room, elbows propped on his knees, chin resting in his hands. He stared at the bare wall across from him, where there once was a door for a short amount of time in the middle of a fateful night. But the wall held no answers to his now frequently asked questions. What was to become of him? How could this have happened? Here he sat, powerless. Stripped of his title and his access to the palace, scorned by his classmates so much that he’d begun skipping classes, hated by Unwanteds far and wide for trying to impersonate his twin brother’who was apparently so beloved by them’in the heat of the battle. And dismissed, considered worthless by all the other governors.
Aaron felt his chest tighten in fury. He closed his eyes, concentrating, willing himself to be calm but failing miserably. He felt like shouting all the vilest words he could think of at the top of his voice. He felt like stringing up Alex, High Priest Haluki, and that freakishly genteel Mr. Today, and making them suffer the way he was suffering now.
A strange growling sound began in the back of Aaron’s throat, almost like a roar, and it escaped with a loud huff of air. “Garr!” He gripped the fabric edge of his flimsy mattress and twisted it, tensing all the muscles in his body, his face growing very hot. It was both frightening and liberating to let such feelings happen, and he knew he should stop, but in this case there was no turning back. “Raaah!” he said this time. And then “GRRAAH!” He flipped over on the bed, facedown now, and pounded it with his fists, trying to let out the uncontrollable noises into the thin blanket so that they were muffled. He couldn’t let anyone hear him. He wasn’t sure what they’d do.
And then his eyes began to sting. Like giant dusty craters in the most desolate part of Quill, his eyes, unaccustomed to tears, achingly filled and threatened to spill.
But he held them in. Heaving on the bed, emotion spewing forth in every breath, Aaron brought his hands to his closed lids and pressed back the tears. His throat ached and it felt like something was stuck there. “Calm down,” he whispered. “Calm down.” His breaths slowed, and he wiped his face. He lay there for a moment more, realizing the grave extent of personal weakness he’d just shown.
Quickly he got off the bed, ashamed of his behavior. He went to his bucket of tepid water and dipped his hand in. He splashed the water on his face, carelessly allowing the excess to drip on the floor, wasting it.
“Great land of Quill,” he muttered. He dried his face with his sleeve. “Come on. Get a grip, Stowe.”
He turned back to his bed to straighten out the blanket. And then he sat at his tiny table and opened his textbook on the history of Quill. A small headache had formed between his eyes, so he pushed his thumb and forefinger into the inner points of his brows, trying to massage the pain away. The words blurred, but one pulsing thought pressed through. His mantra.
I am strong! May Quill prevail with all I have in me!
A moment later there was a knock on his door. He froze. Had someone heard him cry out?
“Who’s there?” he asked.
Aaron heard a shuffle outside his door, and four armed Quillitary soldiers burst through the door into the room. Aaron stood immediately, his chair scraping the floor and nearly tipping over. His eyes widened. He’d met them all before.
“Former Assistant Secretary Aaron Stowe?” said the apparent leader in a gruff voice.
“You’re being terminated.”
Aaron’s heart leaped to his throat. Terminated? As in “sent to the Ancients Sector”? As in “put to sleep”? It couldn’t be’they didn’t do that to young, healthy Wanteds. He struggled to regain the confident demeanor he’d projected on these people just months before. “What do you mean?”
“Your presence is no longer required at the university.”
Aaron shook his head. “I don’t understand what you are saying.”
“Pack your things,” the man said icily, taking a step toward Aaron. “You are no longer welcome here.”
very day more and more Necessaries invaded Artimé. Mr. Today insisted that the Unwanteds treat their new neighbors with the utmost respect, but it was difficult when they were turning up left and right, asking endless questions. “What’s that noise coming from the bushes?” “Where exactly is the Great Lake of Boiling Oil?” “Do the creatures bite?” It was becoming annoying. Even Ms. Octavia, the octogator art instructor, occasionally chomped her teeth together at them when she couldn’t take them staring any longer at her seven flowing appendages (the eighth one was still just a nub, in the process of regenerating after having been lopped off in the battle).
And then there was the question of magic. Would the Necessaries be allowed to learn and perform it? What about attending classes? And using the tubes?
“All newcomers will be allowed the same rights as the Unwanteds,” Mr. Today declared at his now-weekly address on the lawn. “It will become clear who is capable of magic and who is not. For those who are, we’re exceedingly grateful to have you on our side should we ever be forced to fight again.”
While the Necessaries looked on as if they’d been given the first gift of their lives, some of the Unwanteds grumbled. But Mr. Today only smiled at the grumblers and said lightly, “Let’s not create a whole new class of Unwanteds, all right?” That seemed to change some Unwanteds’ minds in a hurry.
Mr. Today appointed Alex’s class of Unwanteds’twenty all together’to be teachers and tour guides to the newcomers. “You all remember the transition well, and you know oodles more than the most recent group,” he said. “Remember how strange it was those first days, and how confusing? I think your class will be of great help and comfort to them, and to me as well.” His voice sounded tired.