Authors: Lisa McMann
Alex studied the man. His face was looking a bit drawn these days, and Alex wondered if Mr. Today was getting any sleep at all. “We’ll take care of it,” he said. The rest of the group murmured their compliance.
Mr. Today coupled his hands together. “Splendid,” he said. “Meghan, why don’t you and . . .” He tapped his finger to his lips, searching the group, his eyes finally landing on one of the less vocal Unwanteds. “Cole Wickett. Yes, Meghan and Cole, you two put your heads together and organize this mess for me, will you?”
Cole Wickett, unused to being singled out by the great mage, blushed profusely and nodded.
“Of course we will,” said Meghan, her eyes actually lighting up at the task, and she looked eager for the first time in a month. She took after her favorite instructor, Ms. Morning, who was also Mr. Today’s daughter, and a very organized woman. This was perfect for Meghan, as she knew she needed something challenging to occupy her mind these days.
“Wonderful.” Mr. Today turned to Alex. “And I’d like to see you in my office after lunch, please.”
Alex hadn’t spent much time at all in Mr. Today’s office since the night Aaron had come through the magical 3-D doorway, except for occasional nighttime visits to check the blackboards. “Yes, sir,” he said. So much had changed since then.
They dispersed, leaving Meghan and Cole to organize the orientation process for the newcomers.
“Look at them,” Samheed said to Alex and Lani with eyes narrowed. “Don’t they look nice together?”
Alex glanced at Meghan and Cole, and opened his mouth to agree, but Lani poked him in the ribs and gave him a knowing smile. He turned his quizzical look to her, instead, and mouthed, “What?”
Lani rolled her eyes. She motioned toward Samheed with her thumb, and then looked back at Meghan. “He’s jealous,” she mouthed back at him.
Alex squinted. “Huh?” he said aloud.
Lani sighed. “Nothing.” She turned to Samheed. “Yes,” she said. “They do look sort of cozy. I didn’t know they were friends.”
“He’s Ms. Morning’s student too. A drummer.” Samheed kept watching Meghan over his shoulder and he nearly stumbled over a platyprot. “Watch it, fuzzball,” Samheed said to the magical bird.
The platyprot hopped and tumbled out of the way, mumbling, “Watch it, fuzzball. Watch it, fuzzball.” Its voice mimicked Samheed’s sarcasm. Two nearby Necessaries stared at it and backed away, confused.
Lani started to explain platyprots to the Necessaries, but then she stopped. She’d figured out the strange-looking birds just fine on her own. The new people would too. So instead she just offered them a reassuring smile, linked arms with Samheed and Alex, and pulled them along to the mansion for lunch.
Afterward Alex made his way to the foyer where Simber towered motionless on his pedestal on one side of the door. On the other side stood Florence, another enormous living statue who often led the Unwanteds in warrior training. Alex climbed the marble stairs to the upper level, past the brand-new hallway that Mr. Today had created in order to hold the newcomers, the families’ hallway, the boys’ hallway, and the girls’ hallway (which he couldn’t see), to the very last hallway off the balcony. A mostly secret hallway it was, since very few knew it was there. Samheed knew. Will Blair had been another who could see it back when he was alive.
Alex entered the wide, wood-planked hall and went past two sets of mysterious-looking doors to the place where the invisible glass wall sometimes stood. Alex gingerly reached his hand out, feeling for it, having once smashed into it quite ferociously, and never wanting to do that again. But the glass was down, and Alex proceeded to the end of the hallway, where a giant picture window allowed one to overlook much of Artimé and the entrance to Quill.
On the right side of the hallway was a small kitchen with some strange mechanical-looking things and a tube that Mr. Today had said led to nasty places. And on the left was the door to Mr. Today’s office, which stood open. The old magician looked up and smiled warmly when Alex approached.
“Ah! Hello again, my dear boy,” Mr. Today said, leaning back in his chair and stretching his arms up over his head. Nimbly he propped his feet up on his desk and waved Alex into the room. “Sit down, sit down. I’ve been thinking about you quite a lot lately. Quite a lot indeed,” he said. “You see, I believe you’re the one person in all of Artimé who can help me.”
A Job Like No Other
h, wow, really?” Alex asked with a nervous laugh. “Me?” He blinked, not knowing what else to say. He sat down a little straighter than usual in the chair and tried not to glance at the blackboards behind the old mage, but they were so tempting, flashing from scene to scene in Quill. Alex could ignore most of them, but he couldn’t keep his eyes off the blackboard that showed the university, including his brother’s dorm room.
“Yes, you,” said Mr. Today, rocking slightly back and forth in his chair in a most comfortable manner. “I’ve thought and thought over the past months. Years, actually, but that was in a much broader sense, of course. I’ve been more focused these last months. Since that day in the boat, actually. And I’m quite sure.”
Alex tried to follow what Mr. Today was saying, but truthfully he had no idea what they were talking about. “Mm-hmm,” he said.
“And really, there are others that
, but none actually willing, you see. Like Claire for instance’Ms. Morning. Completely able, completely unwilling.” Mr. Today clucked his tongue.
“Ms. Morning.” Alex nodded absently. He watched the blackboard when his brother’s room came on the screen, and wished it would just freeze there. He stared at it and muttered, “Freeze.” But the scene changed as always, rotating through a few different university views.
“Yes, and I don’t blame her. She’s seen enough all right. But she’ll be wonderful help. No doubt about that. Besides, I’ve just not had this knowing feeling about anybody else before now. ”
Alex turned his attention back to Mr. Today. Sheepishly, he said, “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Today. Um . . . what are we talking about, again? Ms. Morning is what?”
Mr. Today smiled and shuffled through papers on his desk. “Good question. What
we talking about, indeed? I should start again from the beginning this time, I imagine.” He chuckled to himself as he sometimes did when trying to explain very large, complicated things.
Alex, mystified, nodded.
“You see, Alex,” Mr. Today said, and he abruptly stopped rocking his chair, took his feet off the desk, and leaned forward earnestly, “once we’ve made it through this lengthy transition period with the open border and the Necessaries and whatnot, I’ve decided that it’s time I take a little holiday.”
“A . . . a what? Where would you go? To Quill?” Alex thought he knew what a holiday was, but no one really talked about them here’definitely not in Quill, as there was nowhere to go, and not here, either, because no one desired to leave. Alex’s first experience with the word was in Quill’a “holiday” was the day of the year that the Unwanteds were purged. Here in Artimé they celebrated a holiday on the same day, but it was to welcome the Unwanteds. Alex didn’t think Mr. Today meant it like either of those. But then there was the literature Alex had studied with Mr. Appleblossom in Actors’ Studio. They’d read plays in which characters took holidays that consisted of weeks at a time. Characters would leave home to see the world.
“Dear me, no. Not Quill. I visit there often enough for my weekly peace meeting with Gunnar.” Mr. Today scratched his head. “No . . . I’ve been longing for quite some time now to go elsewhere.” He ran his bony fingers through his shock of white hair, making it stand quite straight up, impressively defying gravity. “I want to visit the island where Justine and I grew up, before we left everything and started life here in Quill all those years ago.”
Alex stared. “But . . .”
“And in order to do that, I’ll need some help running things here.” He tilted his head and looked pointedly at Alex.
“What, you mean . . . me?” Alex almost didn’t say it, because it sounded so ludicrous.
“You, and others. But mostly you, yes.”
Mr. Today smiled warmly. “Because, Alex. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Remember our conversation in the boat, when we were on the way to the palace during the battle?”
Alex struggled to remember, but that day was fuzzy in his mind from the severe injuries he’d sustained when Aaron had tried to kill him shortly after that ride.
“I told you that Justine was my twin. And I mentioned that I felt a certain closeness with you because of the twin connection, and the way we understand things. Do you remember that?”
“Oh.” Alex nodded. “Yes, I remember.”
“So now, over the years to come, I want to teach you everything about Artimé’how we got here, how I created things, how the world runs. This and that. Here and there. Then and now.” He drummed his fingertips on the desk as if they were the musical accompaniment to this announcement.
Alex sat, stunned. “Wait. You want to teach all of that . . . to me.” He almost laughed. “Why? I’m just a kid.”
“Several reasons, really. Younger people learn faster and are able to retain more information in their brains, for one, so that makes your age absolutely ideal. And because I need a temporary replacement so I can take a vacation’I’ve worked every day for fifty years, after all. Every day. I think it’s time for a break.” His eyes were bright at the thought. “I’ll also need a permanent replacement one day for obvious reasons,” he said, pointing to his wrinkled face and tired eyes. “I’m not getting any younger.”
Alex looked at Mr. Today in horror. He didn’t want to think about that.
Seeing Alex’s stricken face, Mr. Today smiled and continued matter-of-factly. “Oh, I’ll live at least another five or ten years, perhaps even more. I feel perfectly fine now, I assure you, but isn’t this the best time for me to train someone? This is not a job to be learned overnight’it took me years to build Artimé to the grandness that you see here today, and it’ll take quite some time to teach it all to you, especially when you’re still studying with your instructors every day.”
“But . . .” Alex hardly knew where to start.
Mr. Today went on. “And, well, obviously I know you are young and want some time for fun. Fourteen . . . you’ve hardly lived.” He gazed thoughtfully somewhere beyond Alex for a moment. “We were fourteen when Justine and I discovered this island and began planning Quill.” Abruptly he turned back to Alex. “But you’ll have time to grow up and do other things too, of course. This is a long process and’”
Alex, feeling a bit overwhelmed, interrupted. “But I don’t understand why somebody else can’t do it. What about Ms. Morning?”
“As I mentioned earlier in my babbling, she’s not interested. She is highly capable and will be a tremendous help to you while I am traveling, but she is not the future leader of Artimé.”
“What about Ms. Octavia? Or Mr. Appleblossom, or Sean Ranger or any of the other adults?”
Mr. Today shook his head. “They have their own purposes and passions in life, in Artimé. They have other responsibilities’big ones, important ones. They love what they do. And besides, they are not suited for the role or I would have been working with them already.”
“And you’re saying I’m suited for the role?” Alex stared at Mr. Today.
“How can you possibly know that?” Alex wasn’t trying to be offensive’he truly wanted to know.
“Alex, your brother, Aaron . . .” Mr. Today paused, preparing his words. “Consider this with me for a moment, and if I am wrong, I invite you to say so.” He leaned forward. “I truly believe, my dear boy, that Aaron’s power-hungry days are far from over. I think . . . I think you know that already.”
Alex lowered his head.
“Am I wrong?” Mr. Today asked in a gentle voice.
“I don’t know.” But he knew that if he had to bet his life on it, he would bet that Mr. Today was totally correct. “No, you’re right.”
“The recent battle is done. But if we are honest with ourselves’and I think we always must be if we are to prevail’we’ll admit that our battle with Quill was probably not the only one we’ll ever see. It was simply the first. Justine is dead, but Aaron Stowe is as smart and determined as you are.” He placed his hands on the desk before him and leaned toward Alex. With an urgent whisper, he said, “Don’t you see, Alex? The Marcus and Justine battle is being reborn right now, this year, this very day. It’s being reborn in you and Aaron.”
Alex’s eyes widened but he remained deathly still.
“And I’m very sorry it’s happening,” Mr. Today said. After a moment, he continued with great hope in his voice. “Be assured, my boy. Be assured! You are already doing so much better than I did. You’ve already proven yourself and your loyalty. Artimé needs you desperately. Alex,
are the one who knows Aaron best. And I hate to say this, but as long as he is alive, he is Artimé’s most powerful enemy.” Mr. Today looked into Alex’s eyes. “Quite simply, we need you.”
Alex shifted in his seat and looked away, staring instead at Mr. Today’s hands for a long moment. It was all too much. The pressure was blinding. He shook his head and said softly, “But Mr. Today, what if I don’t want to have a lifelong battle with my brother?” He lifted his gaze once again.