The mage pressed his lips together, and then slowly pushed back from his intense pose and sat in his chair once again without a word, perhaps stunned by this, the simplest question he’d never considered.
Just then, over Mr. Today’s shoulder, the university blackboard switched to Aaron’s room. Out of habit, and despite the serious conversation at hand, Alex glanced at it. Then he leaned forward and stared at it hard. A second later he stood up in alarm. “What are they doing to him?”
Mr. Today, who had turned abruptly in his chair toward the blackboards when he saw that Alex’s attention had been diverted, watched the scene. His jaw slacked in surprise. When the picture changed, Mr. Today bounded from his chair as if he were an energetic teenager and ran out of his office, across the hall, and into the kitchenette. “We’ll talk again soon,” he called out to Alex. With a grim look on his face, he stepped into the forbidden tube and disappeared.
Aaron the Streeted
aron Stowe, the Wanted, former assistant secretary to the High Priest Justine, former future senior governor, former future high priest of the great land of Quill, stared at the Quillitary soldiers encroaching upon him in the tiny room. And as much as he wanted to boom loudly at them, “Away from me, or the high priest will have your necks!” he knew’and worse,
knew’that he had no authority anymore.
Instead, in as big a voice as he could draw upon, which wasn’t very big at all, he said, “I demand to know what you are doing here.” Something crackled in his throat on the second syllable of “demand,” and the pitch stayed especially high for another two beats, which made two of the Quillitary soldiers snicker and repeat the words exactly as Aaron had said them.
Aaron took a step backward, feeling the heel of his shoe brush against the wall behind him. He had nowhere to go.
“Pack up his things!” the Quillitary leader ordered. “Get him out of here.”
“No,” Aaron whispered. His hands quivered, and he clenched them tight to stop it.
The soldiers pulled Aaron’s change of clothing from the dresser drawer, gathered his washcloth, towel, his few toiletries, and his books, and they stuffed everything into Aaron’s book bag. One soldier shoved the bag into Aaron’s chest as hard as he could, slamming him against the wall and knocking the wind out of him. Aaron gasped and doubled over, trying to breathe, reaching desperately to grasp the bag as it fell, and just managing to slip his fingers around the strap and hang on. Two other soldiers flanked him, grabbed him by the arms, and pulled him back to his feet. They marched him out of his dorm room, down the hall, and out the university entrance. Other students scrambled to get out of their way, and then watched guardedly as one of their own top students was ousted in disgrace.
Once outside, the soldiers gave him a final shove. Aaron tripped and fell to the dirt road. He cowered near the ground for a moment as the soldiers climbed into their Quillitary vehicle and painstakingly brought it to life, screeching and groaning. When it finally
ed down the road at a snail’s pace, Aaron shakily rose to his feet. He dusted off his pants, picked up his book bag, and dusted that off too. And all the while he was thinking over and over,
Where am I to go now?
When he had dusted off everything that could be dusted, he glanced over his shoulder at the people watching him from the university, and notched his chin just slightly higher in an attempt at regaining some dignity. He looked to his right toward the amphitheater and the Necessary housing quadrants where his parents lived, and then to the left, toward the Quillitary Sector and the palace.
Finally, summoning up a bit of courage, he turned to the right and started walking.
Alex the Ponderer
lex watched the blackboard anxiously as bits
of Aaron’s ousting appeared before him. From Aaron’s dormitory room to the lobby to the
exterior of the building, Alwex caught much of the story. And while Alex had known for a
while that his twin could never be trusted again, he couldn’t help feeling a twinge in
his chest when he imagined how Aaron must feel.
When there was nothing more to see, and since Mr. Today didn’t return,
Alex eventually peeled his eyes away from the screens and went back to his regular class
schedule, troubled though he was. Later that night Clive, Alex’s interactive blackboard,
announced that a message had arrived from Mr. Today.
“Well, what is it?” Alex asked.
“All is well,” Clive read.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Clive just stared at Alex. “Well, Alex, I think it means everything
has gone completely haywire.”
“You know,” Alex said, “I could do without the sarcasm
once in a while.”
“I do indeed know that.” Clive smiled saucily and
» » « «
Still puzzled over the pithy report, yet feeling a tiny bit better
about things, Alex fell asleep pondering the unusual discussion he’d had with Mr.
He didn’t tell his friends or anyone else about Mr. Today’s sudden
insistence that Alex would one day become Artimé’s leader. But over the next days Alex
began to notice something strange: an occasional toothy smile from Ms. Octavia; an
encouraging glance from Mr. Appleblossom; a rare nod from Simber as Alex walked with his
friends to the dining room one day.
“What was that about?” Lani asked Alex. Simber rarely
acknowledged students when he was sitting at his post by the front door, for he was
often quite occupied with sampling the air for anything unusual, listening for things
that might indicate an attack was imminent. He took his job as Mr. Today’s primary
mansion guard very seriously.
Alex shrugged. “Maybe he has an itch. Could be fleas.” He
glanced back fearfully at Simber after he said it, remembering too late the statue’s
incredible sense of hearing. Simber narrowed his eyes at Alex. “Sorry,” he
mouthed at the giant beast. And he was sorry. He just didn’t know how to handle Lani’s
question, or how to explain.
He also didn’t know how to explain to Mr. Today that he would be happy to
help in whatever way he could, but that Mr. Today had definitely made a grave mistake,
and Alex would not be taking over any magely leadership roles now or in the future.
Later Alex and Lani headed to the somewhat accidentally hidden third floor
of the library, which both Alex and Samheed had discovered last year. Lani and Meghan
now knew about it as well, and the four often did their homework together there quite
undisturbed but for the occasionally yawning tiki statue that had once saved Alex, and
the blackboard with a rare announcement.
While Lani worked on history and literature, Alex created a list of
reasons why he’d be absolutely, positively no good as the next leader of Artimé.
1. Just not great in all the various branches of the arts. Strong in
painting/drawing/writing but weak in singing and only so-so in acting and
2. Kind of a pathetic weakling. No muscles.
3. Almost ruined the world when the governors came last year. Would probably
accidentally destroy it all single-handedly.
4. Not really into the lifelong family fight thing. Would rather ignore
problems like Aaron because they will probably go away.
5. Not exactly fond of having to deal with any other problems, either.
6. Lack of confidence . . . after what happened last
Alex stared at the last one, remembering the pain of Aaron sending that
deadly scatterclip at him. He rubbed the tiny scar on his chest, near his heart. It was
still pink, and his skin was sensitive there. He’d been confident back then, almost
cocky about his abilities. To be injured so badly by someone who did magic
accidentally’it was a blow all right. And, actually, still a little bit too hard to talk
about. He turned his pencil around to erase number six.
Lani looked up from her work and watched Alex wiping tiny bits of eraser
off his notebook page. She reached across the table and tapped his hand. “What are
you working on?”
He lifted his head and couldn’t help but smile at the earnest look on her
face. “Wow. Did you know that in the light from this table, your eyes are
seriously bright blue?” he asked. “I wish paint came in that
Lani blushed. She pulled her hand back self-consciously. “Well, if
anybody can make that color, it’s you,” she said. “Maybe you should work on
“Maybe I will,” Alex said. He held her eyes for a moment
longer, remembering the time he kissed her cheek during Magical Warrior Training. He
smiled impishly and looked down at his notebook again, sobering as he read over his
reasons. It didn’t take much for him to realize that Lani or even Meghan or Samheed
would make a much better ruler of Artimé than he.
After a moment he asked, still staring at his list, “Can I tell you
“You have to promise not to say anything to anybody.”
Lani hesitated. “Okay. I promise.” She put her pencil down and
folded her arms in front of her, ready to listen.
Alex looked up at her. He bit his lip.
“Well?” Lani prompted.
“I . . . well, you see, Mr.
Today . . .” He couldn’t say it. It sounded so insane. “Crud.
Never mind. I’m sorry.”
Lani frowned. “Okaaay.”
“I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just dumb anyway.”
Lani shrugged. “Whatever.” She pulled her book toward her and
focused on it, and then’quite ceremoniously’turned her chair to the side so she wasn’t
facing Alex anymore.
Alex squeezed his eyes shut and muttered under his breath. And then he
looked at her profile for a long moment. The way her hair parted at her shoulder, her
olive skin tanned by the sun. Her perfect nose and lips. He flipped the page of his
notebook and sketched her.
When he was finished, he wrote in tiny letters in the bottom right
For Lani, for always.
He pulled the page out of the notebook, took a tiny piece of translucent
rubber from his pocket, dropped it on the center of the drawing, and said,
“Preserve.” The rubber melted and spread quickly to the edges, and the paper
developed a glossy sheen that made it virtually indestructible.
Lani looked up when she heard Alex’s magical utterance.
Alex slid the drawing over to her and watched as her eyes flitted over it,
coming to rest on the words. She smiled then, studied it a moment longer, folded it
carefully, and put it in her pocket.
t didn’t take long for Aaron to realize that he could never go home to his parents’not if he wanted to retain a shred of class distinction. A Wanted going back to a Necessary family? It stank of defeat and mistaken classification. And while his feet carried him in the direction of the Necessary quadrants, Aaron knew that he would not stop there, nor would he indicate in any way that he was doing anything more than taking a walk for his own pleasure . . . in the odoriferous, scorching heat.
As night fell Aaron’s feet grew tired. He approached the Necessary housing, unable to stop himself from stealing a glimpse of number 54-43 as he passed by his family’s row. It felt so familiar after years of walking home from school this way, yet that place was no longer home, nor could it ever be called home again. He increased his pace along the road and flipped up his shirt collar to partially shield his face, hoping none of his former neighbors would recognize him. But soon he discovered that the neighborhoods were all eerily quiet.
Everyone is in Artimé
Aaron realized after a while.