Soon he left the housing quadrants behind and the land grew desolate. Late that evening he neared the well-lit entrance to the magical world and slowed his pace. Two stone gargoyles sat together on one side of the entrance, startling Aaron when they stood up and walked away.
Looking in, Aaron saw people and creatures on the lawn, laughing and having a good time. Eating and drinking and resting. A cool breeze blew through the opening, and Aaron closed his eyes, letting it wash over him. He swallowed hard, his throat parched. It would be so easy to sneak in and get something to eat and drink, he thought. Except for one minor problem.
He heard a snort and felt a hot, moist blast of air on his face. He opened his eyes and stumbled backward, knowing from experience what it was.
Arija, one of four enormous, silky-furred, long-necked creatures called girrinos, whose duty it was to guard the entrance, knew Aaron by smell now and had smelled him coming. “You again,” she said.
“What of it? I thought everyone was welcome here.”
“If you meant us no harm, you’d be welcome. But we’ve seen no sign of that. What do you want?”
Aaron shrugged. “I’m just taking a walk.”
“Looks like you’re just standing.”
“You have something against me standing in Quill now?”
“Not at all. Stand there all you like. Enjoy the fresh air.” Arija sat down facing him, the ground shaking slightly when she did so. Her face was still at eye level with the boy. “You want to talk? Let’s talk. What’s new at the university? How are things going for you now? Are you enjoying the stench as much as the others who have decided to come here to stay?”
Aaron scowled. “Be quiet.” He could see High Priest Haluki’s family sitting on a blanket, eating and drinking, and a wave of fury swept through him.
“Ooh, such a mouth on you. Do you speak to your mother that way? I should hope not.”
“Silence!” Aaron said.
Arija laughed merrily. “Such a demanding tone. I’m sure everyone pays great attention to you when you do that’all your minions. Where are they, by the way?” She tilted her head. “Didn’t you travel with guards once upon a time?”
Without a word, Aaron cast a final furtive glance at the food and water inside the gate, and then he turned away from Arija and began walking once again.
“Sweet dreams,” Arija called out.
Aaron clenched his fists and shoved them into his pockets, scratching his knuckles on the harsh fabric. He walked until he was out of sight of Artimé, cursing Haluki and Mr. Today and his own brother for being the cause of all the bad that had happened to him.
When there were no more lights to guide him in this remotest part of Quill, he moved off the road and sank to the ground against the wall to sleep. He stayed there in the shadow of the wall for two days.
» » « «
On the third morning Aaron ignored the few travelers passing by and staring at him. He got up and continued walking, quite weak for lack of water in this heat, but what else could he do? He began to search the ditches for anything that could be considered edible or drinkable, but he knew his chances of finding anything were terrible since it was against the law to throw away food, and there wasn’t enough to eat or drink in Quill to make anyone wish to throw it away in the first place.
Aaron pondered it all from his new perspective of homeless and hungry’and he began to wonder why
would wish to stay in Quill when life looked so good in Artimé. If he were high priest, he knew what he’d do. He’d make Quill better than Artimé. He’d create more food’an abundance of food. And he’d utilize the ocean he never knew existed until a few months ago. Indeed, he had to question ( but only slightly) the sanity of the High Priest Justine to keep such a thing a secret when it held so much potential. It was puzzling.
If Aaron were high priest, he’d create a way to make that nasty seawater drinkable. And he’d open up a passage to the water on this side of Quill and figure out if there was anything in the ocean’like some sort of chicken of the sea’that people could actually eat.
Wouldn’t that be something?
An endless supply of food.
He grew nearly delirious at the thought.
As the day wore on, Aaron found himself on exactly the opposite side of the island from the university’near the Ancients Sector and burial area. There were a few people around, and Aaron wondered briefly if his father might be out digging graves today, but then realized it was late and all the Necessaries who’d stayed in Quill would have headed home by now, or out to do the jobs of the traitors who’d left.
Aaron stopped at the death post, a tall, branchless, dead tree trunk that had been anchored into the dirt and was leaning against the burial shed. On it were posted the most recent deaths. He took a long look at the list of names of the recently departed, though it wasn’t very up-to-date since only teachers were allowed to write, and they didn’t have time to stop at the Ancients Sector very often to update the list. Only the Wanteds got their names listed, but this list was longer than usual due to the battle with Artimé.
His eyes moved to General Blair’s name, and then to the High Priest Justine. Aaron stared at it reverently. His throat was scorched from thirst, but now it ached even more from the sorrow he knew he shouldn’t feel. With significant effort in his weak state, he touched the letters of her name and closed his eyes. Using his well-trained mind and all the effort he had in him, he willed his sorrow to turn into bitterness, knowing that his bitterness would soon grow into a most unhealthy desire for revenge. And revenge was necessary now. After all that had happened in recent weeks, Aaron knew the truth: Revenge was the only thing that would keep him alive.
eghan called the Necessaries to order on the lawn, clapping her hands to get their attention. The other nineteen Unwanteds from Alex’s year stood in line nearby, feeling fairly important as the crowd gazed upon them with a certain amount of awe.
“Welcome,” Meghan said. “We are delighted to have you here!”
Samheed poked Alex. “She sounds just like Mr. Today.”
Alex grinned. “Definitely.”
Lani shushed them.
“I’d like to start by introducing your group leaders,” Meghan went on. She began calling the names alphabetically, and everyone stepped forward when their names were called. Alex glanced at Lani, whose face was hard.
“What’s wrong?” Alex whispered.
“It reminds me of our Purge. Same names, same order,” she said. “I don’t like it.”
“You’re right,” Alex said. And it did feel ominous.
Samheed, who overheard the conversation, said nothing, but his eyes were troubled. “Don’t say anything to Meg,” he said. “She’d feel bad. I’m sure she didn’t mean it to be like that.”
Alex and Lani nodded. When Samheed turned his attention to Meghan, who was assigning him his group, Lani elbowed Alex in the ribs. “See?”
“Ouch,” Alex said, rubbing his side. “Why are you always doing that?”
“He likes her, you dolt. Can’t you tell?”
“He does not,” Alex said. He watched Samheed for a minute. “Does he?”
“Totally. Watch him glare at Cole Wickett. He’s furious that Meg’s spending so much time with him.”
“Really?” Alex watched, and sure enough, when Cole went to the newly established groups to give out name tags, Samheed practically ripped them out of Cole’s hand.
Lani grinned. “You need to spend more time noticing things. Less of this brooding and wandering aimlessly.”
“But that’s what I
,” Alex said. “Are you trying to change me?”
“Never,” Lani said, a mischievous look in her eye. “Okay, here goes me.” Meghan called out the names of the Necessaries who would be in Lani’s group.
Alex checked his watch. He had to meet Mr. Today in thirty minutes. He wasn’t sure how much he’d be able to do with his group. Meghan called her own Necessaries, and then it was Alex’s turn. But Meghan skipped over him.
He looked at Meghan, puzzled, trying to catch her eye. He caught Lani’s raised eyebrow too. She was utterly too observant, he decided. It was almost annoying.
When Meghan finished with all the groups, Alex sidled up to her. “Did you forget my group?” he asked.
“What? No. Mr. Today said you were only going to be here so the Necessaries would know who you are, but you weren’t going to have a group.”
“He said that?”
“No, I’m making it up.” Meghan rolled her eyes.
“Well, I mean . . . what did he say exactly?” Alex asked.
“He told me you were meeting with him regularly now, and that you wouldn’t have time to do both that and this. What’s up, anyway?”
Alex glanced at Lani, who was straining to hear from several feet away while simultaneously trying to talk with her group. He felt bad not sharing news with his friends, but this afternoon he’d be telling Mr. Today that he couldn’t be the new leader, so he didn’t want to start any rumors when it was nothing anyway. “I don’t know.” He shrugged. “I guess I’ll head over there, then.”
He walked to the mansion, stopped in his room to get the notebook that contained his list of reasons why he wouldn’t be a good leader, and then went to Mr. Today’s office, which was empty. Alex wandered across the hall, made himself some tea in the kitchenette and went back into the office, knowing he was a few minutes early. He looked eagerly at the university screen and saw that Aaron’s room remained empty. Scanning the other blackboards, Alex saw no sign of his brother. He wondered if Aaron had gone home to their mother and father’s house, or if he’d found some other place to live.
He turned away and looked around Mr. Today’s office. On the walls were various odd bits of art, some of which Alex really felt drawn to, and other pieces that totally left him puzzled over Mr. Today’s taste in paintings.
A voice from the far wall of the office nearly made Alex spill his tea.
“Anything new in Quill?”
All the Reasons Why Not
lex whirled around with a shout as Mr. Today
entered from a door at the back of the office. Alex had never noticed the door before. A
moment later its edges melted away and just the wall remained. “Oh, wow. Sorry, I didn’t
know about that door. You scared me,” Alex said, letting out a breath of relief. “No,
not much going on. Aaron’s room is still empty. Do you know what happened?”
The mage adjusted the sleeves of his brightly colored robe. “Well, I know
it wasn’t High Priest Haluki who sent Aaron packing. It was probably the university or
the Quillitary thinking he could no longer be trusted. Everybody in Quill is more than a
little paranoid right now.”
Alex nodded. “Sounds like it.” He bit his lip, not wanting to ask, but
unable to stop himself. “So Aaron is . . . okay?”
Mr. Today walked toward Alex. “We’re not sure where he is. According to
Arija, he stopped by the entrance the other day and had a spirited conversation with
her. But he didn’t stay long.”
Alex frowned. “Why would he come here?”
“I’m guessing he doesn’t know where else to go.”
“But we’re sure he left?”
“Yes.” Mr. Today pulled his chair out and sat down at his desk, inviting
Alex to sit across from him. He pointed to Alex’s notebook. “Oh, very nice’you must plan
to take notes. I was hoping you would one day write a’”
“Uh, not exactly.” Alex perched on the edge of the chair and opened the
notebook to the page he needed. “It’s just a list of things I have to tell you.”
“Oh?” Mr. Today raised an eyebrow. “Well, then, go ahead.”
“Um, you see, I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said last week, and
I’ve come up with some reasons for, um, not being able to do what you think I can do.”
Alex looked up. He didn’t like how his hands were getting all sweaty.
“Go on,” Mr. Today said.
“Okay, well, here,” he said, and he handed the notebook to Mr. Today. “You
can just read them yourself, I guess.” He felt a little foolish, but he was determined
to make his wishes clear.
Mr. Today peered at the paper, tapping his finger to his lips and nodding
now and then as he read.