Island of Silence (Unwanteds) (9 page)

Samheed stared, mouth open.

Lani sat quiet, the corners of her lips twitching downward, eyes trained to a nebulous spot across the room.

Meghan, grinning, patted Alex’s arm. “That is quite hilarious,” she said. “Good one, Al.”

Everyone was awkwardly silent. Meghan’s smile slowly disappeared. She looked from face to face. “Not a joke?” she asked.

Alex shook his head slightly.

Lani nudged Samheed, indicating she wanted out of the booth. “I have to go,” she said, her voice wavering. When Samheed saw the look on her face, he scrambled to his feet so she could slide out. She shoved past him and ran to the tubes, leaving the others staring, speechless.

Alex just sat there. “Did I miss something? What just happened?” he asked. “Is she sick?”

Megan shrugged, mystified.

Samheed, still standing, looked at Alex and finally shrugged. “I guess
I’ll
go see if she’s okay, then,” he said. He turned, strode quickly to the tubes, and disappeared.

Throwing Stones

I
t took Samheed quite some time to find Lani after checking the mansion and ringing her blackboard to see if she was in her room. He jogged by the gate and asked the girrinos if they’d seen her, but they said only Sean Ranger and a few others had left Artimé that day.

Eventually he saw her outside by the shore. The sea was fairly calm today, and Lani was skipping stones over the water and letting the low waves wash up over her bare feet. Her toenails were painted fluorescent purple.

He walked over and stood next to her, not saying anything at first. He spied a few stones so he picked them up and wiped the sand off of them to see if they were good for throwing. When he had a handful, he offered them to Lani. “These look like they might skip,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said. She took them and gave one a try. It skidded over the water and she counted. “Seven. Not bad.”

Samheed found a few more and tried one himself. His bounced once and plopped into the water with a glug.

“Twist your arm a little,” she said. “Like it’s a throwing star.”

He did what she said and managed three skips. “Meh,” he said. “I was never very good at this.”

“You’re dead-on with spells though.”

Samheed nodded. “True.” When he was out of stones, he wiped the sand off his hands, took off his shoes, and rolled up his pant legs. “Wanna walk?” he said. He started walking slowly toward the jungle.

After a moment Lani caught up to him. They sloshed through the water side by side in silence for a long time, Samheed just thinking, watching the sand that stretched out immediately before him, and Lani with her eyes half-closed, face angled toward the sky.

When they got past the jungle to the lagoon where Ms. Morning’s big white boat gleamed, Samheed pointed to an old downed log. “I sit here sometimes,” he said. “Only when the platyprots aren’t around though. They’re so annoying.”

Lani grinned and sat down. “I know,” she said.

Samheed sat next to her. “Are you ever tempted to give that boat a try?”

“Every time I see it,” Lani said. “You?”

“Yeah.”

They watched the water for a bit longer, and then Samheed spoke again. “So. Did you kill Justine?”

Lani looked at him in surprise. “What? Where did
that
come from?” she said with a little laugh.

“Well, did you?” Samheed asked. “You did, didn’t you.”

She looked away, trying to hide a grin. And then she shrugged one shoulder and tilted her head, looking out over the water.

Samheed regarded her for a moment, his esteem for her rising mightily, not only because she had the guts to kill the High Priest Justine, but that she managed to keep it to herself all this time.

“Well, you saved Mr. Today’s life,” she said. She leaned toward him and bumped her shoulder against his.

Samheed’s eyes flickered. And for a time on a log in the small and quiet lagoon, next to the vast ocean that seemed to go on forever, the two, each silently remembering the parts that were played in battle with Quill, felt something enormous swell up inside them as they considered what
might
have happened without the courage of the other. Lani slid a glance his way, and he caught it, and couldn’t help but share with her a little crooked smile.

But soon the moment passed, and before things could get awkward, Samheed shifted on the log and looked out over the water once again. “So, what’s bothering you?” he asked, even though he thought he knew the answer.

Lani’s smile faded. She clasped her hands together in front of her and slipped her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees. “Nothing much, really.”

“Oh, right. That was obvious from the way you stormed out of the lounge, looking like you were going to hurl,” Samheed said.

“Was it really?” Lani said sarcastically. She rolled her eyes, but Sam couldn’t see it.

“I think you’re required to tell me since I’ve been so nice for, like, a whole hour.”

“That
is
quite an accomplishment.”

“So?” Samheed asked. “Come on. Don’t make me beg.”

Lani closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “Okay, fine. It’s just . . . I wasn’t expecting Alex to say that. About Mr. Today, and the whole future leader thing.”

Samheed nodded, careful not to interrupt her.

“I mean, Alex is great and I, you know, I really like him and stuff, but isn’t there anyone else who might be a better choice? A stronger magician with more rounded skills? Somebody who would make a better teammate for Quill’s new high priest? Someone who could really work in harmony with him, someone who understands him really well, and who would make this whole island really gel together? Somebody who really actually
wants
this job?”

Samheed cringed and stayed silent.

Lani sat up straight and turned to Samheed. “If Mr. Today is going to pick somebody young, well . . .” She looked out over the lagoon. “It should have been me, Sam.” Her eyes filled and her bottom lip started to quiver. She held back the tears and swallowed hard. And then she whispered, “He was supposed to pick me.”

Samheed bit his bottom lip and nodded. And then he turned and held an arm out awkwardly. She leaned in and rested her cheek on his shoulder as he patted her on the back. “Maybe since Alex doesn’t want to do it, you could let Mr. Today know that you’re interested,” he said.

Lani just shook her head and sniffled. “I can’t do that.” She lifted her eyes and looked at Samheed in the dying light. “If he wanted me, he would have picked me.”

 

A Very Different Gate

D
ay after day in his new home, Aaron plotted and planned, working tirelessly from the desk that had once been High Priest Haluki’s. He’d scoured the drawers but came up empty-handed’the high priest had apparently packed up everything of importance and carried it with him to the palace. There was not much to be said for the giant glass cylinder in the closet behind him. It was the most curious thing, but seemingly useless, and there were no instructions or clues to hint at its purpose. It didn’t take long for Aaron to forget about it entirely.

Every morning before sunrise Aaron snuck out of the house and walked to the Favored Farm, careful to take a different path each day, listening to people’s conversations while trying to be invisible. He noted that almost no Wanteds were taking advantage of the food at the Favored Farm. They were so unfamiliar with that kind of labor, he was sure they hadn’t even thought of it. All their lives they’d had Necessaries delivering their food to them’they probably had no idea where food even came from.

Every day Aaron picked his four allotted items, sticking now to things that would keep fresh for more than a few days’beans of all kinds ( he was glad to find the allotment for berries and legumes was a handful rather than just one), potatoes and onions, oranges, coconuts. He ate the foods that were about to go bad and kept the rest in the pantry.

Each week he set out his empty water buckets and they were filled without question. Perhaps in the chaos the Halukis hadn’t been removed from the water list, or maybe there was no official list’when the water people came by with their cart, they simply filled the empty buckets. That was most likely the case here in the Wanted Sector.

Aaron went over his thoughts and ideas every night and envisioned himself back in the palace. It would be a long journey, and if he really thought about it, he knew his chances of success were small. So he chose only to press onward, not think about it too much, and try not to mess it up. If all went well, it would still take years.

Early on the morning that his plan would take action, Aaron packed his book bag with a few handfuls of beans and a dozen oranges. He snuck out of the house before dawn and made his way up the road to the palace gate just as morning broke. He found a spot by the road to sit where the giant wall would provide him with shade until noon.

He waited. Occasionally a Quillitary vehicle lurched by, heading to or from the palace. Aaron turned away from them and tried not to draw attention to himself. He didn’t think they’d do anything to him, but he didn’t want to find out. It wasn’t long before grumbling Wanteds walked up the road toward the palace, no doubt to air their grievances. Aaron stayed where he was, straining his ears to hear their conversations. When they glanced at him, he nodded politely but didn’t say anything, and they kept walking.

Over the next hours Aaron watched and remained silent as half a dozen more groups made their way to the palace. When the first groups returned, their grumbling was louder than ever. Aaron pulled an orange from his bag and peeled it slowly, watching and listening.

“We’re supposed to live together peacefully? With
Unwanteds
? That’s absurd!”

“Haluki has lost his mind.”

“I fear for the future of Quill, I really do.”

“What does he mean, live in harmony? What’s harmony?”

“I want my Necessaries back!”

“We’ll starve to death if we keep this up. Nobody’s brought us a decent meal in weeks.”

The voices faded.

Aaron popped a slice of the orange into his mouth and closed his eyes, letting the delicious juice trickle through his teeth and around his tongue. He chewed and swallowed, and then he opened his eyes to find an elderly woman staring at him.

“Oh, hello,” he said.

“Where did you get that orange?”

Aaron wasn’t about to tell her. “Would you like some?” He tore half of it away and handed it to her. “How was your visit to the high priest? Any news?”

She eyed him warily. “You’re that boy . . . ,” she began, but the orange overpowered her thoughts. She reached for it. “Thank you,” she said, her words sharp and clipped, but she tore into the orange and tried not to devour it in one mouthful. “There hasn’t been much food delivered lately.”

Aaron nodded sympathetically. “I know.” He handed her the remaining slice. “What does the high priest say about it all? I’m sure he’s doing everything he can to get our Necessaries back.” Aaron looked off in the distance nonchalantly, but he was more than eager for a specific account from the palace.

The woman frowned. “He’s not doing anything of the sort. All he can talk about is peace,” she spat. “That’s all fine with me as long as everyone knows their place. But High Priest Haluki sees no problem with Necessaries flocking to Artimé and staying there. And that’s where I have to disagree.”

Aaron gave her a concerned look. “But . . . ,” he said, as if he were just thinking of it, “who is going to do the Necessaries’ jobs if they don’t come back? Isn’t he going to force them to return?” His eyes flamed. “We’ll all starve to death!”

“Exactly!” the woman said. “We’ll die!”

Others returning from the palace slowed to listen, including two governors’ sons whom Aaron knew as Crawledge and Prize. They recognized Aaron and at first regarded him with contempt, but soon focused instead on the orange slices in the woman’s hand.

“What kind of leader lets his workers go free and his best people starve?” Aaron asked in a voice of wonderment, loud enough for everyone in sight to hear. “The High Priest Justine wouldn’t have let this happen.” He shook his head.

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