Slate slept for nearly two days straight. The Falls had all left the house for the day when he finally awoke and exited the guest room to descend the winding staircase to the first floor. Entering the kitchen with a yawn, he found a plate of nuts and fruit out on the table. He sat and ate as the rising sun warmed his body through the picture windows on the southeast side of the house.
After breakfast, in the strange suspension of time that occurs in a large, empty house, Slate wandered from room to room, looking at the art on the walls and the various knickknacks and heirlooms that were tucked away into shelves and corners. He followed a tight hallway lined with a family tree of portraits to where it opened up into a giant library which rose a full two stories. The library ceiling was painted as the evening sky, a dark royal blue in a gradient to light purple, and dotted with tiny, glittering stars. Slate simply could not believe the number of books that were in the library. He hadn’t ever imagined there were so many in the whole world, much less in one home. He read the covers as he walked to the center of the library, where a leather-bound atlas the size of Slate’s upper half was spread open on an iron stand, alongside a desk covered with map-making tools and smaller atlases. The huge atlas was opened to a map of a land named Fjird. Slate had never heard of Fjird, nor did he know how to pronounce it. Fjird appeared to have only two cities, the rest of its land dominated by mountain ranges, and the whole place was covered by snow, as evidenced by the map’s coloring. Slate studied the strange map for a long while, imagining what life must be like for people in icy Fjird, a place seemingly even more desolate than northern Aelioanei.
He didn’t want to disturb anything in the library without permission, and so Slate walked back through the house and into the kitchen, where he now noticed the pile of dishes in the sink. He decided the pile would be a good place to start his contribution to the housework.
First, Slate leaned out the back door to make sure Pilotte was still there. The wulf stood up when Slate appeared, stronger on his healing ankle than he had been days before.
“Hi buddy! They been feeding you?” Slate asked.
The wulf came closer and nuzzled its snout into Slate’s chest.
“Thanks for waiting while I slept, big guy,” Slate said. “I was more exhausted than I knew. It looks like you got a bath! Did you get a bath?”
Pilotte’s mouth fell open into a smile.
“What good people these Falls are, huh? We sure got lucky. Want to come inside while I get some work done?”
Pilotte continued to smile.
“Well, come on then. I’ll get you some more grub.”
Slate gave Pilotte all the meat from the ice box he felt he could without taking too much, which Pilotte made short work of.
“That was it, friend,” Slate said as Pilotte licked over the bones left after his feast. “There’s no more. Now, I’m going to do some dishes. Mind staying here?”
The giant animal fell on the floor in front of the window and let out a whiny yawn.
“That’s the way,” Slate said. “Just give me some time, and then we’ll go for a walk later, okay?”
Pilotte was too happy in his sunbeam to answer.
When Slate was finished with the dishes, he moved on to sweeping out the floors. He was just starting in the entryway when Mrs. Falls happened to come through the front door. She was a kind-looking woman, with a warm smile, and heavy lids and dark circles hiding behind her thick glasses.
“Hello, Slate,” she said, surprised to see him awake. “He is risen! And what a good guest he is, sweeping the floors.”
Slate diffused the praise, saying, “Oh, it’s the least I can do. I did the dishes, too, and if there’s anything else you may need done while I’m here, please just ask.”
“Well, I’m happy for the help, but you’ll be required to do no more than your fair share of the housework, no more than anyone else,” Mrs. Falls said as she searched for a place to set down the shopping bags she was carrying.
“Let me get those for you,” Slate offered. He took the three brightly colored bags and asked, “Where do these need to end up?
“If you’d put them up in the bathroom in my bedroom, that would be perfect,” Mrs. Falls said. “I’ll start on dinner and finish this sweeping. Why don’t you get outside a bit, get some fresh air and have a look around? Don’t go too far, though. We don’t want you getting lost again.”
“I wasn’t lost before,” Slate said.
“Well. Go ahead up to my room now, and just be back for dinner at seven.”
Slate carried the shopping bags up the staircase and down the hall into the master bedroom, then headed back down the stairs and whistled for Pilotte. The huge animal squeezed itself through the hallway from the kitchen, and then the two headed out the front door.
Tall grass mixed with rich brown threa that shone bright orange in the late-day sun alongside the road that Slate made his way down through the quiet countryside. He could hear the tinkling sounds of dozens of wind chimes dance across the landscape as the cool breeze made its way west.
Slate was enjoying the serenity when a mirage down the way flickered into what first appeared as the form of a person, then back into nothing, then waved into existence again: it was Arianna. Slate picked up his pace and ran toward her.
“Arianna!” he cried out. “It’s me, Slate!”
“Slate! It’s me, Arianna!” she called back.
Feeling a sharp pang of self-consciousness, Slate slowed his gait in a show of casualness. Arianna giggled at this.
“I was just out taking a walk with Pilotte here and happened to see you on my road,” said Slate.
“So, you’ve been here three days and it’s your road now?” Arianna asked.
“I’m kidding, Slate. Hiya, Pilotte,” Arianna said. “Who’s the good boy?” She gave the wulf a pet which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy.
“How was school?” Slate asked.
“It was alright. We’re in prehistory right now. Studying the Great Wars, so it has been tolerable lately.”
“Are there any others?”
“No?” Slate guessed.
The three walked for a while in silence, until a breeze stirred up the wind chimes again and broke the quiet.
“What exactly about the Wars were you learning today?” Slate asked.
“Well,” Arianna sighed, “I’m sure you’d like the battles and the armies and stuff, as you are a boy, but today we were talking about my favorite subject: Galienda Veorenza’s Freedom Runners.”
“What about them?”
“So: The time is the first Great War, and the Nuvians are at the Junjut Gate, in the Ojikef Jungle. Outside the gate, there’s a monastery, where a nun named Veorenza is caring for all the wounded soldiers. They’re always telling her how they didn’t want to fight and die for politicians, about how they don’t feel any honor or sense of purpose in war. So Veorenza and her sisters begin secretly shuttling away the unwilling soldiers along an underground network of monasteries and Alries. She would tell wild stories to the generals about their capture by slave pirates, or that they had died. They say she saved thousands of men that way.”
“That is a good story,” Slate agreed.
“I love it when the rules are bent for the good guys, you know? I mean, why should the bad ones always get to do whatever they want?”
“I like prehistory the best. It just seems like things were easier back then. That there was still a place for heroism. Now everything’s becoming like a giant machine. More efficient every day, and less feeling. Less alive.”
“I don’t know,” said Slate. “I mean, it’s got to be better than the way things were, right? Why else would everyone be rushing to change so fast?”
“That’s what you might think, but, better for whom? Our city is being overrun by politicians from Magri and from South Airyel, even from Proterse. People like Johannes Kale, people like Brella Greave. People who are exploiting the changes for personal gain. My mother says it’ll be years before everything’s sorted out.”
“Oh,” Slate said, kicking a stone across the road. “I don’t know anything about politicians. We didn’t hear much at all about politics, growing up in Alleste. We just didn’t need them.”
“No, I don’t imagine you did. That’s what the pioneers who founded Alleste were looking for. A life apart,” Arianna said.
“Really? Why?” asked Slate.
“Well, the repopulation of the planet wasn’t going like they wanted. But there’s not really anywhere left to go to start over anymore now, is there? Alleste was one of the last untouched places.”
“Repopulation of the planet?”
“After the Fall.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know much of anything, Arianna, apart from farming and hunting.”
“Slate, the Fall was a terrible asteroid impact that nearly ended all human life on the planet, some four hundred years ago.”
“A what? An aster-what?”
“An asteroid. A mass of rock that falls from the sky.”
Slate looked up apprehensively. “My Gods, really? Rocks? From the sky? Where do they come from?”
Slate didn’t know what this meant, exactly, but nodded like he did.
“Don’t worry; asteroids that can cause destruction like that are very rare. But nearly everything was lost. Thousands of people died. The impact called up so much debris into the air that the Om’s rays couldn’t penetrate and the planet was thrown into an ice age. Thankfully, a lot of technology survived, which has allowed us to flourish so quickly as to cover the globe again in four centuries. But the event was the worst thing to ever occur in human history.”
“That’s… unbelievable. How on Alm did I never hear about that?”
“Purposefully, I’m sure. The people who first came to Aelioanei did so to follow a simpler way of life, to live off the land. To correct the mistakes the Gods had made. They viewed the Fall as a chance to start over again, to live closer to nature. But eventually, when the people heard how much easier life with the rediscovered old technologies was, most chose to abandon their farms and return to cities. The few who didn’t, stayed in places like Alleste. To live purely.”
“Well what did they think, they could just ignore the rest of the world forever?”
“I suppose so.”
“That’s so foolish!”
“To some. To others, maybe not.”
Slate scoffed. “Why did my mother or father never tell me any of this?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they wanted to protect you.”
“I would have preferred the truth.”
“Me too. I always prefer the truth.”
Slate had to laugh at the absurdity of what Arianna had revealed.
“What is it?” Arianna asked.
“It’s just kind of unbelievable,” Slate said. “Not that I don’t believe you. It just sounds like something out of The Legend.”
“You know The Legend?” Arianna asked excitedly.
“Oh, absolutely. My mom used to read it to my brother and I before bed, every night,” Slate answered. “I know it pretty much by heart. I even have a copy with me, in my sack.”
“Then you know more than you think. The Legend is actually a mythologized version of the Alm’s history.”
“Sort of like, actual events, amplified for poetic effect.”
“Oh. You know, I thought that Veorenza lady sounded familiar. It’s just like the fable of Halita the Wise.”
“Yes, that’s the same story! History is where The Legend got its inspiration. The Gods are those who lived before the Fall.”
“Wow,” Slate said, trying to wrap his head around what he had just learned. “Can you tell me more about the Gods? About history?”
“I’d be happy to, Slate.”
“I’d really like that.”
“No problem,” Arianna said. “I love teaching. You know, my mom says I talk too much.”
“But you do it so well,” said Slate.
Arianna blushed. “Thank you, Slate.”
By this time, the three had reached the drive to Arianna’s house.
“Are you hungry for dinner?” Arianna asked.
“Very. I’m sure Pilotte is, too.”
A chandelier decorated with whyres lit the Falls’ dining room in a soft glow that glistened off the honey-cured lart and made radiant, golden rings around the tops of glasses. Arianna’s brother, Brit, and her sister, Mart, were home for dinner, which made for what Slate learned was a rare whole-family meal at the house. Slate took a seat and joined with the family in holding hands and listening to Mrs. Falls recite a prayer of thanksgiving. Pilotte was happy to sit in the kitchen, eating a large plate of all the leftovers Mrs. Falls could clear from the ice box.
“So, what do you think of Aislin so far, Slate?” asked Mrs. Falls.
“Well, I like it,” Slate said, gulping down an entire biscuit in one swallow. “I like your house, and you are all really nice, and, yeah, I like it!”
“I think he likes it,” said Brit.
“I’m glad,” said Mrs. Falls. “Were you able to make it far, before dinner?”
“Well, I made it a little way, but then I met up with Arianna,” said Slate.
“Oh, I see. Did you two have a nice time?” asked Mrs. Falls. She looked toward Arianna, who was trying to cut a tough bit of lart.
“It was very educational,” Slate answered for her.
“Yes, we did,” Arianna said, giving up on the meat. “Slate wanted to hear about what happened here after the Great Hall was shuttered.”
“And about the Fall,” said Slate. “I had no idea that had ever happened.”
Brit took the opportunity to offer his own opinion. “Well, let me briefly sum up the last half a year in Aislin for you, Slate: The Great Hall is closed and then, hey, that’s it! Centuries of tradition? Gone. Where’d they go? Who knows? Then Johannes Kale shows up. Oh, hello, Johannes Kale. What’s that about our way of life we’ve known for generations? Oh, it’s gonna go too? Okay! What about those ancient texts at the university? Gone. Dissenters? Halo Brandt? All gone. The Gods replaced by bureaucracy. Welcome citizens indentured servitude, our new overlord.”
“Brit, you sound like a fool,” Mart said.
“You’re the fool, Mart,” Brit retorted.
“That’s enough!” said Mrs. Falls, silencing her children.
Brit tried to choke back a laugh that got caught in his throat along with a piece of bothel.
“Johannes Kale is a politician, right?” asked Slate.
“He’s the new mayor, and he’s a strake,” Brit said after taking a drink of water. “He’s from Proterse. He has no idea what the needs of Aislin or Aelioanei are. He was appointed mayor in an election that most citizens weren’t even invited to participate in.”
“Brit!” Mrs. Falls said sharply.
“Why is he a strake? What did he do?” asked Slate, too interested to let the subject drop like Mrs. Falls obviously wanted.
“Well, let’s see: The Great Hall is shuttered. The city is financially ruined, probably for good. Public funds have all gone missing. Kale appointed his own officials. Our outskirts are overrun with criminality… But really, what did he do?” asked Brit.
“Listen!” Mrs. Falls said, slamming her fist onto the table, rattling the plates. “Both of you! What have I told you? I don’t ever want to hear politics at the dinner table!”
“Don’t worry, Mom, we won’t be allowed to speak at all before too long,” said Brit.
“Enough, Brit!” Mrs. Falls said. “Shut your mouth! Only open it again to eat. Politics and digestion do not mix. There is a time and a place for everything, but right now the place is here, and the time is for the dinner I worked on for two hours. So let’s just eat and worry about the state of the world later.”
Once the meal concluded and the Falls family had retired to their usual after-dinner activities, Slate let Pilotte outside and decided to try the telescope on the back porch. He made out Obiers Ring in the night sky, and then turned the glass up to the waning moon. Its gentle radiance reminded Slate of one of his favorite stories from the Legend, that of the Moon Goddess Baoulemiere.
Arianna came out onto the patio without Slate noticing.
“Oh!” he yelped when he caught her watching. “Arianna, I’m sorry. You scared me.”
“What are you doing?” Arianna asked.
“Looking at the moon.”
“Yes, it is. Have you ever heard the legend of Baoulemiere?”
“Of course I have,” Arianna answered. “But would you tell it to me again?”
“Of course I would,” Slate said. “You see, Arianna, on the moon, Baoul-em, lives a Goddess, named Baoulemiere, who is the mother of all Alm’s children. In the early days of the planet, she circled around it in a loving embrace of her creations. But when the heavens sent down their anger, their weapons hit Baoulemiere by accident. It is for this reason that her path around Alm is distorted. Now, she comes very close to our planet for two months a year, to try to find her missing children. When she remembers that they have died, she runs away into hiding, and so two months a year one can barely see her. That she can never remember her loss angers her ex-husband, the sea god Alo. He cannot handle the pressure of reflecting so much of Baoulemiere’s misery for two months a year; it makes him rage and seethe to be so close to her grief. And when she is far away, he is so sad that he can’t wake himself up. This is the reason behind the tides running to extremes twice a year. Why certain sea routes are impossible to chart, why our shorelines are so changeable.”
“That’s pretty good. You’re rather skilled at telling stories, too, Slate,” Arianna said.
“So that was really the Fall, wasn’t it? That knocked the moon out of place?”
“That’s right. You’ve got it now. Why do you look sad?”
“Just… The Legend is the world I’ve always known,” Slate said. “One governed by Gods. I mean, I never really believed that the moon or the sea were actually controlled by people, but, still, the stories made sense. But now I’m learning that the world is so much different than I thought. That destruction really does fall from the sky.”
“It’s just a different way to tell the same story. The tales in The Legend still hold the ultimate truths,” Arianna said. “Only most people can’t see it anymore. We think our technology will save us. Humanity is confused right now. Still finding our way.”
Slate nodded and stared at the moon.
“What exactly happened to your dad?” he asked.
“He got injured in a traffic accident,” Arianna said. “Didn’t live much longer afterward.”
“That’s awful. My mom had cidix,” said Slate. “She died when I was ten.”
“That’s a hard age to lose your mother.”
“She’s not really gone, though. I remember her reading us The Legend, what she looked like as she read. She was pretty. Or, I’m just remembering her that way.”
“I’m sure she was beautiful,” Arianna said.
“You’re really lucky to have your mom around. She’s amazing.”
“She is, I know. What about your dad? What is he like?”
“He’s okay, I guess. Actually, he’s a good dad. He cares about my brother and I a lot. Or did. Or, still does. I don’t know. He only left to send back money. But sometimes I wish he had just stayed. I’d rather have had him around than the money. But I got to leave Alleste like I’d always wanted, when all was said and done. It sounds like he found what we needed.”
“You’re looking forward to finding him?”
“Yes. Just because I don’t have anyone else. That doesn’t sound good, does it? He was a good dad. Is. You know… I don’t know.”
“Don’t think you don’t have anyone else, Slate,” said Arianna.
“Oh, I don’t. I’ve got Pilotte, and I’ve got…” Slate started, as he turned to meet Arianna’s gaze and then understood what she had meant. “And I’m really lucky I found you, too, Arianna.”
“Sometimes, things just fall into place.”
“Maybe they do, huh?”
“Don’t worry,” Arianna said, trying to stifle a yawn. “I know everything seems upside-down right now. But whatever happens, you’ll never be alone.”
“From here on out. I promise.”
“Thanks, Arianna. You tired?”
“A bit. I had a long day. Mind if we call it a night?”
“Sounds good,” Slate said. He leaned out over the balcony railing and shouted, “Pilotte! Inside or outside tonight?”
The wulf didn’t answer, distracted as he was by digging at a furra hole.
“Outside, I guess,” said Slate.
Later, as Slate was settling into bed, Mrs. Falls came in to apologize for what had happened at dinner.
“There is no need to apologize, it was delicious!” Slate insisted.
“I mean the arguing, Slate, not the food,” Mrs. Falls said. “It wasn’t very hospitable of Brit to start an argument.”
“I’m not very used to hospitality,” Slate said. “I come from Alleste.”
“Oh, Slate,” Mrs. Falls laughed. “You know, for all you’ve been through, you are one plucky young man.”
“What have I been through?” Slate asked.
“Dealing with the death of your village, living alone like you did for seven whole months, your trip here. It’s more than many your age have to cope with.”
“Is it? You know, it’s strange,” Slate said. “Earlier this week, I felt so alone, so sad. Now I learn about Johannes Kale, and the Fall… the world is just so… big. So much bigger than just my problems. So, my troubles seem smaller. Does that make any sense?”
“Of course it does, Slate. It is certainly strange how the world can seem so small when you are unaware. And how it can seem so huge when you realize how many others are suffering. But nothing negates the reality of what you’ve been through.”
“Yeah, but who hasn’t been through difficult things before?” Slate asked.
“That’s very wise, Slate.” Mrs. Falls said. “But just because we all suffer doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still hurt. It is important to consider the bigger picture, but make sure to give yourself the credit you deserve.”
“Okay,” Slate said with yawn.
“It looks like it’s bedtime,” Mrs. Falls said.
Slate nodded sleepily.
“Alright, then,” Mrs. Falls said as she rose from the bed. “Sleep well. Tomorrow, Arianna and I are going to the shops. Would you like to join us?”
“Sure,” Slate said softly, as he felt his eyelids starting to get heavy. “I like Arianna a lot.”
“She likes you too, Slate,” Mrs. Falls said. “I can tell.”
Slate yawned again and smiled, obviously fighting a losing battle against sleep.
“I know you’re eager to get to Airyel, but, just so you know, Slate, no matter where you go, you always have a place here with us in Aislin,” Mrs. Falls said, pulling an extra blanket up from the foot of the bed.
Slate murmured happily and nodded on his pillow. “Why are you all so nice to me, Mrs. Falls?” he asked.
“Because you’re a kind, helpful person,” Mrs. Falls said. “And it’s our job as people to take care of each other.” She blew out the bedside candle and made her way to the door. Just as she was about to close it, she stopped at the jamb. “We’re all here for you, Slate,” she said. “You don’t ever have to worry that you’re alone in this big, new world.”