The storm that blew into Aislin was so severe and lasted so long that Slate wound up staying at the Falls’ house for two more weeks. During that time, he devoured books with relish, making his way through the entire set of encyclopedias in the library to try and catch up with all he had never known about his world. He also attended some of Arianna’s classes, where he sat rapt at all there was to learn. At night, trapped inside together due to the howling storms, Slate and Arianna became fast friends, playing games, reading The Legend, and talking about what the future might hold. Slate loved forming such a close friendship, but always at the back of his mind was the nagging notion that he had to get back on the trail to Airyel.
Still, when the storm system finally cleared, Slate struggled with how he would tell Arianna that it was time to leave. When he managed to work up the courage to make his announcement, after pacing around the back porch for hours, it was cut short by Brit, who brought home from school his own big news. Brit burst through the front door with a holler, just as Slate was coming through the kitchen, and then proceeded to make loops around the house, whooping and celebrating before his mother demanded an explanation.
“What on Alm are you so excited about, Brit?” she asked.
“Mother, my mother. Tell me, did you vote today?” Brit asked with a huge, presumptive smile.
“Of course I did,” Mrs. Falls said.
“And how did you vote, Mother?”
“You know I voted against the Heritage Act, we talked about it at breakfast this morning.”
“Well that’s strange, Mom. Because no one voted against the Act,” said Brit.
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Falls gasped.
Arianna ran out from the kitchen. “What do you mean no one voted against it? It passed?” she cried.
“No, no, it didn’t pass,” said Brit. “But no one voted against it. Actually, no one voted for it, either.”
“How is that possible? Come on Brit, just tell us what happened,” plead Mrs. Falls.
“Oh, I’m happy to. This is the best thing ever,” Brit began. “So, all the votes are all counted up in public, right, and nothing’s been reported yet, because those are the rules, right? Well, just before the tallies are about to be announced, someone in the crowd stands up, a Green Shield, from what I heard, and asks the crowd, ‘People of Aislin, how can we trust Kale’s ballots?’ Now, Kale is there, of course, and he’s so confident, he quiets the crowd and says, ‘I guarantee that this vote is one hundred percent accurate, with no tampering or distortion of any kind. The electoral system is foolproof, and we needn’t listen to men such as this, who try to breed mistrust.’ And so they begin reading off the tallies, and the place just explodes. Every vote, every single one, is for ‘Freedom.’ The Green Shield re-rigged the rigged election and caught Kale in his own lies, right out in the open!”
“Nnno!” gasped Mrs. Falls.
“It’s true!” Brit cried.
The Falls family danced around the kitchen together, singing and cheering. Slate was happy for their jubilance, but couldn’t really share it. He quietly left the celebrations to join Pilotte again in the back yard, where he continued to worry about how he might tell the Falls that he had to be on his way.
“Slate?” Arianna asked, coming out to join him on the patio. “Where’d you go? Is something wrong?”
“What?” Slate asked. “Oh, no. I just don’t really know anything about politics. You know that. I’m glad the vote turned out good, though.”
“You seem upset. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“…I think I have to be leaving, Arianna. Now that the storms have passed. Before deep winter. Before the snow starts to stick.”
“Wait, what? You are going to leave already? Why are you going to leave?”
“I’ve really got to get to my father. I know he’s expecting me,” Slate explained. “I mean, I can’t just stay here forever.”
“But you don’t even know where your father is,” Arianna protested.
“Sure I do, he’s in Airyel.”
“But we are more than happy to have you here, we all really like you…”
“And I really like all of you, too. But, he’s my dad, and he’s expecting me. Listen, I’ve only known you for two weeks and you’re already my best friend. This was not an easy thing for me to tell you. But I have to let my father know I’m okay. He’s probably worried. You can understand that, right?”
Arianna searched Slate’s face and then sighed. “As hard as it is, I can. Airyel is just so far away, Slate.”
“There’s nothing I can do about that.”
“And it’s a huge city, like nothing you’ve ever known.”
“Much of the world is like nothing I’ve known, apparently. But, don’t worry, I’ve got Pilotte to protect me.”
The wulf looked up happily from the rather large pit he had been digging for the past few days.
“I’m going to worry about you, Slate,” Arianna said.
“And I’ll worry about you. But, if your father were out there, somewhere, wouldn’t you try to find him?”
“I can take care of myself pretty well. I can hunt, and cook. I’m an Allestian. I’ll be fine.”
Arianna sighed. “Okay,” she said.
“And you’ll be here when I’m done, when I come back, right?” Slate asked softly, putting his hand on Arianna’s shoulder.
Arianna shook her head. “What if you never come back, though?” she asked.
“Why would you say that?”
“People leave, Slate.”
“Most people might. But I’m not most people, Arianna. I won’t leave you forever, I promise. Just like the story of Hent and Ote from the Legend. Whatever happens, we will see each other again, I promise,” Slate swore.
“In a graveyard?” Arianna asked. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Before that, I promise.”
Arianna nodded reluctantly. “You’d better come back, Slate,” she said. “You’d better.”
“I will! Hey, you know what? I’ll leave my copy of The Legend with you, how’s that? That way you know I’ll be back for it. And for you.”
“You don’t have to…”
“No, I’m going to. It’ll be my promise. You’ll keep it safe, right?”
“Of course I will. I’ll read from it every day, just like you do.”
“I’ll miss you, Arianna. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“I’ll miss you too, Slate. I hope it’s not too long before we see each other again.”
“I had to wait my whole life to meet you in the first place. Any small time we may be apart will feel like nothing, just knowing you’re out there somewhere.”
“Well,” Arianna said, sad but assured. “Don’t dawdle. Okay?”
Later that night, Slate was reading an old visitor’s guide to Airyel on the edge of his bed when Mrs. Falls came and knocked on his doorjamb.
“May I enter?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” Slate answered.
“Slate,” Mrs. Falls began, “Firstly, I just want to say that we all appreciate the help you’ve been giving around the house for the past few days. Secondly, I want to let you know, again, just so you do, that you are welcome to stay here as long as you like.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Falls.”
“Arianna tells me that you feel that you have to leave tomorrow, to find your father in Airyel.”
“Well, I wish it wasn’t so soon. But I understand. Just know that, wherever you go, you are always welcome here.”
“Thank you,” Slate said. “I don’t intend to be there forever. I promise I will repay you someday, on my way home, or, wherever, however. For all you’ve done for me.”
“You don’t owe us a thing. However, if you never come back to at least visit and let us know you’re okay, I will track you down and beat you.”
“I’ll be back through Aislin, that’s certain. I’ve already made a promise to Arianna.”
“Oh, thank the Gods. She cares about you so much. It’s not often she gets so attached to someone. Probably because, these days, people seem to leave without much notice. Strange times, I suppose. I just hope that there is an Aislin for you to return to.”
“Me, too. I feel a little scared, going out into such a confused world,” Slate said. “I have no idea what to expect in Airyel at all.”
“Well,” Mrs. Falls said, “One can never be certain about the future. But we can be hopeful. Otherwise, everything is already lost.”
“Do you ever wish you could stop things from changing? So fast?”
“It’s funny you should say that. I have a favor to ask. I need you to carry a book to Airyel for me, Slate. I need you to bring it to a man there, named Guh Hsing. He owns a bookstore, so it should be easy to locate him.”
“Of course, I can do that,” Slate said. “But why don’t you use the post? Wouldn’t that be safer? They still seem to be functioning pretty well.”
“I can’t use the post,” Mrs. Falls said. “I don’t trust them like I trust you. It is of great importance that you get the book I’m giving you to Guh Hsing.”
“Mrs. Falls, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t know if you want to trust me with something of such great importance. I hardly know what I’m thinking one minute to the next. The post would deliver your book for certain.”
“Son,” Mrs. Falls explained, “This is something that I wouldn’t have brought to you if I didn’t think that you were capable. You have proven you are. You made it all the way here from Alleste on your own. You’re smart as a whip; I’ve seen how you’ve torn through our library. And you have the protection of a snarlingwulf, which is as rare as a silver thornicanth. Airyel may be far away, but it’s not a difficult trip from here. I’m certain that you can make it. We need you to.”
“You’ll understand it all soon enough. Now, I have some goldquartz to send you with, so that you can catch a boat out of Nowhere,” Mrs. Falls said. “It will make your trip even easier. You’ll deliver the book, and then you can find your father, just like you wanted.”
“A boat?” Slate gulped nervously. “I’ve never been on a boat. What if I get eaten by a gibu, or it sinks?”
“Don’t worry. Slate, I’m asking you for this favor because I know you are smart and strong and capable,” said Mrs. Falls. “If fate has decided our book shall be lost, it will be no fault of yours or your character.”
“I just don’t know…”
“Slate, don’t let anxiety control you. Trust me. You will see that that the book gets to Guh Hsing. There is no reason to fear otherwise. And he will tell you why, when you get there. I cannot.”
“He’ll tell you that, too.”
Slate’s stomach turned with a loud groan. “Okay,” he said reluctantly. “If you really think it’ll be okay, I’d be honored to take your book to Airyel for you, Mrs. Falls. It’s the least I could do to repay you.”
“If the book makes it to Guh Hsing, you’ll have repaid me twenty-fold. And if it doesn’t, I will love you no less,” Mrs. Falls said.
“I will do my very best,” Slate promised.
He and Pilotte set out early the next morning into a foot of fresh snow, with the book for Guh Hsing stowed in a new leather pack from Mrs. Falls along with a change of clothes, a few travel supplies he’d received as gifts from Arianna, and a decent amount of goldquartz. The snow crunching under his feet and the metallic smell in the winter air distracted Slate from his worry and sadness. The cold was bracing and invigorated his imagination for what was yet to come. Ahead were the Vallor Mountains, where the giants battled. Or so said The Legend. Arianna claimed the giants didn’t live there anymore, if they ever did, but a Slate had a tiny flicker of hope in the back of his mind that they still might.
That first evening back on the trail, as he and Pilotte sat before a small fire eating roasted hare with fern sprouts, Slate felt sadder than he had thought he might for having left Arianna and the Falls. The only thing that kept his sadness at bay was the certainty in his mind that he would return to see them soon, as soon as he was able to find his father and let him know he was alright. Pilotte sensed Slate’s sadness, and distracted him as best he could with a game of fetch, until Slate was so tired, he couldn’t stay awake to dwell on his situation any longer.