The tricky thing to these flashbacks is to show Lenn as making both a semi-rational decision and a cruel one in leaving Aria behind. I want to show that there is serious danger outside the village, obviously, but that the potential danger of humans is above even the known danger of the village elder. I don’t know how much of that I can demonstrate in a single book. I’ll keep playing with it.
“You’re an idiot, you know that?”
“What?” Lenn rested his head against the sheet metal wall, his chin and thought process tilted in confusion. “What do you mean? All I’m saying is that if I go alone, if something terrible happens on the way… then it won’t be both of us that dies. That’s not stupid.”
Aria rolled her eyes.
“Sure. It wouldn’t be. If you were a gatherer and knew exactly where to find the caravaners on your own. But you’re not. And you don’t.”
That’s not what she meant. And he knew that wasn’t what she meant.
“Well, neither do you,” Lenn snapped back. “My leg isn’t completely useless, Ari. If I go at my own pace, by myself, I can stay hidden better than both of us together.”
She frowned at him.
“Besides,” he continued. “How hard can it be to find a place called ‘The Pipes?’ Great big half-buried concrete, next to the river? I’ll get down there in a few days and be right back up. Once I find one of the caravan teams, I’ll probably just ride back with them. I won’t even have to worry about going uphill on the return trip.”
“That’s if you find them at all, Lenn.” Exasperated, she folded her arms. “Please, asha, be reasonable. You can hardly walk on your own, much less carry a backpack with enough supplies to reach the city. Once you’re there, what then? What if the Pipes aren’t that easy to find? The gatherers haven’t seen a caravan in years. What makes you think you can find them before Wakèya decides to move everyone?”
“He’s not going to move everyone for a while. You know that. If they move now, the children are as good as dead. The mothers too.” Lenn picked at the rust flakes on the wall. “The gatherers said it’s right down the mountain, half a day past the denvi tunnel, first thing you see when you reach town. Right by the river. I’ll know it when I see it.”
“Oh. You will, huh? And what if they aren’t even there?”
“Well, it’s not like they’ve been washed away.” Lenn chuckled. “No water, remember?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Look. I’ll make us a home in one of the pipes and be right back up to find you. I’ll even mark places for us to hide on the way, like the Gatherers do.”
“And if hiding doesn’t work? You’ll outrun the rats and crows all the way down the mountain and back?”
“That’s right. If I don’t, I’ll get eaten and you won’t. That’s how this works.”
She drifted off. A small part of her wanted to call him an idiot again, as she always did. But that small part of her was merely the child she once was. Taken for granted once. But no longer; he was only doing as he promised. What all good dení men promise to do for the ones they love. And she knew it.
“What if the village is gone when you get back?” Aria practically whispered.
“It won’t be,” Lenn said, wrenchingly certain. “I promise you. Olem, the moment it starts raining, the old man’ll give up moving anyway.”
“You say that like…” Aria let the sentence drift off. She rested her head upon her chin, closing her eyes. “It’s been a whole season, Lenn. The barrels are practically empty. Even the mothers are scared. I don’t think Wakèya is going to wait much longer. Hearing him speak this morning… something’s changed. I just know it.”
“Uh-huh,” Lenn grunted, wrinkling his nose. “The old man, changing. I’ll believe it when he changes his mind about me.”
Aria just shook her head.
“It’s not just him,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “It’s everyone else, too.”
Lenn frowned at her.
“What do you mean, everyone else? Did… something happen?”
Aria swallowed dry, hiding her face with her long tawny locks.
“It’s just… something I felt today. The way the other mothers were looking at me. Some of the children.”
Lenn moved closer to her, to speak quieter. Though a dozen yards from the walls of Seí, even Grandmother’s old home no longer felt safe. It hadn’t for years.
“Did they say anything to you?”
Aria’s head shook, and a moment passed before she parted her hair to match Lenn’s stare.
“Not to me,” she said simply. “But… they were staring. Whispering. Not about the usual.”
Lenn and Aria were anything but the usual. While neither of them could afford to be particularly unusual on the best of days, and were well adept at avoiding it, such attention was now specifically unwelcome.
Lenn took Aria’s hands in his.
“I thought you said you were going to avoid them,” he said.
“I was, I didn’t say a word to anyone,” she said back, breathless. She pressed her hands over her abdomen. “But I… I don’t think I can help it anymore.”
Lenn’s eyes shut tight. He tried to think of something. But he’d spent the last month thinking so hard, he couldn’t bring himself even to pretend to have answers anymore.
“I’ll get the food from now on,” Lenn said, his eyes pacing the tiny table between them.
“We both know you can’t do that.”
“I sneak into the larder. They can’t take my hands if they don’t see me; they owe us that food. And I’ll teach the lessons from now on. At least until we leave.”
“If I’m not in class, the school is done.” Her voice sounded as if reciting a memorized verse. “If I stop working, I’ll disappear, and the school will too. I’ll never see the children again. I’ll… never see you again.”
“What? What are you saying? Who told you this?”
“Wakèya did. This morning, he said—” She paused. Aria’s stare was blank, almost resigned. “He said if anyone was caught being idle, or ignoring their duties, anyone… they would be reassigned. To digging the wells.” Again, she paused, though this time considerably longer. “He was looking directly at me when he said it.”
“But… he can’t do that,” Lenn whispered, barely containing his disbelief. “The mothers—“
“Even the mothers.” She paused. “Even mothers.”
Though Aria’s expression did not change, she was trembling. A tear fell from her eyes as she blinked.
“Vysht’kai!” Lenn swore out loud. Though he held Aria’s hands, he tore one away to slam a fist against the wall. It echoed through the dark night around them. “Lukhan take all of them! They can’t do this. They can’t do this to us!”
“They’re already doing it, asha,” Ari whispered. “You can’t stop them. They know. Wakèya knows, Lenn. We didn’t listen. In a few days, he’ll know for sure—”
“No, Ari,” Lenn said firmly, kissing her hands. “No. No, they don’t know. They think they do, but they don’t.”
Aria had stopped watching him. He lifted her chin until their eyes locked once more.
“I’m the one they want, asha. You know that. They’re making your life hell because of me, they hate you only because of me. This is just one more reason. That’s all.”
“What if that’s enough reason this time?” she asked, everything but her voice unstable as the wind. “Something is different, asha. You didn’t hear him. You didn’t hear him speak to me.”
Aria began to cry, bitterly whispering.
“Why is he doing this to us, Lenn? Why is he trying to take you from me? Why?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lenn said, his own voice now shaking. Aria moved closer, crumbling apart, and Lenn embraced her. “It’s never mattered. Let him have the school. Let him have it all. We’re leaving. We’re leaving, okay?” In her hair, Lenn smelled sundried apples. Sundried apples to his juniper. “Tomorrow night. Gather up the things we need, and… and don’t tell anyone. Not even the children. Okay?”
“Together,” she whispered back. Perhaps more question than statement. It was all Lenn could do to nod, again and again, the muddled beating of his heart matching hers.
“Together,” he said.
And in that moment, he almost changed his mind.