Chapter Twenty-Five

An hour later the generator still wasn't up and running. Through Oormi's ingenuity and preparations the night before, the meal was served, though a little behind schedule and not quite what the menu was intended to be. Elle had insisted on staying to help clean up afterwards but Oormi would hear nothing of it.

"After what happened earlier you have more thinking to do," she said, shooing Elle from the kitchen. "You are an uncontrolled mix of emotions right now."

Even in their short time of knowing each other, Elle had learned not to argue and went on her way to find Velia. Just like she had said, there she was, leaning against the corner of the last house on the road. "So are you going to tell me what's going on?" she asked as she came within a few feet.

"Where's the fun in that?" Velia grinned and shook her head. "Come on, let's go," she said, nodding toward the back of the house.

"Where are we going?"

"That's a secret too."

Elle glanced around at the other people milling about. "Maitho asked me not to leave unless I didn't plan on coming back. I've already caused enough trouble today, so if your plan is to go far out—"

"Don't worry about it. Maitho's bark is worse than his bite. Stick with me and you'll be fine."

She glanced back toward the middle of the village and this time saw Keene and Darshan walking in their direction. They seemed to be involved in a very heated conversation and they hadn't noticed Velia and Elle standing where they were. For that, Elle was grateful, and after her strange encounter with Darshan earlier that evening and the complicated feelings she had about Keene, she had no interest in either of them noticing her. "Alright, let's go."

Velia led the way around to the back of the house and then to a trail that stretched out across the small field before entering the woods. Away from the light of the torches in the village Elle found herself struggling to see in the darkness. It was the kind of darkness she had never experienced before. In Creighton, even in the darkest alleys, there was still the light from the streetlamps or windows to shed some illumination. Out here there was nothing like that. There were more stars in the sky than she had ever seen, but they were so far away their light did little to help her see. It amazed her at how easily Velia seemed to carry herself while she was stumbling over things. It wasn't bad until they reached woods. "How are you able to see so well in this?"

"This? Oh, that's right, you're not one of us. No offence. We keep the village lit because it's easier but I guess centuries of being forced into being nocturnal gave us the ability to see easier in the dark. I'm not going to lose you am I?"

"I don't think so. But I may trip and kill myself along the way."

Velia chuckled. "I'll let you know if there's anything to look out for."

After a few moments of silence, a thought popped into Elle's head. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

"I ran into Darshan earlier tonight before the generator went down and he seemed to be his normal self and we got into this back and forth and we were joking with each other and then I don't know what happened. I jokingly said something about how from what I've seen he hasn't done anything useful with his life and it was like he snapped."

Velia let out a slow breath. "Yeah, you touched a nerve there."

"Why? What happened?"

"It's. . .complicated. You must know how family drama can be."

"If it's something that's uncomfortable to talk about, forget I asked."

"It's not uncomfortable. It's just not knowing how to explain it to an outsider. I don't know if you've noticed or not but Dar has a closet obsession with the cities."

"He does?"

"I'll take that as a no. Well, I know for a fact you can see how the people around here feel about it except that he's smart about it and they haven't skinned him alive for it. He's interested in history of any kind, really, and so he's smart enough to talk about less divisive topics with people. He could make it in one of the clan center universities without a problem but he won't listen to anyone who tries to argue with him."

Elle was surprised to hear about this side of Darshan. She had wondered why he had been so interested in her, but it made some sense now. "And I'm guessing that's where the trouble lies."

Velia took a deep breath. "Part of it. What you might not know is that Dar and I aren't originally from this clan. When we were younger we lived in a clan center far to the south of here until our parents separated. Dar was about seven at the time and I was four. Dad was a professor at the university there and he stayed there after the split but Mom couldn't stand to be there anymore. She hated living there and at the time it just so happened that our clan was getting ready to move on. Kyden was the leader at the time and Mom sort of charmed him into letting her leave with them. Dad was in no position to take care of us with all the work he had so we went with Mom. It wasn't long after that Kyden passed on and Maitho took over. Mom became very good friends with Saleema and that was how Dar ended up finding out about Keene. Dar had always looked up to Dad and how he always seemed to know everything. He wanted to be just like him. Even at that age he wanted to know about everything and Keene was strange and new. He didn't understand the ramifications of what happened but he soaked up everything Keene told him about life in Creighton."

"What about you? How did all of this affect you?"

"I missed Dad but I was so young I don't remember much about life before the separation. I'm sure I cried a good deal but everyone was nice and I started to realize that I was seeing the same faces every day instead of strangers and it felt like home. But I don't think Dar every really felt truly at home. I think he wanted to go back to Dad and so he took an interest in everything so that he could go back one day and Dad would be proud of him. A few years after they found Keene, Mom died. You know that saying how it takes a village to raise a child?"

"Yeah."

"That's essentially what happened. I mean, it happens to all of the kids here, but without any parents or family of any kind we were really raised by everyone. Over the years Dar had become fascinated by the world behind the walls we would see during travel. The boys would dare each other to do stupid things, you know how boys are, and he would actually take the dares to sneak into a city. It's amazing he never got caught or seen by anyone in the city. Nine times out of ten he would get caught coming back into the village and be scolded about the dangerous things he was doing but that didn't do a thing to stop him. He started keeping journals about things he saw or learned. He thought for sure that when he saw Dad again he'd be prouder than proud."

Velia paused as if imagining it, only the sound of crickets hanging around them. "But he wasn't, was he?" Elle prodded when she didn't continue.

"You can't even begin to imagine. We were traveling south, planning to stop in the clan center where Dad was. Dar was fifteen at the time and had been waiting for this for ages. If I hadn't been here he probably would have gone off on his own to find him. The day we got there he was so excited he could barely contain it. He kept telling me about how great it would be that we could stay there and live with Dad. I didn't really understand what he was saying. I had almost no memory of the man, but I pretend to be excited for his sake. The moment we set foot in the center he ran off to find Dad, dragging me with him, despite what Maitho had said about helping to find him once everyone got settled in."

"And you found him."

"We found him, alright, at his office at the university. Dar didn't even give him the chance to react. He went straight in, hugged him and barely introduced me before going on about what he had been doing the last several years. I think Dar had built up the moment in his head and couldn't see the look of disapproval that Dad had as he went on. Dad is one of those people who support a hostile takeover of the cities."

"So he didn't approve of the fact that his son had taken a different interest in the cities."

"No, he didn't. Dar showed him one of the journals and. . ." she trailed off, her voice becoming so soft that the chirping crickets were louder. It was a moment before she continued. "He set it on fire right in front of him. The horror on Dar's face was so heartbreaking I don't think I'll ever be able to forget it. Dad told him that no son of his would ever show such an interest in anything of the kind. He was a waste of a life if he thought any good would come of it. Dar told him he was wrong and spat in his face before running out of the room. I was so shocked by what had happened that I could only stand there for a moment and watch the open door. I looked back at Dad, the man I had known only by what Dar had told me, and told him I hated him. Dar had been looking out for me all those years and to see everything he believed crumble in front of him because of one selfish son of a bitch was something I couldn't stand to see."

Elle could feel the anger radiating from Velia in a way she hadn't expected to be possible. The woman she had met last night hadn't seemed capable of having such anger. "That's terrible. What kind of person does that to his child?"

"I don't know, but I didn't stick around long enough to ask him for an explanation. I chased after Dar and almost lost him a few times, but I found him crying by the fountain in the middle of the campus. I told him I was sorry and that I thought Dad was wrong and that he shouldn't listen to him because I still liked hearing about what he learned. He had never hugged me so close before and he hasn't since. Saleema found us a little later and guessed things hadn't gone very well. Instead of making us go back to everyone right away she told us to stay where we were and that she would be back to get us soon. She went to speak with Dad."

"What happened?"

"I didn't ask and she didn't tell me. I don't need to know what happened. All I know is that what happened that night just reinforced what I had thought all along and Dar was completely crushed."

"And me even jokingly saying that he hasn't made anything of himself was a stab in the back."

Velia stopped suddenly and turned to put her hands on Elle's shoulders. Elle couldn't see Velia's face but she assumed Velia was looking straight into her eyes. "You have to promise not to mention any of this to him. I never told you anything."

"Why?"

"Because he doesn't like talking about it, for one. That goofy, care-free façade he has is an act, a very good one I'll admit, and he's really good at keeping it up, but he's never gotten over what happened. It's best to just leave it rest."

"Alright, I will," Elle said with a nod of acknowledgement.

"Good. Thank you," Velia said, letting go of her shoulders and turning to continue walking.

"What happened didn't completely squash his curiosity, did it? You said he still had an interest, right?"

"He's got a stash of books somewhere on a whole bunch of different things. I've never seen it myself because he's really good at hiding them, but everyone knows he's got them and they just sort of leave it alone. I can't say he's been doing much sneaking around the cities lately, though. I'm not really sure what he's up to in that respect, but he got really excited when Keene went to find you."

"I've heard he bet Keene would bring me back just to see Maitho get angry about it. He told me he did it to put a little positive energy out in the world for Keene."

"Yeah, that's probably part of the story, but he probably secretly wanted you here so he could badger you with questions and the like. Has he been badgering you with questions?"

"No, actually."

"That's strange. I would have expected him to pounce at the chance."

The trees suddenly stopped and they were walking through another field. About fifty feet ahead of them Elle could make out the bare outline of what looked like a playground.

A shadow moved between the arching metal bars. "Jeez, Lia, get lost or something?"

"No, Zephne, but thanks for the concern. Hey, Baara, give us a light, will you?" Velia said as they stepped over the remnants of the fence that had once surrounded the area. "Some among us are vision-impaired in this lighting."

A moment later a flame appeared in midair, revealing Baara's face beside it and shedding its light on a small radius around her. "Better?"

"Lovely, thanks," she said, coming to a stop just within the reach of the flame's light and leaning against one of the posts that supported the row of bars above them. "Elle, this is Zephne and Ruya and you've already met Baara and Variel."

Elle hadn't seen Variel in the shadows, but she wondered why the woman was constantly showing up wherever she went. She said a hello to the two she hadn't met before though she wasn't able to get a very good look at their faces in the dim light. She still had no idea what all of this was leading to.

"So you kept this all hush-hush, Ruya, what are we doing?" Baara asked.

"Put that light out and I'll show you."