“That is not how I remember the story,” Ara began after they had reached the fire.
“Perhaps it loses something in my telling,” Aaron replied. They sat a few feet apart, each on their own bench. He could not guess what she would do after catching him trying to escape.
“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully. “Though I often find a difference in stories is due to the purpose of the teller.”
“And what is my purpose?”
“I am not sure. Maybe I’m wrong.” She fell silent again.
Aaron did not want to speak, to interrupt her thoughts. Trying to escape had been a risk, but now that it had failed, he found himself wondering what it would cost him.
The fire drove away the night chill, making it almost uncomfortably warm. The rest of the village remained still and quiet. Whatever was going to happen would be between just the two of them. However, he had to remind himself that both Ara and the child had snuck up on him earlier, so it was very possible there were a dozen people nearby that he was unaware of.
“So you want to leave?”
Aaron felt his body relax a little. Until that moment, he hadn’t realized how tense he had become waiting for her to speak. At least now they could get to wherever this was going.
“Rather than wanting to leave, I’d say I didn’t want to die.”
“Die?” Ara sounded genuinely confused.
“Yes. I thought you might kill me to protect the village from outsiders. Isn’t that what you were trying to decide?”
Though she may have intended it to, Ara’s laugh did little to calm his fears. “You are more paranoid than I am, and I didn’t think that was possible.”
Now it was Aaron’s turn to be confused. “But Eres said that…”
“Eres? Oh. Yes. I suppose she did.”
“She told you this?”
“Yes.” Aaron felt uncertain; there was no solid ground for him to get his footing.
“I wondered why she was so sure you would try to sneak away tonight.” She was definitely not talking to him now, though he still saw no one else around.
But Aaron was still trying to find something that made sense and didn’t wait for her to come back to him. “Why would she tell me such a thing if it weren’t true? Why did she want me to sneak away?”
Ara turned back to him. “Because I told her to. I told her to enable your escape somehow, anyway. I wanted to see what you would do. When you ran into one of the children, I mean. And I was impressed. Mason is good at pretend, but he was actually interested in your story.
“Yes. He was following you. Told to approach you when it was a good time. Oh, I suppose if you had tried to hurt him, I may have had you killed. But if you had just walked away, we would have let you go.”
“So it was… a test?”
“I suppose you could call it that. I wanted to see how you’d act when you thought no one was watching. To get a better sense of who you really are.”
“Did I pass?”
“Oh. In those terms, you passed. But it’s not just a yes or no. After all, you never answered my question. Do you want to leave?”
Aaron’s thoughts were racing. Eres had misled him. His life was not in danger? That was still a little unclear, but he felt less threatened now. Who were these people? Why had Jonon even brought him here?
“What if I do? Want to leave.”
“That’s simple enough. I’d have Jonon take you out of the village, make sure he got you good and turned around, and then drop you off somewhere.”
“So you’d let me go?”
“Of course! I didn’t ask you to come here. If you want to depart, I won’t stop you.”
“And if I want to stay?”
Her face grew more serious, more reserved. Leaving was easy, it seemed. Staying would be more complicated. “If you want to stay, we would have much to discuss. I do not yet know if you fit in here. Is it worth the resources it would cost? But your time with Mason speaks well for you. I am more inclined to say yes than I was earlier. Do you want to stay?”
Aaron didn’t know the answer to that. An hour ago, he was certain the people of this village wanted to kill him. But that had been a trick, a lie. Still, lying was not a great start to his introduction to the village. Nor was being tied up and brought here against his will. And Ara seemed happier to have him go. Yet there was something appealing about this place. He could not identify what it was, but his curiosity was roused, and he was not certain he wanted to leave it behind.
“I guess I don’t know. Do you need an answer right now?”
The slightest of smiles tugged at the corners of Ara’s mouth. “No. No need to make long-lasting decisions tonight. Sleep sounds like a welcome end to a very full day. Will you stay in your room tonight?”
“You aren’t going to kill me?”
That prompted a chuckle. “I promise, as long as you harbor no ill will towards the people of this village, you have nothing to fear here.”
“I suppose that will have to do. And sleep does sound very appealing right now.”
The end, for now.