“Aren’t you curious?” Liona whispered, straining her bare toes trying to look over the wall. Her face barely made it to the top. It was too cold for them to be in their nightgowns, and too dark for them to be out of their beds. But there would never again be an opportunity so perfect. Alina was summoned back to the palace, and Maya was fast asleep having drunk a bit too much at the feast. Something a server had called a lager. Liona had thought she had misheard. The word oddly reminded her of wood. And why would anyone ever name a drink after wood?
“You know I am,” Kazek replied, standing a little distance away from the wall. He didn’t want any trouble. He would much rather be in bed right now. He would much rather be in bed at any given moment, actually. His hair fluttered in a cool breeze, and he hugged himself. He wished he had brought his sweater along. He wondered if he still could. But their house was far away, and nighttime fostered strange creatures. Creatures who would only ever allow themselves to be seen through the corner of your eyes. Masters of deception, they were. The moment you looked at them, they would turn back to rocks and twigs. But Kazek knew better, even though he was only six. He never kicked a rock, nor did he play with any twigs. Who knew what could offend creatures of the night?
She looked down at him. “Then, stop being a baby!”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I am a baby!”
She clicked her tongue at him and turned back to the wall. She thought it over, just like she had so many times before. She, a thirteen-year-old, could manage to see the top of the wall when she stood on her toes. It meant that most adults could easily look over it. “Why don’t they get out, then?” she asked the air. The wind simply kept its pace, as if to tell her that it didn’t know, either.
That question had bugged her for years, now. It just didn’t make any sense. Except for the Royal family and their guards, never had she seen anyone leave the town. And even their outings were rare. The strangest thing of all was that there weren’t even any guards posted at the wall that separated their township from the rest of the world. It was as if everyone had collectively chosen never to leave it. Liona knew there were many things she didn’t understand yet, as was made perfectly clear by Alina on countless occasions, but she understood that staying in the same town all your life was madness. And sometimes, late at night while she lay awake in her bed thinking about what lay beyond, she wondered if she would some day go mad, too.
Of course, she had tried asking her foster parents before. The conversation would always be another version of the ones before. That morning, when the feast to celebrate the prince’s return was announced, Liona had let her mind wander to where he was returning from. The commoners didn’t know much about the King’s ties with the outside. Liona suspected if anyone even thought about that. Liona also suspected if the King had any ties with the outside, at all.
“Well, that’s perfectly alright,” Alina noted after the bellman had made his announcement.
“Alright?” Maya asked. Her voice was riddled with excitement her demeanor made no effort to conceal. “It’s going to be positively staggering! All that food! All that booze!”
“Now, Maya,” Alina said in that authoritative tone of hers that Liona was only too familiar with. “You know you can’t drink too much at this affair, right? I will most likely be assigned clean-up duties, again. You will have to keep an eye on the kids.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Maya replied, though she obviously wasn’t listening.
Liona saw her chance and took it. “Where is he returning from?”
Both of them turned to her. She desperately wished Kazek wasn’t out playing with his friends just so she could have someone else to look at. It wasn’t that she was scared of Alina and Maya, for she feared no one. She was just tired of the disapproving looks she got every time she asked anything about the outside. She was so very tired of them.
Maya opened her mouth, but Alina held a hand up. “Liona, how many times are we to go over this, eh?”
Liona tried counting her toes, just to make sure there were still ten of them.
“Look at me!” Alina demanded.
Liona turned her head up. She was so much taller. Height represented power. That much Liona understood. Only the adults were powerful enough to look over the wall, after all. She often wondered if that power had cost them their sanity. She would much rather be short all her life.
“How many times, eh?”
“I just wondered—”
“I know,” Alina sighed. “You always keep wondering about what lies beyond the walls. Why does it matter so much to you?”
“I don’t know. I just want to go outside.”
Alina sat down, leaning against a wall. “You know kids aren’t allowed to go out. It’s dangerous.”
“I’m thirteen!” Liona said.
“That means you’re still a kid. When you’re an adult—when you are eighteen, you can go out whenever.”
“Why don’t you ever go out then?” Liona demanded.
Alina and Maya shared a look that was beyond Liona. She also understood that some things were just between lovers.
“By God!” Alina rose to her feet. Liona cursed herself for flinching. “Such a troublesome child! Asking such dumb questions!”
Maya put a hand on her shoulders. “Calm down, Alina. She’s a child. She’s only curious!”
“Well, being curious is not what the King looks after us for! And we were never curious like her, were we?”
She shook out of Maya’s grasp and walked up to Liona, standing so close that Liona had to crane her neck to look into her eyes. Liona also understood fear. And at that moment, when she expected nothing but anger oozing from Alina, she saw only fear in her eyes.
“Now, you listen here, Liona,” said Alina, her voice trembling at the edges. “This is the last time I’ll be telling you this. The adults never leave this town because it’s safe here. The King looks after us, but only as long as we are his loyal subjects. The outside doesn’t interest us—we don’t care if we’re disconnected from the whole world—because we know what it’s like! It’s a wasteland, Liona! Here, we’re cared for, protected, and have a place to belong to! Maya has spent all her life in this town, and so have I! And so did your mother, and your father! You know why?”
She didn’t. She didn’t want to know why her parents had never left this damned town. Because if they had, Liona wouldn’t have to wonder what lay beyond. She would know.
“Because they knew better!” Alina continued, unrelenting. “Because we know better! The outside is everything we do not know. Our town, this lovely place, is everything we know.” Her voice softened a little as she went on, “It’s comfortable, Liona. You will never get lost here. Here you can be perfectly contented all your life. The outside… the outside might just chew you up and spit you out.”
Liona was too stunned to speak. And it didn’t help that room had suddenly gotten so damn warm! She feared no one, she reminded herself. Alina wasn’t someone she could respect. She surely wasn’t going to start fearing her. But she felt it. A soft ache in the pit of her stomach. An ache that threatened to burst forth at any moment. She pushed it down. She couldn’t let Alina know that she could feel fear. No, she wasn’t going to let anyone know that she could be afraid.
She looked at Maya, stupidly expecting her to say something. But she didn’t. Of course, she didn’t. Maya never said anything. She simply looked away. And that hurt just as much as Alina’s true words did. Maybe more.
That evening, while the entire town sang praises for their beloved King, and congratulated their brave prince who had survived the wasteland that was the rest of the world, Liona fought to keep her heart from exploding. Alina’s words rang louder in her ears than any of the King’s musicians. We don’t care if we’re disconnected from the whole world—because we know what it’s like! It’s a wasteland! The outside might just chew you up and spit you out.
That was it. All her admonitions about the outside were mere speculations. Alina hadn’t the faintest idea of what really was beyond those walls. And yet she had chosen to spend her entire life walled in. Because it was comfortable. In that moment, she almost pitied her, pitied all of them. In that moment she realized that she could never be like them. She couldn’t spend all her life feeling contended. She wanted the extremes. She wanted to burst out laughing, and also risk her heart just for the thrill of it. She wanted to feel everything her heart could dare to. In that moment, she realized that it wasn’t Alina she had been afraid of. It was the unknown that had scared her. She also understood that it had no hold on her anymore.
She didn’t have the time to think everything through. She saw Maya down glass after glass, but made no effort to stop her. She needed Maya drunk.
Things played out pretty well for her. Alina and Liona had to carry Maya back home while Kazek ambled along with them. After Alina had gone back to the palace, it wasn’t too difficult to convince Kazek to come along with her. She knew even he wondered about the rest of the world. It was only the adults who were too lazy to.
She also understood that she knew why they didn’t just leave. But it didn’t seem logical at all. You don’t just give up on endless possibilities for the sake of comfort. Sure, your heart could shatter, but it deserves a chance to feel that which when taken away could shatter it. The risk of pain is worth a chance at happiness.
“Come on,” she said to Kazek. “Hoist me up!”
He hesitated but obliged. He was here. Might as well get there.
He was about to give her a push when they heard a voice they were all too familiar with. An authoritative one that could shatter rocks if it wanted to.
Alina pulled them by their ears all the way back to their house. Liona knew there would be no berating tonight. It would come in the morning when more people could witness, and fewer people would have to be woken up.
Liona sat crying at the foot of her bed. She had gotten so close. So close. And now she would have to endure a lifetime with women she hated. She didn’t know when she had started feeling that way about them, but she understood that she hated them.
Liona’s sobs were interrupted by a quiet knock at her door. She looked at it, wondering if she had imagined it. Another knock sounded. Then, a voice. “Liona… It’s me.”
Maya? It didn’t matter what she had to say now. Nothing mattered now. “Go away!”
“Listen to me,” Maya continued from the other side of the door. Liona sighed and crawled up to it. She rested her head on it, and could almost feel Maya’s head on the other side. “This town.. it’s alright.”
Liona couldn’t believe her nerve. She wasn’t about to start yelling at her, but Maya kept going.
“But it’s not everything there is. I—I used to be like you,” Maya said, and Liona wondered how drunk Maya was. “I used to want to escape.” She chuckled to herself. “God, that word sounds so alien to me now… where does all this time go.”
Liona had her ear pressed to the door, now.
“When I was younger, I wanted to see what lies on the outside, too. I wanted to explore and experience everything there was. But they beat it out of you. This whole town and its ideologies of isolation beat it out of you. They don’t use violence—oh no… they simply make it so comfortable here that we stop worrying about the outside.
I wish I could still want to escape, Liona, I truly do. I just can’t anymore. Comfort is so enticing, child. It slowly takes you in, forms a cocoon around you, keeps you warm. With time, that cocoon only gets thicker. Eventually, it blocks all callings from the outside.”
Liona’s heart broke at how helpless Maya sounded when only hours ago she was feasting so joyfully.
“Alina loves you. I promise you she does. That’s why she wants to beat your thoughts about the outside out of you. She’s too blinded by her own way of life to be able to accept yours.” Maya was sobbing now. “And you may hate us—I wouldn’t blame you if you did, but know that we love you, Liona.”
Liona put a hand over her mouth to muffle her sobs.
“You must go away. Not now, but you must! Once you’re old enough, you will get a choice. Choose to leave, Liona. I don’t know what the outside holds for you, but don’t let comfort get to you. I only know what the inside holds for you: nothing!
We are always here should you ever choose to come back, but for that, you must first leave! Promise me… promise me you’ll not let them beat it out of you! You have a wonderful soul, Liona… don’t let them tame it. Never let anyone tame your soul, child. Not when you were born to be so beautiful and so wild.”
Liona didn’t hear it when Maya went back to her room.
She woke up as warm sunlight hit her face, her head still pressed to the door. She couldn’t possibly tell if last night was a dream, but now she understood one thing above all. She wasn’t going to be like everyone else around her. When her chance came, she would leave. It didn’t matter what the outside held. As long as it was unknown it was possibly knowable. And as long as it was knowable, it held a new experience for her. She wasn’t one to be content with just contentedness, anyway.