Poking Around (TSWL Ch.5)

It was dark when Tomas awoke.  He’d fallen asleep at a bad angle, and he could feel it in his neck.  Sitting up and stretching, he found that his back was also unhappy with him.  No surprise there; he’d just walked two days from Brin, bearing his whole life in a pack on his shoulders.  Thank goodness for the belt distributing the pack’s weight around his hips, or he’d probably have had trouble getting out of bed.  It was one of the easiest ways to spot how well Kari’s strengths complimented his weaknesses.

Now that he thought of it, where was she?  It was dark now, and sounds from the full dining room below filtered through the wooden floor.  He stretched his arms above his head, a few stray pops escaping as his back realigned.  Taking the cue, he tilted his head first one way, then the other, tension audibly disappearing in each direction.  Now mostly awake, he walked over to the window.

The street was only slightly less crowded than it had been when they’d arrived, presumably several hours ago.  Rubbing his eyes, Tomas was baffled by the sheer number of people in this city.  He’d been paying attention as they’d walked in, but he didn’t recognize a single person.  How many could there be?

Tomas pondered this as he descended to the dining room, the low rumble growing in volume and intensity with each step.  He was shocked by how much louder the din became when he opened the door at the bottom of the stairs.  Testing how his own volume compared, he couldn’t believe that he was unable to hear his own voice.  Taking a deep breath, he ventured into the crowd, hoping to find Kari or Jolene—the only two people in the city he knew by name. 

There was hardly any room between tables as Tomas skirted one rowdy cluster of seemingly gigantic men and women after another, not bothering to call either name at his disposal.  Despite being the loudest one [by far] back Home, he was no match for this throng.  He successfully made it to the bar, but darting to and fro behind it were two unfamiliar faces no older than his, filling mugs and clearing away empty dishes.  The girl noticed him and made her way over, an inquisitive but impersonal look clouding her face.

Tomas put his hands around his mouth and belted, “Jolene?”  His volume surprised him.

It surprised the girl too, who jumped as if prodded suddenly from behind.  She nodded briskly and held up a single finger: one moment.  After refilling a few more mugs belonging to red-faced men hollering and beating them against the stone bartop, she dried her hands on a rag and disappeared through a door, only to reappear an instant later.  She gave Tomas a quick thumbs-up and smile before returning to her rounds.  He watched her with fascination; he’d never seen a bar this crowded.  Grant himself was always enough to handle the rush back at his inn, the only one Tomas had seen busy before.  He wondered if Grant would be able to keep up with her as well as the boy she worked alongside could.

He was jarred from his thoughts by Jolene’s head and shoulders popping around the same door the girl had disappeared behind.  She motioned for him to come to her and pointed to the end of the bar, which opened into the dining room floor.  Tomas complied eagerly, both ready to leave the noise and to see more of the building. 

The assault on his ears wouldn’t end as he slipped through the swinging door, however, as the busy kitchen bustled with a fracas all its own.  Jolene had been waiting just inside the door and greeted him with a warm smile.

“How was your nap?”  Despite the noise, he had no trouble hearing her.

“Refreshing,” he said, his own volume surprisingly sufficient.  “Where’s Kari?”

Jolene waved her hand dismissively at the ceiling.  “Up with the kegs.  She’ll be back shortly.  Are you here to help?”

Tomas nodded.

“Have you eaten?”

He shook his head, still adjusting to the level of activity [and still not fully awake, unless I miss my guess.]

“Well, then you won’t be much help.  Why don’t you sit at the bar and watch Sasha and Vin work while you eat.  Tomorrow, you’ll shadow Sasha during lunchtime, just to get a feel for the job.  It’s not hard, so long as you stay on your toes.  I’ll get you a plate of food here, then go find an open stool.  I’ll send Kari your way when she comes back down.”  With that, she was off, checking on food and responding to problems presented by her workers, who’d been waiting impatiently as she and Tomas conversed.  She took a plate out of the window between herself and the cooks, then yelled back to just make another as protests rang out from the men and women behind the window, sweating abundantly despite a door open to the nocturnal chill.

Jolene handed the plate to Tomas, who went back through the door and was struck again by the wall of sound.  Taking a deep breath that smelled of drinks and people, he took a tall stool at the end of the bar near the kitchen door and began to watch Sasha flit to and fro, pouring drinks and taking coin, which she sorted into two jars.  Not, Tomas noted, by denomination, and more seemed to be going into one jar than the other.  Occasionally, she’d take a moment to breathe or sip on a small cup she had set aside.  Always smiling, rarely actually talking, she was amazing to watch.   He couldn’t see Vin as well, as he was working the half of the bar closed in by the wall the staircase made as it climbed.

He was mostly finished with his dinner when a heavy hand clapped down on his shoulder, startling the fork out of his hand.  He swung around to face whatever trouble had found him, sliding smoothly on the polished wood of the backless stool.  Luckily, it was trouble he knew; Kari grinned down at him as he lowered his hands.  He smiled back and shook his head tiredly, standing up from his barstool.

“Where to?” she said in his ear.

Tomas pointed at the front door.  She nodded and began to cut a path through the crowd, Tomas gratefully following in her wake.

Once outside, Tomas asked her, “Did you need anything from the room?”

Kari shook her head, looking around.  Left was the direction from which they’d come when they entered the city.  To the right, the road continued, leading deeper into Vacen.  “Which way?”

Tomas followed her gaze.  People walked in both directions, entering and exiting buildings, dodging carts and wheeled stands drawn only by people.  In the distance, was that a square?  The crowds grew denser the further from Jolene’s door they got.  Looking back to the left, it felt calmer and more familiar.  “Let’s stick to what we know for now.  We’ve got time, so let’s get used to how the city is before we go too deep.”

Kari nodded as they started walking.  “That makes sense.  We don’t need to get lost our first night in town.”

A frightening thought occurred to Tomas.  “Who’d come find us?”  He stopped at the entrance to a side street that seemed to go further than the one they’d already passed.  The word “Hill” was etched into the wall of the building on the corner.  Looking around, Tomas noticed the word “North” etched into a building across the street they’d been following, perpendicular to the word “Hill.”

It was quiet between them for a moment; sounds of activity on the street around them echoed down the empty street before them.

Then Kari clapped a hand on his back and smiled.  “They won’t have to.  We’ll pay attention.  Plus, with your sense of direction, there’s no way we’ll get lost.”

“You flatter me.  That is part of the point of this walk, though.”

“Looking for the Lake, are we?”

“You know me too well.”

“And yet you still surprise me.”  The anxiety behind them, they started down the much darker street.

The sounds of the crowd grew distant, though they echoed off the stone walk and walls.  This street—Hill, it seemed to be called—was narrower than the thoroughfare they’d left behind, and they were alone.  The lanterns on the bigger street behind them threw long shadows down the stone corridor.  From Hill Street, the whole city looked to Tomas as though it were tilted; logic and his sense of direction told him down was toward the water. 

They continued down the street, passing dark windows and side streets, glancing down them as they walked by.  Most were dead ends, some led to other streets.  Soon, sounds from the street they’d left behind—North—had faded altogether, leaving them in a very quiet, still world.  The wind made the only noise, sweeping down the stone streets and tinkling the occasional chimes hanging from porch roofs.

They came upon a sharp left curve in the road.  Between the buildings that continued to line the street, buildings which now faced them, they could see open sky: the Lake.  An even smaller street shot off to the right, before the bend.  Summit Ridge, it seemed to be called.  After the curve, Hill Street sloped sharply downward, betraying a great deal more open air—and explaining its name.

“Kari…look at this.”  Tomas had stopped in his tracks.

“What am I looking at?”

“I…don’t know.”

“Let’s go check it out.”

“What?  I thought you didn’t see anything.”

“Well, I don’t.  But you seem to.”

Tomas absently rubbed his shoulder as he said, “It’s not really anything I see, but it feels…” he ran a hand through his hair, “different.”

Kari rubbed her hands together.  Tomas couldn’t tell if it was a gesture of comfort or eagerness; was it to generate warmth, to help her feel better, or was it more akin to a warmup before a fight?  “Different, huh?  Different from what?”

“Out here,” Tomas said as he started down the dead-end street.

They walked silently down the new road, looking up at the homes surrounding them.  Most had light in a window or two, but only on the second floors.  Shades hung on the insides, obscuring any activity behind them.  That suited Kari and Tomas fine; their business was as private as those inside.

A chill breeze blew from their left.  The buildings in this part of town seemed older, and they were spaced further apart.  Looking between them, they saw only the distant darkness of the Lake.  The wind was blowing straight off the water and into this little corner of the town, and it made Tomas’ shoulder hurt.

“Does it still seem ‘different’?” Kari asked Tomas quietly when they were roughly halfway to the end.

“I think so.  It’s hard to tell now that it’s not next to something else.  But doesn’t it seem like something out of a dream?”  He gestured to the buildings around him.  They were just a bit too serene, like the glassy surface of a deep pond teeming with fish.

They made their way to the end of the street, which was slightly wider than the rest. 

“A dream?  Or a nightmare?”  Had Kari said it to herself or Tomas?

“The sky seems so close…  And are these buildings taller than the ones back there?”  Tomas had stopped very close to the center of the widened, circular area and was turning this way and that.  Kari was walking in slow circles around him, eyeing the buildings.  “If I close my eyes, I have this sense that the road goes on for a long, long way in both directions.  This is weird, Ri.  What do you think?”

“I think that garden is giving me the creeps.”  She pointed to the garden in question.  It sat in front of a house with the Lake sprawling behind.  “And I don’t like all the shadows over there.”  Another house on that side.

“Yeah, they seem…busy.  I can’t think of another way to say it.  I wonder—”

“What was that?”  Kari dropped into a defensive stance, arms out, forming a wall between Tomas and the biggest, oldest house on the circle, opposite the garden yet still overlooking the Lake. 

He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.  “Ri, I didn’t see anything.”

She remained tense, jaw set, brow stony.  Her knees were slightly bent and her hands were up, at her waist level. 

Moving to stand beside her, Tomas saw there was fear in her eyes. 

She wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“Kari…” he walked around her and took her right hand, placing it on his left shoulder.  “There’s a knot there that wasn’t before.  You feel it?”

She relaxed just a bit and looked where he’d placed her hand.  Her brow furrowed.

“Hmm.  Maybe try comparing it.”  He took her other hand and put it on his other shoulder.

Her fingers worked, exploring the bumps and hollows of his shoulders.  “Yeah, now I can tell.”

He nodded.  “That’s my reminder that right now, things are out of balance.  I haven’t forgotten that I can’t protect you.  Not yet.  But I know there’s a way for me to; I just have to learn how.  There’s answers here, I can feel it.”

She looked around them and cocked an eyebrow at him.

“Well, okay, maybe not right here, but inside these big stony walls.  We’ll find them, and then we’ll go save our Home.  You with me?”

Her eyes began to glisten in the moonlight, and she pulled him into a tight hug.  “Of course, Tom.”

“Woah, your hands!”

She quickly unfolded him.  “What?”

“I thought it was my shoulder, but then when your hands were on my back, they felt the same.  Well, not the same.  That’s what I’m talking about.”

“What are you talking about?”  But when she looked at her hands, Tomas could see that she had suspicions of her own.

“They’re different temperatures.  Like very different.”

She rubbed her hands together, looking at them.  “I thought it was just me.”

“Well, now it’s me too.  Come on.  We’ve got some answers to seek out.”

They started back up the side street.  “Still gonna try and find the Lake tonight?”

“Of course.  Nothing happened.”

She laughed.  “I guess not.”

As they descended the steep street, an aroma that brought their minds Home grew with the breeze.  It was a cold wind, not chilly like the rest of the mild winter evening but cold, like a deep, wide body of water in the darkest part of the year.

A chill ran down Tomas’ back, and he pulled his coat tighter around himself as a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

It wasn’t long before they could hear the water.  To their right, a wall only just taller than Kari ran around a collection of dark buildings.  Twin metal rails ran under a closed wooden gate and past them, into the city.

The ground was flat here; a grassy yard gave way to darkness a short distance away.  The wind whipped about them this close to the water, tugging at their clothes and mussing their hair.

Tomas’ eyes widened as he made a beeline for the water.  [He never worried about Kari keeping up, especially when rushing toward such wonderful memories: memories of Home.]  A needle-thin waxing crescent moon hung low in the sky, reflecting wan silver light off the turbulent surface of the Lake.

Waves lapped against the rocky shore, neither violent nor peaceful.  Rather, they seemed determined, bound by some unspoken purpose that drove them against the rocks over and over again.  After the terror the previous night had brought, tears were in his eyes as he turned to look northward, to his right, though he couldn’t see past Vacen’s high, smooth wall where it plunged into the Lake.  Still, as the Northern Range did the same, it brought him a touch of comfort.  A big hand alighted softly on his shoulder.

“I’m alright,” he said, drying his eyes before looking up at her.

Kari nodded at him with a small, knowing smile.  She was on his left, and in the distance behind her, he saw an unfamiliar, very bright star on the horizon.  [He’d spent enough time staring at the night sky back Home that he still could recognize the rest of the sky, though.]

He pointed and said, “Kari.”

She turned.  “What is that?”

He shook his head.  “It seems too big and blue to be a star.  Is there land that close to us?”

Kari shook her head and shrugged.

“Not quite, my young friends.  That is our South Star, courtesy of our sisters across Oandors, as they call this beautiful body of water,” came a voice from the darkness.

Kari wheeled, keeping herself between Tomas and the voice.

A distinctly female figure, clad all in black, rose from where she’d been lounging among the rocks.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find you jumpy.  New scenery and all that, right?”  She brushed off her pants, which billowed like a skirt in the breezy darkness.  “Don’t worry; I’m no threat to you.  Don’t get me wrong—I could be if I wanted to.  But I like friends better than enemies, don’t you?”

Kari didn’t move.

“Generally, I’d say you’re right,” Tomas said, taking a step lakeward in order to see the silhouette, “but I only count those I know well as my friends.”

There was just enough light to see a great many teeth in her smile.  Wispy hair blew around her head in the persistent wind.  “You’re wise to be cautious, unfounded though it may be.”  The silhouette shrugged jauntily.  “In any case, I’m leaving now.  I’ll see you around.”  A small chuckle escaped her chest.  “Maybe next time you’ll even see my face.”

With that, she turned sharply, gave a vague wave over her shoulder, and trotted easily off down the shore despite the rocks, leaving Kari and Tomas alone with their questions.

Rather than go back up the steep street they’d come down, Tomas elected to try taking a different route back—once they’d gotten their fill of the cold, damp, familiar air.

“In theory, it won’t be a problem.  I saw a big statue down the street from Jolene’s place.  I have a hunch this road will lead there.”

Kari shrugged.  “Sounds like it makes sense.”  [Kari had almost no sense of direction at all.  Had Tomas suddenly vanished, she would have had a supremely hard time getting back to Jolene’s.]

Up the hill they trudged, down the middle of the widest stone thoroughfare in view, doors on the buildings to either side shut tightly against the night.  It was quiet.

Tomas found it felt strange to be back among the buildings, the wind off the Lake at his back.  He missed it already.

As they climbed the hill back into the city, the still silence began to press upon Tomas.  Their footsteps echoed off the walls around them; Kari’s head flicked this way and that, not seeming to follow the echoes.  She began to pick up speed, keeping her head down but snapping it to one side, then the other for moments at a time.

“Ri, you okay?”

No answer.  The distance between them began to grow.

“Ri?”  He said it louder this time.

No answer.  Her head wasn’t going back to the ground anymore. A glance over one hunched shoulder, then the other, still growing faster with each step despite the incline.

“Hey, slow down!”  He couldn’t say it too loudly for fear of waking those behind the dark windows staring down at him, yet still she pulled away.  Too much further, though, and he’d be without other options anyway.  “KARI!!” 

She stopped dead as the echoes of his voice ran past her up the stone street.  Her head faced straight forward; her shoulders heaved with one deep breath after another, hands clenched at her sides.

Tomas ran uphill to catch up to her.  Breathlessly, he asked, “Kari…what’s going on?”

She shook her head, unblinking, as her mouth worked wordlessly.

Tomas hugged her tightly, arms around her waist, head on her chest.  Slowly, her hands came together behind his back and a single sob escaped her throat.  “There were so many,” were the only words she said, still breathing very deeply.

Tomas just hugged her.  He knew this fear, enormous fear he’d felt alone some years ago, surrounded by Black Wheat and the wind.  Though for him this real fear had been mixed in with shame disproportionate to the things he’d recalled, things he’d made right or come to peace with already.  So he held tight though he didn’t know what she felt, feeling her slowly relax, bit by bit.

Eventually, she spoke again.  “Did you see anything?”

He shook his head, still engulfed by her arms.

She took one more deep breath and let her arms fall slowly to her sides.

“C’mon.  Let’s get back.”  He put his arm around hers and half walked with her, half towed her up the hill.  Kari allowed herself to be pulled gently along.

Still arm-in-arm, Tomas began to gently prattle, filling the silence as he had their whole childhood, “Boy, you sure can cover ground when you need to.  And up hills, too!  Good thing I’m way too loud; I might have lost you!”  Here, he gave her a little squeeze around the waist without breaking their stride.  “You know I could never lose you.  Not unless you lost me on purpose, I guess.   But I trust you’d only do that when you wouldn’t need my sense of direction or my talking skills.”  Here he smiled up at her.  Seeing a faint smile on her lips despite her still furrowed brow, he turned back to look up the street as they continued on.

In time, they crested the long hill, the road curving gently to their right.  At the top, in a dip between two buildings, they’d taken a moment to stop and watch the moon set.  A good wind blew off the Lake—Oandors, that woman had called it.  The breeze had been better on the beach, but even here it smelled of cold water, carrying momentum further than Tomas had ever been from Home.  Even now, standing in this strange, bluestone city, he was closer to Home than to the far side of Oandors.  Further beyond, the sallow, exhausted Moon was sinking gratefully behind the distant horizon, a river of pale yellow cascading over the surface of the Lake.

They stood next to each other in silence for several moments before Tomas looked up at Kari and smiled.  “You ready?”

“Oh, definitely.”  She stretched.  “You took a much longer nap than me.”

“That’s right!  Sorry, let’s go.” 

With that, he turned to leave, only to frown at the road.  Hands on his hips, he swiveled back around to look at the Lake and the Moon, then up at the sky, though a building obscured his view of the south.

“Something’s not right.”

Kari reflexively swung to check up and down the street, glaring at the shadowy entrances to side roads.

Tomas laughed.  “Not that kind of wrong!  No, I didn’t expect the road to go that way.”

Kari shrugged, keeping her back to Tomas.

“C’mon,” he said, taking her hand and gently tugging her up the street without looking at her face.  He couldn’t pull her off balance, but she still moved with him as he continued to lead the way uphill.

Before they got far, Kari spoke up.  “If the road’s not going where you expect, why are we taking it?”

Shrugging, Tomas continued up the street.  “No sense in backtracking, and I have a hunch I trust.  It’s late enough already, and I don’t want to walk all the way back down and up again.”

“No kidding.”

So up the road they headed, uphill and southwest.  The road had curved away from Jolene’s, but this still felt to Tomas like the correct way to go.  Despite another confusing curve or two, the road took them to a small plaza, wider and grander than the intersections they’d passed on their way up the hill.  A fountain stood in the center of the square, in the shape of a man in leather armor, a messenger bag at one hip and a sword at the other.  He held a spyglass to his eye and stood upon a roughly hewn rock, gazing out across the Lake[, or, well, in that direction at least.  Buildings blocked his view even back then.  If any of you were to go see him now, you’d find buildings taller than Kari and Tomas saw—taller than any in Vacen, in their day.  That’d be the only difference, though.  Water bubbles out of his bag to fill the pool beneath him, and several small jets spew from where the hilt of his sword meets his scabbard.  Most captivating, though, is the light that shines from his spyglass.]  Tomas had never seen light focused as sharply as the beam that shot out of that stone tube.

“Who do you think he is?”

Kari shrugged, walking around the fountain.  “No sign,” she said after completing her circuit.

“Maybe Jolene knows.  I’ll ask her tomorrow while I’m working.  Speaking of—I think our beds are this way.”

Kari nodded appreciatively, and they turned to head north.  Tomas thought it felt right, but looked over his shoulder into the night sky to check his work.  Yes, this road pointed Home.

Next Chapter →

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