The day was clouding over as Jolene, Sasha, Kari, and Tomas ventured back out.
Jolene struck a significantly less urgent pace this time as she followed Sasha’s directions. At the statue, they walked around it to go straight across the little square and continue onto a road which sloped gently upward. At the end of the first block, where the street on their right dove steeply downward, a blast of chilly wind mussed their hair and caused Jolene’s cloak to billow. Sasha pulled her coat tighter around herself.
Tomas looked up at the grey sky. “D’you think it’ll snow?”
Jolene looked at him curiously for a moment as she walked, then said, “You’re from North of the Mountains, aren’t you?”
Surprised, Tomas nodded.
Jolene nodded to herself, staring down the street before them. “Yeah… We don’t get too much snow here. The mountains catch it all, I’m told. It might flurry a bit,” she said, looking at the sky, “but nothing like you’d be used to.”
“Oh,” Tomas said, disappointed.
Kari patted him fondly on the shoulder as they walked. [It’d been a full year since he’d gotten to see a good snowfall, and Kari knew how that weighed on him. Many back Home saw snow as an annoying—if necessary—part of life, but Tomas always had always seen the joy in it.]
Sasha continued to lead them through the city. Streets that ran parallel to the Lake’s shore tended to be mostly flat or gently sloping, sometimes losing elevation, sometimes gaining it. The others, streets toward or away from the water, were often steep, but downhill was always toward the Lake. Sasha’s route did not feel all that intuitive to Tomas, and he was certain he couldn’t retrace it. However, he held a bit of quiet confidence that, were they to get separated, he could get himself and Kari back to Jolene’s with little trouble.
Sasha and Jolene moved easily in and out of conversation, speaking of people and places Tomas didn’t know. Kari and Tomas were mostly quiet, still fascinated by all the stone edifices around them. The entire city wasn’t seamless; occasionally, two buildings would abut where one was significantly taller than the next, with a sheer wall abruptly breaking the flow of the surrounding rooftops. These often had doors set in them, sometimes windows. Occasionally ladders would lean against the side of the smaller building facing the street, but only where the ground was flat. Dozens of questions welled up within Tomas, but he kept them in check. The first question he’d asked Jolene hadn’t been met with much interest, and the second one had given away his origin. He didn’t know what to keep secret, didn’t want to annoy Jolene, so instead he simply kept quiet.
Having Kari along to gawk with him helped, though. She was particularly enamored with staircases that disappeared underground, some of which were set into the street, giving the impression that the buildings continued beneath the ground.
Eventually, they turned a corner into a sizeable plaza dominated by the first building Tomas had seen in Vacen built from anything other than the sparkling blue-grey stone. It was drab brown, not rich like the trees of the Vaç Forest but greyer, perhaps with the barest hint of yellow. Though it was made of stone, it was clear it represented another place, perhaps another culture, even. It had very little in common with what the rest of Vacen felt like. [Though he often tried, Tomas never could explain the particulars of his gut feelings during his time in Vacen.] Even from across the square, he could see seams between standardized stone blocks, something he hadn’t seen since leaving Brin. Most perplexing, though, was that despite its obvious discordance with the city, townsfolk swarmed around the entrance. Some were coming, some were going, but it was clear all were there because of that building.
“Big sanctuary day?” Sasha sounded surprised.
Jolene shrugged. “Guess this is where our customers were.”
They crossed the square in subsequent silence, skirting the bulging crowd as best they could. Nobody paid them much mind, and before long, they were through it. Before Tomas lay a street unlike any he had yet seen in Vacen: one that was completely level.
“It’s flat!” He laughed out loud as he said it.
Sasha smiled proudly. “This is the Son’ret District. It’s where I grew up.”
“Som-i-let?” Tomas replied, trying to get his mouth around the sounds.
“Son’ret. It’s just the word for flat over in Ors Diroa. I guess we kinda adopted it over here.”
“Ors…Diroa?” Something was connecting in Tomas’ head. “Do they call the Lake Oandors there? Are they really on the other side?”
Sasha laughed. “Yes they do, but I’m pretty sure if you sailed directly away from Vacen across the Lake, you’d sail right past Ors Diroa. So not exactly the other side? Does that help?”
“It does,” Tomas said, running his hand through his hair, “but how far away is Ors Diroa?”
Sasha thought for a moment before Jolene said, “Half a day on a boat. Two by land, one and a half on a fast horse.” She snorted. “If you can find one around here.”
“Oh,” Tomas said, a new appreciation for the Lake’s size growing in his mind.
Kari could see the wheels in his head turning furiously, so after Sasha brought something up she’d heard about Len during the lunch rush, she nudged Tomas. “What’s got you thinking?”
“The Lake is so big,” Tomas said.
“Didn’t we know that?”
“Sure, but think about how far we’ve walked. Today, we’ve kept walking in that same direction: away from Home. After lunch, at least.” He shook his head. “The Lake keeps going. We can see the Mountains from here, but we can’t see the far side of the Lake, or Ors Diroa, I don’t think. I’d have to check during the day. But the Lake is big, Kari. We could sail exactly west from here and pass Ors Diroa before we hit land again.” He shook his head, incredulous.
“And here we are!” Sasha exclaimed as she rounded yet another corner.
“We are?” Kari asked.
She nodded, then threw a brief glance at Kari. “I grew up five more minutes that way,” she pointed down the street before her, “but that’s the school.” She indicated a building just a bit up the street.
All the buildings since the brown one had seemed bigger to Tomas, but the one Sasha had pointed out still seemed particularly large. Nowhere near the brown one, of course; he could still see its towering, square shape quite clearly. This was big for a building of normal size, more surprisingly deep than tall. It had a big wooden frame holding doors the same rich color. The doors were propped open, though their angle prevented Tomas from seeing inside. Besides the doors and Sasha’s pointing finger, nothing set the building apart from any of the others around it—Tomas had only noticed its depth because she’d pointed to it.
They were already on their way when Tomas nudged Kari and asked, “What do you think?”
Kari just shrugged.
As they crossed the street, a dull ache began to worm its way through Tomas’ shoulder. He rubbed it absentmindedly as they walked through the doors.
Beyond the wooden doors was a room unlike any Tomas had ever seen. Easily twice the height of Grant’s dining room[, and probably more, by my reckoning], the room was long, too, with numerous doors and entryways set into the walls. These allowed people of varying ages and ethnicities into the gigantic hall, where they brushed busily by each other, as if they were each on some extremely important mission. At the far end stood a huge door. Though it seemed it was kept closed, the man and woman posted before it didn’t seem to be keeping anyone out.
All of this was lost on Tomas, though. His shoulder had begun to throb, and weaving through the crowd were people wearing disturbingly familiar capes—capes that took him back to a chilly night in the fields near his home. Few wore their hoods, but Tomas recognized them regardless. Kari was on edge, too; her hands were both clenched tightly. Could she sense his unease or was she put off for her own reasons?
A small, balding man wearing one of the familiar capes noticed them gawking at the scale of the entryway and came over to ask, “Can I help you folks?”
His personable demeanor did little to put Tomas at ease.
Jolene took half a step forward and said, “Yes, we were wondering what you know about Black Flour.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up. He adopted a friendly smile and said, “Ah, having a little trouble with the ol’ soot, eh? Come with me; I bet I know what you need.”
Jolene shrugged and nodded, so the little man turned to lead them through the nearest door on Tomas’ left. As their little group moved toward the door he’d indicated, Tomas rolled his left arm around, trying to stretch the shoulder, hoping to relieve some of the tension resting there. Through the little door, now walking beside him at the end of a two-wide line, Kari cracked her knuckles all at once, the sound resonating in the torchlit stone corridor. [Neither Kari nor Tomas felt the relief they sought, though, and to make matters worse, Sasha and Jolene didn’t seem even the least bit agitated.]
Where the hallway took a hard right turn, a wall didn’t face them. Instead, they looked into a steep, curving stairwell that disappeared into gloom as it descended. Their guide skipped down them easily, the sprightly maneuver at odds with his shiny head. Sasha and Jolene watched their feet but didn’t seem fazed either. Kari and Tomas had to carefully choose each step, nervous as they were of tumbling down the steep stone stairs.
Luckily, the well was darkest halfway between floors, and it never became too dim to make out the best place for a step down. The transition was jarring [for our Northerners, though,] so they squinted at the torches in this new hallway before them.
Jolene looked around with interest. “How do you keep the torches from smoking the whole place up?”
Their guide smiled proudly, if briefly, over his shoulder. “The ceiling’s built to guide the smoke out through channels in the walls.”
Jolene looked impressed. “Is it original?”
He nodded proudly, but when he saw Jolene’s disappointment, he added, “Oh, it doesn’t have to be. Not cheap to get it added, though, and you definitely don’t want to be the one to clean the channels. Now there’s some soot for ya!” He chuckled at his own joke.
Jolene nodded thoughtfully, a faint smile crossing her face, but she didn’t say anything else. All was quiet for a brief walk, then the little man grabbed a torch from a sconce and stopped in front of a small door that looked no different than any of the others they’d passed. There didn’t seem to be any kind of lock, just a simple latch keeping it from swinging idly on its hinges, so the little man simply opened it and walked in. A wrought-iron sconce was set just inside the door, so their guide’s torch sat in it before Tomas even entered the room.
The balding man was rummaging around a drawer set into the bottom of a bookcase on the left-hand wall. It and the opposite wall were dominated by similar shelves, but the one facing the door was lined with a row of locked glasstop cases. The torch was at a bad angle to see inside all of them, but no amount of flickering shadow could hide the Black Wheat from his eyes. A pair of ripe heads had been dried and laid next to each other, with a bit of black flour in a pile beside them. On the other side of that was a dried flower; its pale, pinkish orange petals strangely familiar to Tomas. Vaguely, he was aware of the cloaked man giving something to Jolene, but his thoughts were elsewhere. “Kari…come look at this.”
She’d been glancing into the other cases, but came to look over his right shoulder. “The flower? It’s familiar.”
Tomas nodded, then jumped as a hand clapped down on his other shoulder. “You like our specimens? Getting those heads wasn’t an easy thing.” The little man wore a friendly smile, seemingly at odds with the shadows across his face.
Jolene wandered over too. “Oh, so this is what these seeds are?”
He nodded. “Just grind up some of the petals and mix that in with the flour and water, and it’ll act just like the white stuff you’re used to.” A curious look spread across his face. “I’ve just realized my manners! I’m called Collins; my apologies for my lack of decorum. I get excited when people have questions I can answer.”
They each introduced themselves, and he shook their hands in turn. He seemed particularly enthusiastic when it was Kari’s turn. Tomas could see that she was done with the gesture long before he was. Seeming satisfied with himself, he led them back out of the little room, taking the torch with him.