When Tomas awoke again, nestled warmly among the covers in his bed at Jolene’s, sunlight shone cheerfully around the drawn curtains. Kari was still sleeping soundly, so he took his time waking his body up, stretching his legs as far down as they’d go and enjoying the sensation of the muscles in his back slowly loosening. As he sat up and looked blearily around the room, Tomas realized that despite the plentiful sunlight, it was all but silent.
[Tomas wrote extensively about life outside his Home, and the ways it continually surprised him. On a farm, you see, when the sun’s up, you’re busy.]
Finding no one in the hall, Tomas ventured down the stairs and entered the dining rom. Behind the bar, Sasha moved briskly about, seeing to the needs of the two people sitting at the bar, while also cleaning and organizing her workspace behind it. She smiled brightly when she saw Tomas. “Good morning!”
He smiled back, though less brightly. “Morning. Is there still breakfast back there?”
“Should be. Can I get you anything to drink?”
“Have you got beachgrapes?”
“Indeed we do. A tea?”
“Hot, if it’s not too much trouble.” Tomas climbed up onto a bar stool close to the middle of the bar. The woman sitting against the wall stared darkly into her mug, absently twisting a piece of her hair between her fingers. On the other end of the bar, the man across from the kitchen door greeted him with a friendly (if brief) nod before returning to his meal.
Sasha set a steaming mug in front of Tomas and said, “Breakfast?”
“Yes, please,” Tomas said, carefully pulling the big stone mug toward himself. Blowing steam away from the mouth, he hefted it and took a small, testing sip. Satisfied that it wasn’t going to burn him, Tomas tipped the mug up and took a bigger swallow than he meant to. Fortunately, none of the tea spilled down his chin or front, and he managed the liquid in his mouth with a bit of dignity. As the lump of hot beverage made its way down his throat, he said around it, “So is Jolene around? I was supposed to do some work for her today.”
“I haven’t seen her for a bit, but she’s definitely somewhere nearby.” Through the kitchen door, she said, “Walt! One more breakfast!” Nodding to herself, she turned back around and scanned the mostly empty room.
The quiet woman on the far side of the bar sullenly raised her empty mug, so Sasha filled her a new one from one of the taps protruding from the wall in front of Tomas.
After setting the bluestone mug down, she returned to Tomas, but before she could say anything, the man next to him said, “How do you know she’s not gone already?”
“Jolene? Why would she be? Today’s not a shopping day. I thought you’d know that, Len. You’re here often enough.”
Len straightened up on his stool dramatically, though the smug expression he wore undermined the effect a bit. “You mean you don’t know?”
Sasha took his drink and set it on the counter behind her. “Spit it out or I’m cutting you off,” she said with a poorly hidden smile, hands on her hips.
“Alright, alright, no need for threats.” His elbows returned to the bar, and he leaned in conspiratorially. “A big ol’ caravan came in from Villesav. Good amount of their special dough, not to mention a spot of the black stuff. In addition to the usual array of produce and stuff.”
“Black dough?” She sounded skeptical, but she gave him his drink back. “You hear if it was a good amount? Or is it already too late?”
“I’m not even convinced the stuff exists,” Len said into his mug, a hearty swig following.
Sasha rolled her eyes. “Jolene’s seen it herself!”
When Len didn’t look impressed, she grudgingly added, “I don’t think she’s tasted it, though…”
“And we only have her word to go on,” he finished smugly.
Sasha shook her head and moved to take a small pile of coins off the bar where the quiet woman had been sitting. She placed the mug in a basin, counted the coin, and divided the pile between two jars, just as Tomas had seen her do last night. He was about to ask her about it when she said, “Here, come with me,” and motioned him to move with her toward the kitchen. “I have to find Jolene and let her know what Len just told me about the bazaar. Walt here is almost finished with your breakfast.” She gestured to a rotund man bustling around the kitchen. He stopped what he was doing long enough to glower meaningfully at Tomas.
Sasha laughed. “Don’t worry. His bark is worse than his bite.”
True to Sasha’s word, Walt sullenly yet expertly continued to prepare the same dish Len had been finishing when Tomas had come downstairs.
“Here ya go,” the cook said after several minutes, handing Tomas a plate full of steaming food. It looked good, but it was different than breakfasts from Home, with lightly colored toast and strips of greasy, fragrant meat where he knew only to expect sausages.
He’d known the bread would be different, but the meat was throwing him off. With an apologetic cough, he said to the cook, “Um, what’s this meat?”
The gruff, portly man turned and looked at him with an expression of vast frustration. “Don’t you know bacon?”
Sheepishly, Tomas shook his head.
Walt grunted. “You know pigs?”
Tomas nodded. [The people of Brin kept pigs, even then. They don’t do well at the incredibly low temperatures we’re used to north of the Mountains, but Tomas had seen them the couple of times he’d been to the little fishing village.]
“It’s pig,” the cook said simply as he turned back to the huge pot to which he’d been adding ingredients.
Though Tomas had never eaten bacon [or pig at all, for that matter,] it smelled delicious, so he took his plate back to his seat at the bar and dug in. The bacon tasted every bit as rich and savory as the steam rising from it smelled, but the light brown toast was of particular note to Tomas. It was sweet, and mild compared to the Black Bread he knew from Home. Though they were bigger than he was used to, he recognized chicken eggs though his family had never kept them—[they’d traded goat’s milk for eggs on occasion.]
He had finished his meal and was sitting back on his stool, enjoying the last of his tea and his full belly when Jolene and Sasha burst through the kitchen door.
“…any left?” Jolene was saying as she pulled a surprisingly heavy cloak over her shoulders.
“Len was our source on this one…” Sasha said, her voice thick with admonishment.
Jolene rolled her eyes in the man’s direction.
Len waved back cheerfully.
Smiling, Jolene shook her head at him and turned to Tomas. “You ready to go?”
He nodded and started to get up. As his feet hit the floor, he remembered something important. “Can I go get Kari first?”
“Make it quick.”
So up the stairs he went, hoping his companion was already starting to wake up on her own. He didn’t want to go without her, but Jolene was clearly in a hurry.
Luckily, she was up and going through her morning stretches when Tomas came through the door. She smiled when she saw him.
“Morning! Jolene’s taking me to see the bazaar, and you can come, but we’ve gotta go now.”
Despite his fervor, he sat on the edge of her bed, intending to keep her from feeling extremely rushed, though his fingers tapping on his thigh undermined the gesture somewhat. She entered the stretch Tomas recognized as her final one, held it for what felt to Tomas like forever, then sighed pleasantly and gestured to the door with a smile and a nod as she grabbed her big, patched coat.
Tomas popped up and led the way downstairs after grabbing his own coat, hearing Kari shut the door behind them.
Down in the dining room, Len was working on a fresh drink, completely alone.
“Where’d they go?”
“Out front. Enjoy your little field trip.”
“Thanks.” Tomas was already halfway to the door.
Quietly, once she was sure Len wouldn’t hear, Kari said to Tomas, “You already made a friend?”
Tomas just smiled and shrugged.
Outside, Jolene was sitting at one of the tables, drumming impatiently with her fingers and leering at the slowly climbing sun over the buildings across the street. Her face lit up when she saw Kari and Tomas. “Y’all ready?”
They were, so she set off at a brisk pace toward the fountain they’d found the night before. When they reached it, Jolene barely spared the bluestone figure a passing glance as she walked around to take the street leading east, away from the Lake.
“Who is that? The statue, I mean.” Tomas had to trot to close the distance and move next to Jolene, not to mention keep pace.
“Y’know, I don’t actually know. He’s around the city, always looking all serious, but it’s always like today, y’know? I think about it at all the wrong times.” She didn’t break pace as she spoke, though her eyes grew distant and thoughtful.
Tomas thought about that, about living with such a question. Back Home, there had been someone to explain almost everything he could think to ask about.
Until the Stranger came, he thought with a shiver. After some moments dwelling on this, he noticed his contemplation had caused him to lag behind Jolene, and he started when he realized Kari was nowhere to be seen. Tomas picked up the pace so as not to lose Jolene in the growing crowd and nervously glanced over his shoulder. Kari was only a few steps behind him, taking in all that the crowd and city had to show her. Tomas heaved a heavy, relieved sigh.
[The sheer amount of bluestone that made up the city astounded Tomas. After twenty minutes of brisk walking, the buildings were obviously newer yet still flowed ethereally into one another, seeming for all the world like they’d once been a liquid and had frozen in these sloping, graceful shapes.]
Abruptly, Jolene turned a corner, and at the end of the street before them was a gate, larger and much busier than the one they’d seen the previous day. A tower much like the one they’d lunched at before entering the city was visible past the wall and to the left of the gate, and Tomas could just make out the shapes of city guards atop it, though he couldn’t tell what they were doing. Two more guards stood disinterestedly inside the gate, facing inward—toward the rush of people moving busily through in both directions.
“Do you remember guards at the gate we came through?” Tomas said quietly to Kari.
She shook her head, then went up onto her tiptoes to see over the crowd. When she did, her eyes grew wide and she ducked a little, [unconsciously, by Tomas’ reckoning.]
“What is it?”
“People,” she said. “More people than I’ve ever seen…” She kept her head low, below the level of most of those surrounding her. It wasn’t much, but it was noticeable.
Jolene showed no signs of slowing as she elbowed her way through the crowd, so Tomas swallowed against the lump in his throat and followed as closely as he could in her wake. Soon they were through the gate, where the crowd was able to spread out. Here, Tomas was able to see what Kari had.
Booths filled his vision, such as it was through all the people. A more diverse crowd than Tomas had ever seen filled the avenues between the rows of stands, stalls, and cross-legged merchants, sitting with their wares arranged neatly around them. Some people milled about, browsing, while others moved purposefully from stall to stall. There were many wheeled carts of varying sizes: some drawn by animals, others pushed by people.
Jolene resumed her pace from before the bottleneck of the gate. “The vendors who sell directly from their carts don’t get this close to the wall. We’ve gotta keep moving!”
Tomas glanced over his shoulder again and found Kari hot on his heels, so he forged onward. The crowd wasn’t as densely packed on this side of the wall, but Jolene’s pace was gaining speed because of it. He pressed through the assault on his senses, simultaneously trying to take as much in as possible and working to not let Jolene get away. He saw people with hair lighter than he’d ever seen before, darker skin, smaller people, taller people, types of clothing he couldn’t have even dreamed up. He smelled strange spices and roasting meats, animals and people who’d walked hard since early morning to get here. Most tantalizing for him, though, were the snippets of strange languages he caught as he practically ran through the crowd. It was never for long, but there were moments when he’d hear a woman laugh and excitedly chatter through completely unfamiliar sounds or a man arguing with another, his voice rhythmic and bouncing without seeming to break between words.
Luckily, booths and stalls gave way to wagons and carts relatively quickly, and though she had continued to pull away, Jolene stopped at the edge of a dense knot of people clustered around one particular cart. A small man with curiously long arms stood on the edge of his wagon, sacks and crates stacked neatly behind him. He was doing his best to sort out the bustling and yelling of the throng at his feet.
When the people wouldn’t part for Jolene herself, she stepped back, cupped her hands around her mouth, and yelled “Tavern keeper!” at the top of her lungs.
The lanky little man’s head whipped around toward her. He gave a quick nod and said, “Part for the tavern keeper!” in a booming voice.
The people obeyed, though their faces showed a range of emotions from annoyed to disgusted to flat out angry. Jolene strutted easily down the aisle they produced, straight up to the lanky little man. “And how’re you today?”
He nodded jauntily. “Doin’ well, miss. Yourself?”
“I’ll be doing real well if you have some good news for me. What’s left in those crates back there?”
“You’re looking for the Black stuff, aren’t ya? As a matter of fact, you’re in luck. I’ve one good sack o’ soot left.” He eyed her seriously. “You gonna be able to get it back yourself? I’d offer to carry it for ya, but…” he looked guiltily at the impatient crowd surrounding her.
Jolene smiled. “Don’t you worry. I brought a strong back with me for just that reason.”
The man nodded approvingly with a glance at Tomas, who had followed her through the crowd, and turned to open the lid on one of the crates behind him. From it, he pulled a tightly packed burlap sack. Squatting on the edge of his cart, he handed it down to Tomas, who accepted it with some trepidation. Jolene laid three heavy coins on the cart in front of her, thanked the vendor, and turned to leave. Tomas followed her out of the crowd, unsure of how to hold the sack comfortably.
Kari had hung back, outside the group crowding the cart, and cocked an eyebrow at Tomas when she saw him lugging the sack.
He smiled and shrugged and said, “Let’s see how far I can get.”
She smiled back at him and fell into step behind Jolene, who led the way back toward the gate.
Kari plunked the sack of Black Flour down on a wooden table in the tavern kitchen. The bag was surprisingly well-made; Tomas saw no puff of soot as he would have at Loretta’s bakery. Len had wandered off before they’d gotten back, and the dining room was empty. Sasha, Jolene, and Tomas were kneading small, black dough balls, experimenting with the unfamiliar substance. [Kari was deeply averse to having things stuck to her hands, be it mud, sap, or even food. That being said, she was happy to stand by with a useful pair of clean hands.]
“Y’all make a couple more, I’ll go get the press,” Jolene said after they’d each made a few little balls, rinsing her hands at a spigot protruding from the wall.
They finished their dough balls in comfortable silence, Walt bustling about the kitchen in the background.
“Such a strange color…” Sasha mused as she dusted off her hands. “It really does look like chimney soot.”
Tomas looked at his own hands, thinking of Home.
Before long, Jolene returned with a hinged metal contraption and set it down on the metal counter opposite the dough balls. Excitedly, she sprinkled some black flour onto one of its two round, flat planes, grabbed one of the first she’d rolled, and plunked it down on top of the flour. After sprinkling a bit more soot on top of the lump, she closed the press and leaned heavily on it, pressing with both hands. After a moment, she opened the press. Inside was a flat, black disc almost invisible against the metal of the device.
“Is the flat top hot?” Jolene asked excitedly.
Walt turned from the vegetables he was cutting to hover his hand over a flat, empty, recessed area in the stone counter behind him. “Yup.” He returned to his cutting board.
Grinning with childlike glee, Jolene carefully began to pull at the side of the black disc. Rather than peeling off the metal surface, however, it crumbled grittily, piling up as her fingers moved along. Her smile collapsed.
Tomas was shocked too. Confused, he picked up the first ball he’d made and began to press it into a disc between his hands. Rather than squeezing and forming, it crumbled in his hands, feeling for all the world like wet sand.
He looked at Kari. “Did you know it’d do that?”
She shook her head.
“Me neither,” said Sasha, looking sadly at her neatly arranged lumps of dough. Then her face lit up. “Try this one! I just made it.”
Jolene took the ball and made a fist around it. It crumbled. She sighed. “I wouldn’t even know who to ask about this.”
Sasha deflated as the blob crumbled, but perked back up a bit with realization. “Wait, I might.”
She nodded. “There’s a school near where I grew up where they teach about…” She gestured to the sack. “You know, weird plants and things.”
Kari’s eyebrows shot up, and she looked meaningfully at Tomas.
Jolene glanced at a clock on the wall and swore under her breath. “We can’t go until after the lunch crowd has come through. At least we have this,” she said, patting the sack.
As people started trickling in, Kari and Tomas ate their lunch at the bar: ham sandwiches on the sweet, white bread. Tomas was able to explain the ham to Kari.
“Jolene, can we come with you to see the school? We’re looking for our own answers about…weird plants,” Tomas said across the bar as Jolene bustled about behind it.
“Sure. The more the merrier, I guess. Not sure how much help they’ll be, though. If I’m thinking of the right place, they’re a little weird themselves.”
After finishing, they went back up to their room. Jolene would come get them when it was time to go; they’d already helped enough to satisfy their agreement, for today at least.
[Once safely alone behind a locked door, Kari brought something up that, it seemed to Tomas, she’d been sitting on for what had grown into a while:] “You didn’t tell them we grew up farming the Wheat.”
“Neither did you.”
She smiled a bit. “Yeah, but I don’t talk. Aren’t they gonna notice you were quiet while we were messing with it?”
Tomas shook his head. “People don’t notice quiet the same way they notice loud. I thought you’d know that.” He smiled back.
“But it’s you being quiet.”
“They don’t know me well enough to recognize it like you do. Anyway, when I heard Len telling Sasha about the shipment, he was saying he didn’t even believe the Black Wheat was real.”
“What? We’re like three days away.”
“I know! But I figured if it’s this big a secret, I shouldn’t be the one to spill it.”
“Where did he say the cart came from?”
“Someplace called Villesav. It sounds familiar to me, but I really can’t come up with whether I’ve actually heard of it before.”
“I mean traders must have come from there, right? You probably heard it at Grant’s or something.”
Tomas nodded thoughtfully. “Probably. So we’re going with Jolene to this school?”
“Definitely. We’re looking for a lead, right?”
He laughed. “I’d say we found one.”