After returning to the entry hall, seeds in hand, Jolene and Sasha were fretting about making it back before the beginning of the evening rush. [Kari and Tomas, however, still had questions.]
“Really. I can find our way back. All I have to do is keep the Lake on my left.”
Jolene looked unconvinced but didn’t have the time to argue. “Well, if you’re sure…”
Here, Collins stepped in. “If I may, where is your fine establishment?”
Jolene’s eyebrows went up, a bemused smile on her face. “Northgate. Not ten minutes’ walk from the wall.”
“Excellent. I’ll see to their safe return.”
Jolene’s relief was palpable. She thanked him, shaking his hand gratefully, then disappeared out the big front doors into the gathering evening.
Collins and Tomas turned to face each other. Tomas’ arms were crossed. Collins had his hands on his hips.
“You have questions of your own, then. They must be important to maroon yourselves in an unfamiliar city.”
Tomas nodded slowly, his eyebrows together. “Our questions, though, have to do with a bit more than plants.”
Collins smiled ruefully. “Heard that insipid ‘plant school’ rumor, did you?” He sighed, shaking his head. “Canvass the neighborhood one time… Anyway, no. We don’t focus specifically on plants, and we’re not, strictly speaking, a school. We prefer to think of ourselves as seekers and collectors of knowledge. It sounds like you’re also seeking knowledge. What is it you wanted to know?”
He seemed to genuinely be asking. [Tomas wrote at length about wanting to tell him the whole story right there in the entry hall, but the suspicion that had been growing within him since hearing Len’s disbelief got the better of him. Instead, Tomas said,] “Your capes. Are they some kind of uniform?”
Collins rubbed the hem of his cape affectionately. “Of sorts,” he said. “Not everyone who gathers knowledge here is given one. They signify…particular accomplishments or the like. Suffice to say we don’t just give them out.”
Tomas nodded, though the man’s evasiveness made his hair stand on end. He glanced at Kari, who was listening intently, but her expression gave nothing away. “And the colors: they mean something?”
Collins nodded. He pointed to a young woman sporting a heavy blue cape. “Ana there spends much of her time up studying Brin’s river, and its relationship with Oandors. Completely different fish, you know, in the river and the Lake. Still hasn’t figured out why, though she’ll be back up next week to keep studying.”
“So…what, then, would a cape mean if it were red?”
Collins’ easy demeanor melted into calm, quiet urgency. “Where? Where did you see the man in the red cape?”
“Our Home,” Tomas said, thrown off by the man’s sudden intensity, “North of the Mountains.”
“Oh my,” Collins said. “You’d best come with me. We’ve much to talk about.” He began to move toward the huge doors at the far end of the hall, but when Kari remained resolutely still, he came back.
Tomas looked back and forth between them, not sure what to do.
“We’re just supposed to trust you?” she said.
Collins sighed. “I understand. Really, I do. I’m sure you’re worried sick about everyone still up there, but I can’t help until I know what they need. I promise, you’ll not see a single red cape here; their order is not ours. Here, we seek to know our world as it is. They work to bend the world to an unknown purpose. Please, help me thwart that purpose.”
Kari looked hard at him for a long moment before nodding once.
Then they were off. Collins readopted his cheerful demeanor, but he didn’t stop to chat with anyone. Many seemed confused or surprised when he brushed past them with only the briefest of greetings. The man and woman at the closed double doors in particular seemed to be used to a less urgent man than guided Kari and Tomas through the loose crowd. He was polite and seemed interested in the things they said, but he didn’t let himself get pulled into any conversation deeper than what was necessary to get those doors open.
And then they were through, into a room just as tall as the entry hall. Even so, this new room dwarfed the foyer, from what Tomas could see. On their left and their right rose curving stone staircases leading to a balcony. An ornately carved wooden banister ran unbroken from the bottom step on their right to the bottom step on their left.
Filling the space under the balcony—as well as what Tomas could see of the level above—were shelves, containing books, scrolls, and boxes with labels Tomas couldn’t make out. As Collins led them briskly around the labyrinth of information, Tomas saw that the shelves were intermixed with display cases, and the shelved boxes weren’t the only things neatly arranged and labelled. The pattern of shelves and cases was broken only by the occasional human or animal statue, some of which were disturbingly lifelike, with scales or fur too real to have been reproduced. As the room’s cool wall approached a corner, Tomas saw another stairwell where walls should’ve met. It was practically identical to the one leading to the Black Wheat room, though this one led both up and down.
Tomas looked up longingly as Collins began to descend, again taking the stairs more easily than either Kari or Tomas could. He didn’t stop at the first floor they came to, just grabbed a torch off the nearest sconce and kept skipping down and around another circle. [Thankfully for Tomas, this marked the bottom of the stairs, though the darkness made that comfort a small one, by my reckoning.]
“Stay close. We don’t keep these hallways lit. It’s rare to have anyone that doesn’t know their way around down here.”
Partway down the hall—it was impossible to see how much further it went—another set of stairs was set into the right-hand wall. Collins was down it in a flash, though he made sure to keep both his followers in the light cast by his torch. At the bottom of these, he set the torch in a sconce, lighting naught but three stone doors with metal locks set into them. Collins drew a key from the pocket of his cape; it glinted in the firelight as he unlocked the door on their left. As the door swung silently inward, it only revealed darkness beyond.
Collins smiled. “Shall we?” he said pleasantly, gesturing to the darkness.
When neither Kari nor Tomas moved, he shrugged and walked boldly into the black. Curious, Tomas ventured a couple steps beyond the threshold, but couldn’t go any further for lack of sight. Kari stayed resolutely where she was.
There was the sound of a wooden drawer rolling out, then a bit of rummaging, followed by a small, satisfied sound from deep in Collins’ chest. Some footsteps, then a small noise preceding the striking of a sulfur match against the stone wall. Collins flared into view, with the match inside what looked like a tiny street lamp hanging from a sconce. When its wick caught, he blew the match out and pulled another from his pocket. Lighting it from the lamp, he hurried around a big wooden desk, now able to see with a degree of success, and lit another lamp directly across the room from the first.
The light revealed a surprisingly cozy office. A thick rug covered most of the floor, and three of the walls were dominated by shelves stuffed full to bursting with all manner of books, maps, scrolls… [Anything that could store information from generation to generation, folks. Tomas didn’t even know what many of the objects jammed among the books and things were.] The fourth wall was practically bare besides a moderately ornate fireplace with the necessary tools and a mantle sporting various rocks, all different dull colors. Tomas recognized the bluestone immediately, and the chunk of brown rock next to it reminded him of the towering building surrounded by people.
It was the desk, though, that dominated the room. Tomas was confused by a drawer set into one of the short sides before he realized it was flush with the corner closest to the door. A big, comfortable-looking chair sat behind the desk, facing the door. Oriented around that chair were all manner of notebooks, heavily inscribed printed books, and innumerable loose papers.
Collins gestured to the two chairs in front of the desk as he knelt to light a fire on the charred logs in the fireplace.
The fire crackled happily to life as Collins settled into his big cushioned chair across the desk from Kari and Tomas. With all the light and warmth, Tomas was almost able to forget how deep underground they were. [Almost.]
Collins sat forward, elbows on his desk, fingers interlaced. “So…I suppose you’ll first be wanting to know about what this place is.”
“It certainly seems like a starting point,” Tomas said, wondering how much of the uncertainty he felt was audible in his voice.
Collins didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve already told you we’re knowledge seekers. That’s true.” He gestured around himself. “You see the fruits of our searching all around you. Many of us—like Ana—devote our time to learning about the definite: the physical world in which we live. Others among us…” here he sat back pensively. “We study the, well, the less physical.”
Tomas’ eyebrows came together. “Like…language and the workings of people’s minds?”
Collins nodded slowly. “I know people studying both of those things. That being said, I personally focus on what could be called…magical.”
Kari and Tomas both sat up a little straighter at this.
He shook his head. “I dislike that term for this exact reason.”
“No! The man in red, I think he put a curse on our Home.” Tomas sat back, looking at his shoes. “Or something like that…” Kari’s hand alighted on his shoulder. He leaned into her touch but didn’t look at Collins.
“Now curse, that’s a term I’ll use without hesitation.”
Tomas looked up.
Collins nodded gravely. “My aversion to the term ‘magic’ is purely semantic. We do believe the world is magical if you look closely enough, but the word has a…mysterious feel to it that, I feel at least, is unproductive. Anyone who’s watched a flower unfurl or seen a baby bird fly for the first time has seen something magical take place; it doesn’t have to be levitation or seeing through walls or some such.”
“Yes, curses. I’ve seen friends fall mysteriously ill or people’s luck dry up one day after someone claiming to have cursed them.”
It was quiet for a moment before Kari spoke up for the first time.
“Monsters are real too.”
She did not look at Collins as she said it. She looked at her hands, not seeming sure when she’d clenched them into white-knuckled fists.
Collins nodded compassionately. “Your hands. They’re bothering you?”
Kari nodded. She looked him in the eye, but her face said nothing.
Collins held his hands out, open above his desk. “May I?”
Hesitantly, Kari took his hands from across the desk.
Collins gripped them lightly for the space of a deep breath before letting go. He leaned back in his chair, tapping his chin and nodding thoughtfully. “You’re staying in Northgate, right? Came through a smaller gate up near a broken-down tower? Right by the Lake?”
“Right then,” he said, standing up and snuffing the wall lamp behind him. “Let’s get you back. I’m happy to help you—if you’d have it—but there is much, much more we need to discuss before I’ll know how best to do that. We’ll have time on the walk back to begin that process.” He used an iron poker to spread the fire out into a pile of shimmering coals.
Kari and Tomas moved toward the torchlight outside the door as Collins’ office continued to darken.
Next Chapter →