Another glimpse was all Tomas got of the stacks as Alo led them to his office, skirting the labyrinth as Collins had. They’d gone out from the dining hall to the street before reentering the main foyer. Alo had nodded brusquely at the keepers of the inner doors, and they’d allowed them through without hesitation. Up the left-hand staircase they’d gone.
Now Alo was opening a door on their left. Down another hall to a door on the right, which Alo unlocked. A small lamp on the wall glowed softly inside. Alo turned a dial on the sconce’s base, and the glow intensified. Dark shapes atop the desk became looming stacks of books of vastly varying ages and sizes. A familiar flower bloomed in a little pot on a side table, and shelves similar to those in Collins’ office comprised one wall. A window with curtains drawn was set into the wall opposite the door.
Alo stood by the door as they entered the little room and gestured to the two chairs before the desk. As they sat, he shut the door and moved to sit behind the desk. Alo ran his hands over his short, springy hair once he’d scooted himself up to the desk and took a deep breath. Then, he deftly pulled a book from partway up one of the stacks.
“This book contains a relatively thorough account of our methods for distributing the Black Wheat.”
Suddenly the book in his dark hands seemed too small, too new to possibly contain everything it surely needed to. Words escaped Tomas for several moments before something occurred to him. “You distribute?”
Alo nodded. “All the traders who know to come up your way are associated with our organization. We keep you secret to protect you and the Wheat. Until recently, I suppose.”
He nodded. “The climate was disturbed, correct?”
It was Tomas’ turn to nod. “But the Stranger came three years ago.”
“Yeah, a red-caped man appeared one day. We think he’s why the weather changed.”
Alo nodded gravely. “Collins failed to mention that. Upsetting, but it doesn’t change much for me at the moment. My area of expertise is working with the economics of the Black Wheat. The caravans you know are all accounted for in this ledger over here.” He indicated a relatively large, young book with an attached ribbon protruding from the bottom. Nothing was stacked on top of it. “That’s not all the caravans, though. Our branch in Villesav is actually the hub. The blackcapes there are the ones with the big job: all the Wheat goes through there—even the stuff that winds up here. We quietly imply it comes from across the sea to keep people off the trail.”
“Why is the secret so important? We know it only comes from us, but is it really that special?” Kari was the one who asked that.
Alo nodded very seriously in response. “Poultice made with just a pinch of soot can close wounds an experienced surgeon can’t. Those in the know can bake bread that will fill you up for three days. There’s so much more, too. Another thing I study here: practical applications. Did you know it isn’t flammable?”
“Yes?” Tomas didn’t understand what he was getting at.
“Oh! White flower very much is. It’s like sawdust. Most farming towns have an explosion every year or so. Gruesome stuff.”
The two across from him nodded in silent wonder.
“I could go on, but that’s not really what you want to hear about, is it?”
“No, not at the moment, I don’t think,” Tomas said, returning to his senses.
“What then? Here in private, I’ll do everything I can to be transparent and informative. I don’t like keeping secrets from those so deeply affected by them.” He glanced at Kari when he said the last.
She rolled her eyes.
“So you know threats to the Black Wheat exist already?”
Alo nodded. “You’re a secret for that exact reason. I’ll never fully understand why some are so bent on its destruction. There are far better ways to wreak havoc on Trium’s plans.”
[Alo’s eyes went wide as the tundra sky when Tomas asked that.] He shook his head slowly. “Collins really didn’t tell you anything, did he?”
They shook their heads, not sure whether to be annoyed.
Alo shook his head too. He took a slow, deep breath, then said, “Trium is…why we do anything and how we do everything. Trium are the Almighty, and yet they don’t directly control you or I. He’s the Father of Creation and the Mother who nurtures; She heals our wounds and directs our paths, if we let Him.” Alo shook his head again, grimacing. “I’m not doing very well at this. Collins is the expert on Trium and related studies. When he reappears, he’ll be able to illuminate much more than I have. Sorry I couldn’t be more help…”
“No, you are helping,” Tomas said quickly, as Alo trailed off.
“A little,” Kari said under her breath. If Alo heard her, he didn’t let on.
Tomas was shooting a glance at Kari when a single, loud knock popped out from the door behind them. They jumped, and after a brief moment, two more sharp knocks sounded out.
Alo nodded. “Come in, Collins. It’s not locked.”
The door opened, and the diminutive man entered. “Things are going smoothly in here, I hope. He’s answered your questions?”
“As best I could, sir. They crossed rather neatly into your area of expertise before I knew what happened.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m here, then. What did y’all want to know?”
“Alo was just explaining Trium,” Kari said, looking the large, dark-skinned man in the eye. Consciously or not, he shrank back just noticeably.
Noticeable for Tomas, at least. Collins was wasting no time pulling a fourth chair up to the corner next to Alo and across from Kari. He was just about to sit when he heard that final word—Trium. Instead of sitting, he popped up and went to lock the door. The click of the key in the lock behind Kari and Tomas made them squirm; [Tomas didn’t even realize it until after he’d noticed Kari’s discomfort, but suddenly that stone room began to feel very small indeed.]
Alo smiled faintly. “I told you this is his field,” he said to Kari and Tomas. To Collins, he said, “Want the big chair?”
“No thanks,” he said, sitting with a flourish of his cape. “So what’s already been discussed? In fact, no. Tomas, why don’t you tell me what you’ve learned and we’ll go from there.”
“Oh, well…” Tomas thought for a moment. “Alo…didn’t get to say all that much before you arrived. He said She made us…and controls us…or not? But He’s also the Father and Almighty?” Tomas shook his head, confused. “Am…I remembering wrong?”
Collins smiled widely. “No, you’re right on track. Infinity is baffling to the finite. Don’t worry, you learn to live with it. Anything else?” He leaned his elbows on the desk before him and laced his fingers, as if he were very excited and working to keep it in check.
Tomas shook his head slowly.
Kari jumped a little before saying, “He said something about…uhm…permission.” Her eyebrows furrowed, and she sat back crossing her arms.”
Collins applauded quietly, an impressed look on his face. He turned and looked up at Alo first, who did his best to contain a smile, then swept his clapping hands past Tomas, then Kari, that same impressed look on his face; [albeit now with much more contained amusement behind it.] “Alo, it seems you’ve covered the most important pieces. Not only that, but you two caught them! Through no small effort of your own, I’m sure. Wonderful.” He breathed a short yet heavy sigh, clearly one of relief. “I have a story to tell you, if you’ll listen. It’s…central to both my work and my life. Thus, know that this is a rather personal thing for me to do, telling this story.”
Still confused and agitated, Kari and Tomas nodded.
They glanced at each other, which relaxed them just a bit. Then, Tomas said, “You certainly have our attention, Collins. But…we’re very tired of feeling in the dark. If this is only going to make us feel more lost, I’m not sure we want it.” He glanced at Kari again.
She nodded at him, then determinedly at Collins.
“Fair enough,” the balding man said. “I don’t think it will, but I’ll be right here until you’re out of questions. Honestly. This is the last thing I have to do today, so we have as much time together as you want.” He seemed to notice the locked door behind Kari and Tomas, so he added, “And only that. Leave if you’d like; the key’s in the door. Apologies for locking that so abruptly. Shared office and all that.”
Kari and Tomas both relaxed visibly. “We’ll listen, Collins.”
“Alo? You’ve heard this before…”
“I’ll stay, sir. You tell it best.”
“Well, then.” Collins cracked his knuckles loudly. Let’s begin…”
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