Relocation (TSWL Ch.12)

Back in the library’s grand entrance hall, dozens of people bustled to and fro, just as before.  Collins, unfazed as ever, strode easily into the crowd, greeting people briskly as he went.  They’d left the cart out in the clear daylight; Collins had said someone would see to their things.

“This way.  Don’t worry: your room’s much closer than my office,” he said, leading Kari and Tomas through the first door on their right.  The subsequent hallway was practically identical to the very first one Collins had taken them down.  This time, though, he led them up the stairs at the end.

“And here we are!  First door on the left.  I wanted you to have a window.”  He said the last part as if he should be a touch guilty, yet he wasn’t.

Tomas smiled through his sleepy haze.  “Thank you.  I certainly like that better than the alternative.”  A huge yawn overtook him before he knew it was happening.

Kari caught it almost immediately.

Collins laughed as he opened the door.  “You two take that nap we talked about.  I’ll let Alo know you’ve arrived.  He’ll want to talk with you.”

“Who is Alo?  You keep mentioning him.”

Kari was already dozing on the bed when he asked it.

“Oh, of course.  Alo is our authority on… ‘culture’ North of the Mountains, as we call the Wheat around here.  I’ll leave the full explanation to him, though.”

Tomas nodded, satisfied with that answer.

“I’ll get out of your hair now.  When you wake up, I’ll meet you in the dining hall.  If you follow the corridor past the stairs, you’ll find a bridge that’ll bring you right there.  Think you’ll be hungry by then?”

“Absolutely, but won’t we need money?”  Tomas sat on his bed.  It was bigger and seemed more comfortable than his bed at Jolene’s.

“I’ll let them know you’re coming.  You represent a special case; this room isn’t ordinarily free either.  But there will be time later to explain everything.  For now, rest.”  He left, closing the door behind him.  It wasn’t long before Tomas lost himself in deep, dreamless sleep.

*             *              *

When he awoke, the shadows had shifted, and his stomach growled noisily.  Kari had pulled the desk chair over to the window and was sitting, looking out from where the sun wouldn’t shine in her eyes.

A deep yawn seized Tomas.  Once he was free, he said, “What do you see?”

She shrugged.  “This place seems different from what was around Jolene’s.  Not sure how, though.”

Tomas swung his feet off the bed to face her.  They didn’t reach the floor.  “Makes sense.”  He hopped down, rubbing his eyes as he moved toward the window.

It was late afternoon now, judging by the sun, and more people moved about on the street here than anywhere else they’d seen on their walk from Jolene’s.  Even the square in front of the Church had been almost completely empty, though the tall front doors stood thrown wide open.

Here, though, people pushed carts into or out of buildings, some had packs like Kari and Tomas, still others had small bundles of papers or even nothing at all, but every door on the street seemed to lead somewhere busy.

Kari shook her head.  “Collins will know.  You hungry?”

Tomas stretched and nodded.  “He said it was easy to get to food.  Want to go now?”

“I’m definitely hungry enough.  Is it far?”

Tomas was already pulling his shoes on.  “He didn’t exactly say, but it didn’t sound like it when he gave me the directions.  You ready?”

She nodded, so they ventured together into the hall.  Kari locked the door behind them using the key she’d found in the inside lock, then pocketed it.

“Past the stairs,” Tomas said, pointing down the hall.

There were no doors in this corridor, but tapestries in many colors decorated the walls.  They did not depict scenes, rather they were geometric and abstract.  Occasionally, there was writing graven into the stone wall beside or beneath one, but Tomas was too hungry to stop and read any of the inscriptions.

“How’d you sleep?”  Tomas asked to fill the silence.

“Better than overnight.  No dreams, no nothing.”

“Yeah, me too.  It was nice for a change, wasn’t it?”

Kari chuckled low in her throat.  “Yes, it was.”

After about twice the distance of the depth of their room, the hallway stopped.   Set into the right-hand wall was a door, which opened to the outside.  A bluestone bridge, rails undulating as if in the breeze, ran over a very narrow street, connecting two buildings.  As they crossed, Tomas could see that it wasn’t the only place the buildings connected.

Through a door mirroring the one behind them, they found another torchlit corridor running perpendicular to the bridge.  Just around the corner, they came face to face with another door.  Opening this one, they found a balcony, with tables and windows on their left and a railing on their right.  They could see a staircase leading down to the main area, which was full of tables.  Across the open air, they could see another balcony practically mirroring the one on which they stood, though there didn’t seem to be a staircase on that side of the room.  Beneath that balcony was a wall with windows set into it, through which Tomas could just make out a kitchen, which reminded him of the one at Jolene’s.  This one, though, was markedly bigger. Most remarkable, though, were the smells wafting up to where they stood, making their mouths water and hastening their feet.

Down the stairs they went, toward the kitchen windows.  A short line had formed on one side, so they wandered to the back and waited their turn.  Tomas recognized mashed potatoes and cuts of chickens’ thighs and breasts on the plates of the people in front of him; only some of whom wore capes like Collins.  Some looked particularly ragged—so much so that it made Tomas wonder whether they had homes to go back to.  Surely, they couldn’t spend their nights out in the cold…

Then it was their turn to take up trays and shuffle down the queue.  Set into the stone countertop were metal basins, in which steamed piles of foods.  [Not, perhaps, great heaps, but it was more food than Kari and Tomas had ever seen in one place before.]

They recognized the chicken, as well as the steamed greens—though not precisely what sort of greens they’d been.  There were great mounds of mashed potatoes and wells of thick, dark gravy.  It all smelled wonderful.

As they filled their trays with the piping hot food, one of the people on the other side of the counter began to eye them curiously.  “Tomas?”

He gave a small start, but answered smoothly, “Yes?”

The man on the far side nodded in a satisfied way.  “Thought so.  Collins described y’all pretty well, actually.  Anythin’ I can do for you?”

Kari and Tomas glanced at each other.  “I don’t really think so.  But we’ll be sure to ask if we need to,” he said.

The man smiled kindly.  “Of course.  Enjoy your meal!”

Tomas thanked him as they moved on.  Stone pitchers and stacked cups sat on the counter past the last of the food, so they each filled a wooden cup with their choice of beverage.  Water for Tomas; apple cider for Kari.  A severe-looking woman stood at a small podium guarding the end of the queue.  Tomas had noticed most of those ahead of them giving her money before she’d allowed them to pass.  The woman leered down her nose at him when he approached.

“So here you are, then.  You’re not quite what I expected.”  She regarded Kari with an unreadable expression, then shook her head tiredly.  “Off with you, then.  Keep the line moving.”

“Thank you,” Tomas said as they walked past her podium.

Kari shook her head.  “She sure wasn’t happy with us.”

Tomas nodded, glancing over his shoulder.  The young woman who had queued up behind them was counting coins from her purse.  She wore an orange cape.  “I haven’t seen anyone else not pay her, so I guess we’re pretty special or something.”

“Or something,” Kari said, smiling.  She guided them to a small, empty table near the bottom of the stairs they’d descended—it was a corner of the dining area. 

It wasn’t long after they’d dug in that a looming, dark skinned man  in a black cape and brightly colored, richly patterned tunic wandered up to the table next to them and sat down.  After a moment, he cleared his throat.

Tomas turned to find him looking intently at them.  “Uh, can we help you?”

“Yes, I think so,” he said, clearing his throat again.  When he spoke, they realized he was no older than they were.  “You’re Tomas and Kari, yes?”

They nodded.

He nodded back.  “Good, I’m glad I found you.”  It was quiet for a moment, before he added, “Oh, I’m Alo.  Collins told me to come find you.”

Kari and Tomas nodded then, finally understanding what was going on.  “Good to meet you, Alo,” Tomas said.  “Where is Collins?”

“Ah, I’m not sure.”  When Kari and Tomas deflated a bit, he hastily continued, “Oh, but he’s given me instructions for filling the time until he’s free, or back, or whatever.  I’ve a great deal of information we think will be useful, though I gather none will answer the big questions you’ve brought over the Mountains with you.”

“Do they teach you guys to be mysterious or is it just the shifty type that’s attracted to this place?  I swear.  Between you and Collins, I’ll be shocked if you ever just come out and tell us anything.”  [It was an explosion of words coming from Kari, and the first sound she’d made since Alo’s arrival.  He shrunk into his chair as she spoke, further and further as she continued.]

“I’m sorry,” he said in a very quiet voice, “I’m just doing as I’m told.”

“Oh, of course!”  Tomas jumped in, sensing Alo’s embarrassment.  “We’ll finish up here and then come with you.  Do you have an office like Collins?”

After a quick deep breath, Alo shook his head.  “I…use one of the shared ones off the stacks.  You have to be here a long, long time before you get that.”

[The rest of the meal went like that, though Most of Tomas’ questions were met with “That’s an office conversation,” or some variant thereof.  Kari didn’t say another word in the dining hall that day, and if Tomas noticed, Kari couldn’t tell.]

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