Part 1: Poking Around
It was dark when Tomas awoke. He’d fallen asleep at a bad angle, and he could feel it in his neck. Sitting up and stretching, he found that his back was also unhappy with him. No surprise there; he’d just walked two days from Brin, bearing his whole life in a pack on his shoulders. Thank goodness for the belt distributing the pack’s weight around his hips, or he’d probably have had trouble getting out of bed. It was one of the easiest ways to spot how well Kari’s strengths complimented his weaknesses.
Now that he thought of it, where was she? It was dark now, and sounds from the full dining room below filtered through the wooden floor. He stretched his arms above his head, a few stray pops escaping as his back realigned. Taking the cue, he tilted his head first one way, then the other, tension audibly disappearing in each direction. Now mostly awake, he walked over to the window.
The street was only slightly less crowded than it had been when they’d arrived, presumably several hours ago. Rubbing his eyes, Tomas was baffled by the sheer number of people in this city. He’d been paying attention as they’d walked in, but he didn’t recognize a single person. How many could there be?
Tomas pondered this as he descended to the dining room, the low rumble growing in volume and intensity with each step. He was shocked by how much louder the din became when he opened the door at the bottom of the stairs. Testing how his own volume compared, he couldn’t believe that he was unable to hear his own voice. Taking a deep breath, he ventured into the crowd, hoping to find Kari or Jolene—the only two people in the city he knew by name.
There was hardly any room between tables as Tomas skirted one rowdy cluster of seemingly gigantic men and women after another, not bothering to call either name at his disposal. Despite being the loudest one [by far] back Home, he was no match for this throng. He successfully made it to the bar, but darting to and fro behind it were two unfamiliar faces no older than his, filling mugs and clearing away empty dishes.
Tomas put his hands around his mouth and belted, “Jolene?” His volume surprised him.
It surprised the girl too, who jumped as if prodded suddenly from behind. She nodded briskly and held up a single finger: one moment. After refilling a few more mugs belonging to red-faced men hollering and beating them against the stone bartop, she dried her hands on a rag and disappeared through a door, only to reappear an instant later. She gave Tomas a quick thumbs-up and smile before returning to her rounds. He watched her with fascination; he’d never seen a bar this crowded. Grant himself was always enough to handle the rush back at his inn, the only one Tomas had seen busy before. He wondered if Grant would be able to keep up with her as well as the boy she worked alongside could.
He was jarred from his thoughts by Jolene’s head and shoulders popping around the same door the girl had disappeared behind. She motioned for him to come to her and pointed to the end of the bar, which opened into the dining room floor. Tomas complied eagerly, both ready to leave the noise and to see more of the building.
The assault on his ears wouldn’t end as he slipped through the swinging door, however, as the busy kitchen bustled with a fracas all its own. Jolene had been waiting just inside the door and greeted him with a warm smile.
“How was your nap?” Despite the noise, he had no trouble hearing her.
“Refreshing,” he said, his own volume surprisingly sufficient. “Where’s Kari?”
Jolene waved her hand dismissively at the ceiling. “Up with the kegs. She’ll be back shortly. Are you here to help?”
“Have you eaten?”
He shook his head, still adjusting to the level of activity [and still not fully awake, unless I miss my guess.]
“Well, then you won’t be much help. Why don’t you sit at the bar and watch Sasha and Vin work while you eat. Tomorrow, you’ll shadow Sasha during lunchtime, just to get a feel for the job. It’s not hard, so long as you stay on your toes. I’ll get you a plate of food here, then go find an open stool. I’ll send Kari your way when she comes back down.” With that, she was off, checking on food and responding to problems presented by her workers, who’d been waiting impatiently as she and Tomas conversed. She took a plate out of the window between herself and the cooks, then yelled back to just make another as protests rang out from the men and women behind the window, sweating abundantly despite the door open to the nocturnal chill.
Jolene handed the plate to Tomas, who went back through the door and was struck again by the wall of sound. Taking a deep breath that smelled of drinks and people, he took a tall stool at the end of the bar near the kitchen door and began to watch Sasha flit to and fro, pouring drinks and taking coin, which she sorted into two jars. Not, Tomas noted, by denomination, and more seemed to be going into one jar than the other. Occasionally, she’d take a moment to breathe or sip on a small cup she had set aside. Always smiling, rarely actually talking, she was amazing to watch. He couldn’t see Vin as well, as he was working the half of the bar closed in by the wall the staircase made as it climbed.
He was mostly finished with his dinner when a heavy hand clapped down on his shoulder, startling the fork out of his hand. He swung around to face whatever trouble had found him, sliding smoothly on the polished wood of the backless stool. Luckily, it was trouble he knew; Kari grinned down at him as he lowered his hands. He smiled back and shook his head tiredly, standing up from his barstool.
“Where to?” she said in his ear.
Tomas pointed at the front door. She nodded and began to cut a path through the crowd, Tomas gratefully following in her wake.
Once outside, Tomas asked her, “Did you need anything from the room?”
Kari shook her head, looking around. Left was the direction from which they’d come when they entered the city. To the right, the road continued, leading deeper into Vacen. “Which way?”
Tomas followed her gaze. People walked in both directions, entering and exiting buildings, dodging carts and wheeled stands drawn only by people. In the distance, was that a square? The crowds grew denser the further from Jolene’s door they got. Looking back to the left, it felt calmer and more familiar. “Let’s stick to what we know for now. We’ve got time, so let’s get used to how the city is before we go too deep.”
Kari nodded as they started walking. “That makes sense. We don’t need to get lost our first night in town.”
A frightening thought occurred to Tomas. “Who’d come find us?” He stopped at the entrance to a side street that seemed to go further than the one they’d already passed. The word “Hill” was etched into the wall of the building on the corner. Looking around, Tomas noticed the word “North” etched into a building across the street they’d been following, perpendicular to the word “Hill.”
It was quiet between them for a moment; sounds of activity on the street around them echoed down the empty street before them.
Then Kari clapped a hand on his back and smiled. “They won’t have to. We’ll pay attention. Plus, with your sense of direction, there’s no way we’ll get lost.”
“You flatter me. That is part of the point of this walk, though.”
“Looking for the Lake, are we?”
“You know me too well.”
“And yet you still surprise me.” The anxiety lifted, they started down the much darker street.
The sounds of the crowd grew distant, though they echoed off the stone walk and walls. This street—Hill, it seemed to be called—was narrower than the thoroughfare they’d left behind, and they were alone. The lanterns on the bigger street behind them threw long shadows down the stone corridor. From Hill Street, the whole city looked to Tomas as though it were tilted; logic and his sense of direction told him down was toward the water.
They continued down the street, passing dark windows and side streets, glancing down them as they walked by. Most were dead ends, some led to other streets. Soon, sounds from the street they’d left behind—North—had faded altogether, leaving them in a very quiet, still world. The wind made the only noise, sweeping down the stone streets and tinkling the occasional chimes hanging from porch roofs.
They came upon a sharp left curve in the road. Between the buildings that continued to line the street, buildings which now faced them, they could see open sky: the Lake. An even smaller street shot off to the right, before the bend. Summit Ridge, it seemed to be called. After the curve, Hill Street sloped sharply downward, betraying a great deal more open air—and explaining its name.
“Kari…look at this.” Tomas had stopped in his tracks.
“What am I looking at?”
“Let’s go check it out.”
“What? I thought you didn’t see anything.”
“Well, I don’t. But you seem to.”
Tomas absently rubbed his shoulder as he said, “It’s not really anything I see, but it feels…” he ran a hand through his hair, “different.”
Kari rubbed her hands together. Tomas couldn’t tell if it was a gesture of comfort or eagerness; was it to generate warmth, to help her feel better, or was it more akin to a warmup before a fight? “Different, huh? Different from what?”
“Out here,” Tomas said as he started down the dead-end street.
They walked silently down the new road, looking up at the homes surrounding them. Most had light in a window or two, but only on the second floors. Shades hung on the insides, obscuring any activity behind them. That suited Kari and Tomas fine; their business was as private as those inside.
A chill breeze blew from their left. The buildings in this part of town seemed older, and they were spaced further apart. Looking between them, they saw only the distant darkness of the Lake. The wind was blowing straight off the water and into this little corner of the town, and it made Tomas’ shoulder hurt.
“Does it still seem ‘different’?” Kari asked Tomas quietly when they were roughly halfway to the end.
“I think so. It’s hard to tell now that it’s not next to something else. But doesn’t it seem like something out of a dream?” He gestured to the buildings around him. They were just a bit too serene, like the glassy surface of a deep pond teeming with fish.
They made their way to the end of the street, which was slightly wider than the rest.
“A dream? Or a nightmare?” Had Kari said it to herself or Tomas?
“The sky seems so close… And are these buildings taller than the ones back there?” Tomas had stopped very close to the center of the widened, circular area and was turning this way and that. Kari was walking in slow circles around him, eyeing the buildings. “If I close my eyes, I have this sense that the road goes on for a long, long way in both directions. This is weird, Ri. What do you think?”
“I think that garden is giving me the creeps.” She pointed to the garden in question. It sat in front of a house with the Lake sprawling behind. “And I don’t like all the shadows over there.” Another house on that side.
“Yeah, they seem…busy. I can’t think of another way to say it. I wonder—”
“What was that?” Kari dropped into a defensive stance, arms out, forming a wall between Tomas and the biggest, oldest house on the circle, opposite the garden yet still overlooking the Lake.
He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Ri, I didn’t see anything.”
She remained tense, jaw set, brow stony. Her knees were slightly bent and her hands were up, at her waist level.
Moving to stand beside her, Tomas saw there was fear in her eyes.
She wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Kari…” he put her right hand on his left shoulder. “There’s a knot there that wasn’t before. You feel it?”
She relaxed just a bit and looked where he’d placed her hand. Her brow furrowed.
“Hmm. Maybe try comparing it.” He took her other hand and put it on his other shoulder.
“Yeah, now I can tell.”
He nodded. “That’s my reminder that right now, things are out of balance. I haven’t forgotten that I can’t protect you. Not yet. But I know there’s a way for me to; I just have to learn how. There’s answers here, I can feel it.”
She looked around them and cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Well, okay, maybe not right here, but inside these big stony walls. We’ll find them, and then we’ll go save our Home. You with me?”
Her eyes began to glisten in the moonlight, and she pulled him into a tight hug. “Of course, Tom.”
“Woah, your hands!”
She quickly unfolded him. “What?”
“I thought it was my shoulder, but then when your hands were on my back, they felt the same. Well, not the same. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“What are you talking about?” But when she looked at her hands, Tomas could see that she had suspicions of her own.
“They’re different temperatures. Like very different.”
She rubbed them together. “I thought it was just me.”
“Well, now it’s me too. Come on. We’ve got some answers to seek out.”
They started back up the side street. “Still gonna try and find the Lake tonight?”
“Of course. Nothing happened.”
She laughed. “I guess not.”