Part 2: Vacen’s Shore
As they descended the steep street, an aroma that brought their minds Home grew with the breeze. It was a cold wind, not chilly like the rest of the mild winter evening but cold, like a deep, wide body of water in the darkest part of the year.
A chill ran down Tomas’ back, and he pulled his coat tighter around himself as a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
It wasn’t long before they could hear the water. To their right, a wall only just taller than Kari ran around a collection of dark buildings. Twin metal rails ran under a closed wooden gate and past them, into the city.
The ground was flat here; a grassy yard gave way to darkness a short distance away. The wind whipped about them this close to the water, tugging at their clothes and mussing their hair.
Tomas’ eyes widened as he made a beeline for the water. [He never worried about Kari keeping up, especially when rushing toward such wonderful memories: memories of Home.] A needle-thin waxing crescent moon hung low in the sky, reflecting wan silver light off the turbulent surface of the Lake.
Waves lapped against the rocky shore, neither violent nor peaceful. Rather, they seemed determined, bound by some unspoken purpose that drove them against the rocks over and over again. After the terror the previous night had brought, tears were in his eyes as he turned to look northward, to his right, though he couldn’t see past Vacen’s high, smooth wall where it plunged into the Lake. Still, as the Northern Range did the same, it brought him a touch of comfort. A big hand alighted softly on his shoulder.
“I’m alright,” he said, drying his eyes before looking up at her.
Kari nodded at him with a small, knowing smile. She was on his left, and in the distance behind her, he saw an unfamiliar, very bright star on the horizon. [He’d spent enough time staring at the night sky back Home that he still could recognize the rest of the sky, though.]
He pointed and said, “Kari.”
She turned. “What is that?”
He shook his head. “It seems too big and blue to be a star. Is there land that close to us?”
Kari shook her head and shrugged.
“Not quite, my young friends. That is our South Star, courtesy of our sisters across Oandors, as they call this beautiful body of water,” came a voice from the darkness.
Kari wheeled, keeping herself between Tomas and the voice.
A distinctly female figure, clad all in black, rose from where she’d been lounging among the rocks. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised to find you jumpy. New scenery and all that, right?” She brushed off her pants, which billowed like a skirt in the breezy darkness. “Don’t worry; I’m no threat to you. Don’t get me wrong—I could be if I wanted to. But I like friends better than enemies, don’t you?”
Kari didn’t move.
“Generally, I’d say you’re right,” Tomas said, taking a step lakeward in order to see the silhouette, “but I only count those I know well as my friends.”
There was just enough light to see a great many teeth in her smile. Wispy hair blew around her head in the persistent wind. “You’re wise to be cautious, unfounded though it may be.” The silhouette shrugged jauntily. “In any case, I’m leaving now. I’ll see you around.” A small chuckle escaped her chest. “Maybe next time you’ll even see my face.”
With that, she turned sharply, gave a vague wave over her shoulder, and trotted easily off down the shore despite the rocks, leaving Kari and Tomas alone with their questions.
* * *
Rather than go back up the steep street they’d come down, Tomas elected to try taking a different route back—once they’d gotten their fill of the cold, damp, familiar air.
“In theory, it won’t be a problem. I saw a big statue down the street from Jolene’s place. I have a hunch this road will lead there.”
Kari shrugged. “Sounds like it makes sense.” [Kari had almost no sense of direction at all. Had Tomas suddenly vanished, she would have had a supremely hard time getting back to Jolene’s.]
Up the hill they trudged, down the middle of the widest stone thoroughfare in view, doors on the buildings to either side shut tightly against the night. It was quiet.
Tomas found it felt strange to be back among the buildings, the wind off the Lake at his back. He missed it already.
As they climbed the hill back into the city, the still silence began to press upon Tomas. Their footsteps echoed off the walls around them; Kari’s head flicked this way and that, not seeming to follow the echoes. She began to pick up speed, keeping her head down but snapping it to one side, then the other for moments at a time.
“Ri, you okay?”
No answer. The distance between them began to grow.
“Ri?” He said it louder this time.
No answer. Her head wasn’t going back to the ground anymore. A glance over one hunched shoulder, then the other, still growing faster with each step despite the incline.
“Hey, slow down!” He couldn’t say it too loudly for fear of waking those behind the dark windows staring down at him, yet still she pulled away. Too much further, though, and he’d be without other options anyway. “KARI!!”
She stopped dead as the echoes of his voice ran past her up the stone street. Her head faced straight forward; her shoulders heaved with one deep breath after another, hands clenched at her sides.
Tomas ran uphill to catch up to her. Breathlessly, he asked, “Kari…what’s going on?”
She shook her head, unblinking, as her mouth worked wordlessly.
Tomas hugged her tightly, arms around her waist, head on her chest. Slowly, her hands came together behind his back and a single sob escaped her throat. “There were so many,” were the only words she said, still breathing very deeply.
Tomas just hugged her. He knew this fear, enormous fear he’d felt alone some years ago, surrounded by Black Wheat and the wind. Though for him this real fear had been mixed in with shame disproportionate to the things he’d recalled, things he’d made right or come to peace with already. So he held tight though he didn’t know what she felt, feeling her slowly relax, bit by bit.
Eventually, she spoke again. “Did you see anything?”
He shook his head, still engulfed by her arms.
She took one more deep breath and let her arms fall slowly to her sides.
“C’mon. Let’s get back.” He put his arm around hers and half walked with her, half towed her up the hill. Kari allowed herself to be pulled gently along.
Still arm-in-arm, Tomas began to gently prattle, filling the silence as he had their whole childhood, “Boy, you sure can cover ground when you need to. And up hills, too! Good thing I’m way too loud; I might have lost you!” Here, he gave her a little squeeze around the waist without breaking their stride. “You know I could never lose you. Not unless you lost me on purpose, I guess. But I trust you’d only do that when you wouldn’t need my sense of direction or my talking skills.” Here he smiled up at her. Seeing a faint smile on her lips despite her still furrowed brow, he turned back to look up the street as they continued on.
* * *
In time, they crested the long hill, the road curving gently to their right. At the top, in a dip between two buildings, they’d taken a moment to stop and watch the moon set. A good wind blew off the Lake—Oandors, that woman had called it. The breeze had been better on the beach, but even here it smelled of cold water, carrying momentum further than Tomas had ever been from Home. Even now, standing in this strange, bluestone city, he was closer to Home than to the far side of Oandors. Further beyond, the sallow, exhausted Moon was sinking gratefully behind the distant horizon, a river of pale yellow cascading over the surface of the Lake.
They stood next to each other in silence for several moments before Tomas looked up at Kari and smiled. “You ready?”
“Oh, definitely.” She stretched. “You took a much longer nap than me.”
“That’s right! Sorry, let’s go.”
With that, he turned to leave, only to frown at the road. Hands on his hips, he swiveled back around to look at the Lake and the Moon, then up at the sky, though a building obscured his view of the south.
“Something’s not right.”
Kari reflexively swung to check up and down the street, glaring at the shadowy entrances to side roads.
Tomas laughed. “Not that kind of wrong! No, I didn’t expect the road to go that way.”
Kari shrugged, keeping her back to Tomas.
“C’mon,” he said, taking her hand and gently tugging her up the street without looking at her face. He couldn’t pull her off balance, but she still moved with him as he continued to lead the way uphill.
Before they got far, Kari spoke up. “If the road’s not going where you expect, why are we taking it?”
Shrugging, Tomas continued up the street. “No sense in backtracking, and I have a hunch I trust. It’s late enough already, and I don’t want to walk all the way back down and up again.”
So up the road they headed, uphill and southwest. The road had curved away from Jolene’s, but this still felt to Tomas like the correct way to go. Despite another confusing curve or two, the road took them to a small plaza, wider and grander than the intersections they’d passed on their way up the hill. A fountain stood in the center of the square, in the shape of a man in leather armor, a messenger bag at one hip and a sword at the other. He held a spyglass to his eye and stood upon a roughly hewn rock, gazing out across the Lake[, or, well, in that direction at least. Buildings blocked his view even back then. If any of you were to go see him now, you’d find buildings taller than Kari and Tomas saw—taller than any in Vacen, in their day. That’d be the only difference, though. Water bubbles out of his bag to fill the pool beneath him, and several small jets spew from where the hilt of his sword meets his scabbard. Most captivating, though, is the light that shines from his spyglass.] Tomas had never seen light focused as sharply as the beam that shot out of that stone tube.
“Who do you think he is?”
Kari shrugged, walking around the fountain. “No sign,” she said after completing her circuit.
“Maybe Jolene knows. I’ll ask her tomorrow while I’m working. Speaking of—I think our beds are this way.”
Kari nodded appreciatively, and they turned to head north. Tomas thought it felt right, but looked over his shoulder into the night sky to check his work. Yes, this road pointed Home.