Part 1: Questions
The day was clouding over as Jolene, Sasha, Kari, and Tomas ventured back out.
Jolene struck a significantly less urgent pace this time as she followed Sasha’s directions. At the statue, they walked around it to go straight across the little square and continue onto a road which sloped gently downward. At the end of the first block, where the street on their right dove steeply downhill, a blast of chilly wind mussed their hair and caused Jolene’s cloak to billow. Sasha pulled her coat tighter around herself.
Tomas looked up at the grey sky. “D’you think it’ll snow?”
Jolene looked at him curiously for a moment as she walked, then said, “You’re from North of the Mountains, aren’t you?”
Surprised, Tomas nodded.
Jolene nodded to herself, staring down the street before them. “Yeah… We don’t get too much snow here. The mountains catch it all, I’m told. It might flurry a bit,” she said, looking at the sky, “but nothing like you’d be used to.”
“Oh,” Tomas said, disappointed.
Kari patted him fondly on the shoulder as they walked. [It’d been a full year since he’d gotten to see a good snowfall, and Kari knew how that weighed on him. Many back Home saw snow as an annoying—if necessary—part of life, but Tomas always had always seen the joy in it.]
Sasha continued to lead them through the city. Streets that ran parallel to the Lake’s shore tended to be mostly flat or gently sloping, sometimes losing elevation, sometimes gaining it. The others, streets toward or away from the water, were often steep, but downhill was always toward the Lake. Sasha’s route did not feel all that intuitive to Tomas, and he was certain he couldn’t retrace it. However, he held a bit of quiet confidence that, were they to get separated, he could get himself and Kari back to Jolene’s with little trouble.
Sasha and Jolene moved easily in and out of conversation, speaking of people and places Tomas didn’t know. Kari and Tomas were mostly quiet, still fascinated by all the stone edifices around them. The entire city wasn’t seamless; occasionally, two buildings would abut where one was significantly taller than the next, with a sheer wall abruptly breaking the flow of the surrounding rooftops. These often had doors set in them, sometimes windows. Occasionally ladders would lean against the side of the smaller building facing the street, but only where the ground was flat. Dozens of questions welled up within Tomas, but he kept them in check. The first question he’d asked Jolene hadn’t been met with much interest, and the second one had given away his origin. He didn’t know what to keep secret, didn’t want to annoy Jolene, so instead he simply kept quiet.
Having Kari along to gawk with him helped, though. She was particularly enamored with staircases that disappeared underground, some of which were set into the street, giving the impression that the buildings continued beneath the ground.
Eventually, they turned a corner into a sizeable plaza dominated by the first building Tomas had seen in Vacen built from anything other than the sparkling blue-grey stone. It was drab brown, not rich like the trees of the Vaç Forest but greyer, perhaps with the barest hint of yellow. Though it was made of stone, it was clear it represented another place, perhaps another culture, even. It had very little in common with what the rest of Vacen felt like. [Though he often tried, Tomas never could explain the particulars of his gut feelings during his time in Vacen.] Even from across the square, he could see seams between standardized stone blocks, something he hadn’t seen since leaving Brin. Most perplexing, though, was that despite its obvious discordance with the city, townsfolk swarmed around the entrance. Some were coming, some were going, but it was clear all were there because of that building.
“Big sanctuary day?” Sasha sounded surprised.
Jolene shrugged. “Guess this is where our customers were.”
They crossed the square in subsequent silence, skirting the bulging crowd as best they could. Nobody paid them much mind, and before long, they were through it. Before Tomas lay a street unlike any he had yet seen in Vacen: one that was completely level.
“It’s flat!” He laughed out loud as he said it.
Sasha smiled proudly. “This is the Son’ret District. It’s where I grew up.”
“Som-i-let?” Tomas replied, trying to get his mouth around the sounds.
“Son’ret. It’s just the word for flat over in Ors Diroa. I guess we kinda adopted it over here.”
“Ors…Diroa?” Something was connecting in Tomas’ head. “Do they call the Lake Oandors there? Are they really on the other side?”
Sasha laughed. “Yes they do, but I’m pretty sure if you sailed directly away from Vacen across the Lake, you’d sail right past Ors Diroa. So not exactly the other side? Does that help?”
“It does,” Tomas said, running his hand through his hair, “but how far away is Ors Diroa?”
Sasha thought for a moment before Jolene said, “Half a day on a boat. Two by land, one and a half on a fast horse.” She snorted. “If you can find one around here.”
“Oh,” Tomas said, a new appreciation for the Lake’s size growing in his mind.
Kari could see the wheels in his head turning furiously, so after Sasha brought something up she’d heard about Len during the lunch rush, she nudged Tomas. “What’s got you thinking?”
“The Lake is so big,” Tomas said.
“Didn’t we know that?”
“Sure, but think about how far we’ve walked. Today, we’ve kept walking in that same direction: away from Home. After lunch, at least.” He shook his head. “The Lake keeps going. We can see the mountains from here, but we can’t see the far side of the Lake, or Ors Diroa, I don’t think. I’d have to check during the day. But the Lake is big, Kari. We could sail exactly west from here and pass Ors Diroa before we hit land again.” He shook his head, incredulous.
“And here we are!” Sasha exclaimed as she rounded yet another corner.
“We are?” Kari asked.
She nodded, then threw a brief glance at Kari. “I grew up five more minutes that way,” she pointed down the street before her, “but that’s the school.” She indicated a building just a bit up the street.
All the buildings since the brown one had seemed bigger to Tomas, but the one Sasha had pointed out still seemed particularly large. Nowhere near the brown one, of course; he could still see its towering, square shape quite clearly. This was big for a building of normal size, more surprisingly deep than tall. It had a big wooden frame holding doors the same rich color, a deep brown that practically glowed in the stone city. The doors were propped open, though their angle prevented Tomas from seeing inside. Besides the doors and Sasha’s pointing finger, nothing set the building apart from any of the others around it—Tomas had only noticed its depth because she’d pointed to it.
They were already on their way when Tomas nudged Kari and asked, “What do you think?”
Kari just shrugged.