Part 1: Trust
After returning to the entry hall, seeds in hand, Jolene and Sasha were fretting about making it back before the beginning of the evening rush. [Kari and Tomas, however, still had questions.]
“Really. I can find our way back. All I have to do is keep the Lake on my left.”
Jolene looked unconvinced but didn’t have the time to argue. “Well, if you’re sure…”
Here, Collins stepped in. “If I may, where is your fine establishment?”
Jolene’s eyebrows went up, a bemused smile on her face. “Northgate. Not ten minutes’ walk from the wall.”
“Excellent. I’ll see to their safe return.”
Jolene’s relief was palpable. She thanked him, shaking his hand gratefully, then disappeared out the into the gathering evening.
Collins and Tomas turned to face each other. Tomas’ arms were crossed. Collins had his hands on his hips.
“You have questions of your own, then. They must be important to maroon yourselves in an unfamiliar city.”
Tomas nodded slowly, his eyebrows together. “Our questions, though, have to do with a bit more than plants.”
Collins smiled ruefully. “Heard that insipid ‘plant school’ rumor, did you?” He sighed, shaking his head. “Canvass the neighborhood one time… Anyway, no. We don’t focus specifically on plants, and we’re not, strictly speaking, a school. We prefer to think of ourselves as seekers and collectors of knowledge. It sounds like you’re also seeking knowledge. What is it you wanted to know?”
He seemed to genuinely be asking. [Tomas wrote at length about wanting to tell him the whole story right there in the entry hall, but the suspicion that had been growing within him since hearing Len’s disbelief got the better of him. Instead, Tomas said,] “Your capes. Are they some kind of uniform?”
Collins rubbed the hem of his cape affectionately. “Of sorts,” he said. “Not everyone who gathers knowledge here is given one. They signify…particular accomplishments or the like. Suffice to say we don’t just give them out.”
Tomas nodded, though the man’s evasiveness made his hair stand on end. He glanced at Kari, who was listening intently, but her expression gave nothing away. “And the colors: they mean something?”
Collins nodded. He pointed to a young woman sporting a heavy blue cape. “Ana there spends much of her time up studying Brin’s river, and its relationship with Oandors. Completely different fish, you know, in the river and the Lake. Still hasn’t figured out why, though she’ll be back up next week to keep studying.”
“So…what, then, would a cape mean if it were red?”
Collins’ easy demeanor melted into calm, quiet urgency. “Where? Where did you see the man in the red cape?”
“Our Home,” Tomas said, thrown off by the man’s sudden intensity, “North of the Mountains.”
“Oh my,” Collins said. “You’d best come with me. We’ve much to talk about.” He began to move toward the huge doors at the far end of the hall, but when Kari remained resolutely still, he came back.
Tomas looked back and forth between them, not sure what to do.
“We’re just supposed to trust you?” she said.
Collins sighed. “I understand. Really, I do. I’m sure you’re worried sick about everyone still up there, but I can’t help until I know what they need. I promise, you’ll not see a single red cape here; their order is not ours. Here, we seek to know our world as it is. They work to bend the world to an unknown purpose. Please, help me thwart that purpose.”
Kari looked hard at him for a long moment before nodding once.
Then they were off. Collins readopted his cheerful demeanor, but he didn’t stop to chat with anyone. Many seemed confused or surprised when he brushed past them with only the briefest of greetings. The man and woman at the closed double doors in particular seemed to be used to a less urgent man than guided Kari and Tomas through the loose crowd. He was polite and seemed interested in the things they said, but he didn’t let himself get pulled into any conversation deeper than what was necessary to get those doors open.
And then they were through, into a room just as tall as the entry hall. Even so, this new room dwarfed the foyer, from what Tomas could see. On their left and their right rose curving stone staircases leading to a balcony. An ornately carved wooden banister ran unbroken from the bottom step on their right to the bottom step on their left.
Filling the space under the balcony—as well as what Tomas could see of the level above—were shelves, containing books, scrolls, and boxes with labels Tomas couldn’t make out. As Collins led them briskly around the labyrinth of information, Tomas saw that the shelves were intermixed with display cases, and the shelved boxes weren’t the only things neatly arranged and labelled. The pattern of shelves and cases was broken only by the occasional human or animal statue, some of which were disturbingly lifelike, with scales or fur too real to have been reproduced. As the room’s cool wall approached a corner, Tomas saw another stairwell where walls should’ve met. It was practically identical to the one leading to the Black Wheat room, though this one led both up and down.
Tomas looked up longingly as Collins began to descend, again taking the stairs more easily than either Kari or Tomas could. He didn’t stop at the first floor they came to, just grabbed a torch off the nearest sconce and kept skipping down and around another circle. [Thankfully for Tomas, this marked the bottom of the stairs, though the darkness made that comfort a small one, by my reckoning.]
“Stay close. We don’t keep these hallways lit. It’s rare to have anyone that doesn’t know their way around down here.”
Partway down the hall—it was impossible to see how much further it went—another set of stairs was set into the right-hand wall. Collins was down it in a flash, though he made sure to keep both his followers in the light cast by his torch. At the bottom of these, he set the torch in a sconce, lighting naught but three stone doors with metal locks set into them. Collins drew a key from the pocket of his cape; it glinted in the firelight as he unlocked the door on their left. As the door swung silently inward, it only revealed darkness beyond.