Part One: Back on the Streets
[Out on the streets of Vacen, darkness had fallen by the time Collins and our Northerners began the trek back to Jolene’s.]
“It’s a pity the sky’s so low tonight. I don’t get to take walks like this often enough anymore.” Collins struck an easy pace, neither rushed nor sluggish. Tomas didn’t feel he needed to try to keep up; Kari wasn’t dragging her feet. “Night is a good time to get to know a place, you know. Fewer people and less noise to come between you and the place itself. The air, if you will.”
Tomas looked around. Vacen certainly seemed different without people everywhere. What had looked like streets in the daylight now had the appearance of alleyways, dark and hostile in the cloudy dusk.
Collins didn’t seem troubled by any of it, as he strolled easily down the middle of the big street. “Tomas, you were saying you could find your way back?”
“Um, probably. But not efficiently.”
“No, of course not. I wouldn’t expect you to. You’ve spent, what, a single night here? But how would you go about it? Why don’t you lead us back, if you’re up for a bit of a challenge?”
“I guess…” [Tomas wrote very specifically about how, coming from Collins, it didn’t feel pedantic or as if he was setting Tomas up to fail. Collins was simply a teacher, excited to see his new student’s skills.]
“Wonderful! How would you begin?”
“Well… In daylight, I’d be able to see the tall brown building from here, and we walked right past it. So I’d head there first, but…”
Collins smiled broadly. “That’d be this way.” He began to stroll easily down the street. “You’ve other wayfinding tools at your disposal than landmarks, I presume?”
Tomas nodded as they walked. “I know the stars, and that the Lake is both west and downhill. He looked around. “Less useful information around here, and it’s cloudy on top of that. I guess I’m really glad you’re here.”
“I think it’s safe to say you’d have found your way home without me. You’re better equipped than I expected.”
Though he was walking between them, Tomas felt Kari bristle at Collins.
“Oh, I don’t mean it like that,” Collins said. He was facing forward; Tomas didn’t know how he’d seen Kari’s reaction. “Most who come to us have big dreams and a very open—and empty—mind. Nothing wrong with that, of course: more room to fill with actual truth. It’s nice, though, to have a student who actually knows something. So long as you stay open to new information, I suppose. Ah, here we are. The Church.”
The plaza looked a bit different from this angle, with the Church, as Collins called it, on their right. Or perhaps it was the emptiness that created such an eerie effect. Their footsteps echoed through the empty air around them as they crossed the yard, and Collins began to whistle, the sweet, slightly shrill sound of it resonating around the three of them. Tomas shivered.
Without realizing he’d done it, Tomas led their little group down one of the streets on the far side, opposite where they’d entered the square. He grew nervous for a moment, thinking he’d led them astray, but the first street on his left dove steeply downhill. Tomas breathed a small sigh of relief.
They walked in companionable silence for a while before Tomas cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Um, something just occurred to me, sir.”
Collins looked amusedly at Tomas. “No need for such formality. I’m Collins, plain and simple. But what’s on your mind?”
“Well, I remember taking a good number of turns on our way here, but I don’t have any clue when to do that.”
“Here, then. Should we take this street?” Collins indicated a wide, flat street shooting diagonally off the one they followed.
Tomas frowned. “I don’t think so. At least on this street we’re headed north for sure. If nothing else, we should head for the water. I know I know my way from there.”
“Plus,” Kari put in, “the water.”
Collins smiled fondly at her and said, “I wholeheartedly agree. Downhill we go!”
Tomas smiled too as they took the next sloping street they came across.
* * *
Despite some twists and turns, the sloping street grew steeper as they went, and it wasn’t long before a crisp breeze blew on their faces.
Collins took a deep breath—in through his nose, hold for a moment, then out in a rush from his mouth. “Ahh, that Oandors air. Nothing like it, is there?”
Tomas took a deep breath of his own. “Nothing like it,” he agreed as the chilly, ever-so-slightly damp air in his lungs filled his body with familiar excitement.
[He never could explain why Oandors filled him with such excitement. As far as I can tell, it always did. He wrote quite a bit about the wind off the Lake, and the sounds of ice and water, and the way the Mountains’ peaks protrude from its surface. Come to think of it, he sometimes wrote at length about the way a fire danced in a hearth, or the dots of light in the foothills, marking Kari’s camps. It was the natural world which resonated with him, I think.
Just y’all wait. This world of ours has some incredible sights, and Tomas had a lot to say about all he saw. Oh! That reminds me:]
This beach was less of a beach than the rocky shore Kari and Tomas had found on their own. The ground was firm, and a pair of metal rails ran parallel to the shoreline, which here had been reinforced into a sheer drop of only a couple feet.
“Collins,” Tomas began hesitantly.
He turned around.
“What are these?” Tomas kicked the rail. “We saw them by the Lake before.”
Collins smiled as he turned back to the water. He sat down on the edge, dangling his feet over the waves. “You could say it’s a gift from our friends off in Ors diRoa. Not these rails in particular, but the technology.” Seeing confusion beginning to crease Tomas’ brow, he elaborated. “See, back when Vacen was settled, the city wasn’t built from stone. Originally, they used wood from the Vaç, and the folks over in Ors diRoa weren’t too happy about it. They fancied this whole shoreline as their own. See, their city is built on what we call a hotspot—a place where huge amounts of heat escape from the very earth. We have them out in Villesav, too, but the diVacians went a very different direction with theirs. Their oldest city, Kat diVas, is also on a hotspot, and there’s ridiculous metal deposits there as well. They learned fast about using the heat to shape it and purify it, which is how you get those steel bars.”
Kari was listening intently, but she didn’t say anything. Tomas nodded slowly. “Okay, but what are they for?”
Collins threw a stone hard; its splash interrupted the grey patterns of the waves. “The diVacians weren’t happy about our settling here, so an arrangement had to be found. The powers that be in Villesav knew their seaport would be tempting to those in Kat diVas, so it was a relatively easy negotiation, all told. DiVacian steel is traded around the world these days, and they’ve taught us several of their tricks. Without them, we’d never be able to get our bluestone off the bottom of the Lake.”
“So that’s why!”
Collins turned to Kari with an amused expression on his face. “Wondering about that, were you?”
Remembering herself, she nodded sheepishly. There was nowhere for her to hide.
Collins turned back to the water. “Yes, our workfolk cut it out of the lakebed in huge chunks. Gigantic, actually. Building sized. These rails get them from the water to the cutters—that’s Villesavian technology. The water erodes the rock into the fanciful shapes the buildings keep. We cut as many regular pieces out as we can and then do something with the husk. Folk in Villesav pay good money for our bluestone bricks. I’ve never been sure why. I like the husks better.” He lobbed another stone. Silence stretched as it arced through the air. Collins stood up, brushed off the back of his cape, and began to turn as a splash echoed out behind him. “Are we ready?”
They both shrugged. “If you are,” Tomas said.
With a crisp nod of acknowledgement, Collins set off at a brisk pace.
“Um, sir?” Tomas said hesitantly.
“Collins!” Collins said as he turned around.
“Uh, north. We need the Lake on our left to get back.”
A huge grin split Collins’ face. “You’re good! Very good.” He gestured expansively to the north. “Shall we?”
A confused, amused smile grew on Tomas’ face as he followed the little bald man in his new direction, along the Lake and the rails.