Part 2: A Difficult Morning
Collins was waiting for them when they went down for breakfast that morning. He was chatting easily across the bar with Jolene, who pointed when Kari and Tomas came into view. Collins turned, broke into a huge smile, and stood. “Tomas! Kari! These last few days have been pleasant, I hope.”
Tomas nodded blearily, sinking into the stool beside him. Kari sat on Tomas’ other side.
Jolene smiled at them. “Breakfasts and teas?”
“Please,” Tomas said eagerly, but looked at Kari. She also nodded, though it was more slowly. “You never drank it back Home,” he said to her.
“Didn’t have to be so alert so fast back Home.”
“Fair enough,” Tomas said around a yawn. “I just need help waking up, no matter where we are.”
“I’m there with you, Tomas. Without that early boost, I’m in a bad way. All day, too, not just in the morning,” Collins said. He had no plate or cup in front of him, but a few stray crumbs betrayed a breakfast he’d no doubt enjoyed.
Tomas was grateful for the ensuing minutes of silence, as was Kari. They sipped their steaming mugs until their food arrived: bacon [as they’d learned it was called,] eggs, and pale toast, just as it had been every day since they’d arrived.
Collins sniffed appreciatively. “That Walt sure knows his way around a kitchen.”
Despite his mouthful of food, Tomas said, “You’re telling us. You should have his two-day stew. It’s to die for.”
Collins’ eyebrows went up as he smiled. “Is that so? Well, I’ll certainly have to be back for that. Which actually brings up a good point. The Mabwana have agreed to house you; have you discussed that with your landlady?” He looked at her.
Jolene nodded. “They’d mentioned they might be pulling up stakes. Far as I’m concerned, they’re square with me. Hard workers, these two.”
Tomas blushed a little. “Well, when you grow up on a farm…”
The last word seemed to surprise Jolene. “What do you farm way up there?”
Internally, Tomas started. He shrugged casually. “Whatever we can. Like you said: we get all your snow, so we have to work extra hard to feed everybody.”
Collins nodded knowingly. “I’ve a friend who specializes in trade routes. According to Alo, the caravans keep taking that circuitous road because they never know what they’ll come upon North of the Mountains. The scenery is also apparently unparalleled, though I haven’t had the pleasure myself.”
Jolene had a wistful look in her eye. “I’ve been to Brin; it was some years ago, now. But I’ll never forget how the Mountains meet the Lake. And the little town nestled between the river and the foothills?” She sighed. “I know what you’re talking about.”
Kari and Tomas were smiling, enjoying the reminiscing. Tomas went to take the final sip of his tea and found it already empty. When had that happened? He set the bluestone mug back on the bluestone bar with a click.
“Ready, then?” Collins placed a single, large coin on the bar with a click of its own.
Jolene’s eyebrows shot up.
Tomas looked at Kari, who upturned her mug and threw her head back. After three or four deep swallows, she brought it back down and set it heavily on the stone bar. The resulting crack made both Tomas and Kari jump, eliciting a laugh from both residents of the City of Stone.
Tomas worriedly picked the mug up and examined it, running his other hand over the bar where she’d left it.
“It’s fine; don’t you worry. She’d have had to hit it much harder than that to do any damage. And even then—it’s the handle that’d have popped off first. Way before anything would happen to the bartop itself. Believe me: my esteemed patrons have proven that time and time again.”
Everyone laughed as Collins stood. “Shall we?”
Tomas nodded. “Thank you so much, Jolene. We’d never have found Collins without you.”
“Oh don’t you mention it. Come back for a meal on me whenever you’d like; you’ve been a great help. Anybody gives you any lip, you send them straight to me.” Jolene was smiling fondly as she said it.
The fatigue of a sleepless night washed back over Tomas as he stood from his stool. He wobbled a little but hoped nobody saw.
“Will you need some time to pack up?” Collins asked.
Kari shook her head. “We packed up last night. We’ll meet you out front.”
Collins leaned on the bar. “Sounds good to me.”
She touched Tomas’ shoulder and nodded toward the stairs. “Ready?”
“Yeah…” he said, beginning to move across the gently swimming room.
As they climbed the stairs, Kari said, “Are you gonna make it to the school wearing your pack? I wasn’t sure if you were gonna fall over down there.”
Tomas ran a hand through his hair. “Felt like I was gonna.” He looked her in the eye. “I don’t know if I’ll make it the whole way. Think Collins would help carry my things?”
Kari shrugged as they reached the second-floor hallway. “He doesn’t seem young, but he doesn’t seem weak. I just don’t know.”
Tomas nodded resignedly as they reached their door. Sharing a deep breath, they crossed into the room. Kari shouldered her own pack before helping Tomas get his off the floor and connect the buckles to keep the bulk of the weight off his shoulders. It took him a moment to steady himself, but then they were on the way. Kari went down the stairs first, just in case.