Part 2: A Hearty Meal
Down the stairs they went, toward the kitchen windows. A short line had formed on one side, so they wandered to the back and waited their turn. Tomas recognized mashed potatoes and cuts of chickens’ thighs and breasts on the plates of the people in front of him; only some of whom wore capes like Collins. Some looked particularly ragged—so much so that it made Tomas wonder whether they had homes to go back to. Surely, they couldn’t spend their nights out in the cold…
Then it was their turn to take up trays and shuffle down the queue. Set into the stone countertop were metal basins, in which steamed piles of foods. [Not, perhaps, great heaps but it was more food than Kari and Tomas had ever seen in one place before.]
They recognized the chicken, as well as the steamed greens—though not precisely what sort of greens they’d been. There were great mounds of mashed potatoes and wells of thick, dark gravy. It all smelled wonderful.
As they filled their trays with the piping hot food, one of the people on the other side of the counter began to eye them curiously. “Tomas?”
He gave a small start, but answered smoothly, “Yes?”
The man on the far side nodded in a satisfied way. “Thought so. Collins described y’all pretty well, actually. Anythin’ I can do for you?”
Kari and Tomas glanced at each other. “I don’t really think so. But we’ll be sure to ask if we need to,” he said.
The man smiled kindly. “Of course. Enjoy your meal!”
Tomas thanked him as they moved on. Stone pitchers and stacked cups sat on the counter past the last of the food, so they each filled a wooden cup with their choice of beverage. Water for Tomas; apple cider for Kari. A severe-looking woman stood at a small podium guarding the end of the queue. Tomas had noticed most of those ahead of them giving her money before she’d allowed them to pass. The woman leered down her nose at him when he approached.
“So here you are, then. You’re not quite what I expected.” She regarded Kari with an unreadable expression, then shook her head tiredly. “Off with you, then. Keep the line moving.”
“Thank you,” Tomas said as they walked past her podium.
Kari shook her head. “She sure wasn’t happy with us.”
Tomas nodded, glancing over his shoulder. The young woman who had queued up behind them was counting coins from her purse. She wore an orange cape. “I haven’t seen anyone else not pay her, so I guess we’re pretty special or something.”
“Or something,” Kari said, smiling. She guided them to a small, empty table near the bottom of the stairs they’d descended—it was a corner of the dining area.
It wasn’t long after they’d dug in that a looming, dark skinned man in a black cape and brightly colored, richly patterned tunic wandered up to the table next to them and sat down. After a moment, he cleared his throat.
Tomas turned to find him looking intently at them. “Uh, can we help you?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said, clearing his throat again. When he spoke, they realized he was no older than they were. “You’re Tomas and Kari, yes?”
He nodded back. “Good, I’m glad I found you.” It was quiet for a moment, before he added, “Oh, I’m Alo. Collins told me to come find you.”
Kari and Tomas nodded then, finally understanding what was going on. “Good to meet you, Alo,” Tomas said. “Where is Collins?”
“Ah, I’m not sure.” When Kari and Tomas deflated a bit, he hastily continued, “Oh, but he’s given me instructions for filling the time until he’s free, or back, or whatever. I’ve a great deal of information we think will be useful, though I gather none will answer the big questions you’ve brought over the Mountains with you.”
“Do they teach you guys to be mysterious or is it just the shifty type that’s attracted to this place? I swear. Between you and Collins, I’ll be shocked if you ever just come out and tell us anything.” [It was an explosion of words coming from Kari, and the first sound she’d made since Alo’s arrival. He shrunk into his chair as she spoke, further and further as she continued.]
“I’m sorry,” he said in a very quiet voice, “I’m just doing as I’m told.”
“Oh, of course!” Tomas jumped in, sensing Alo’s embarrassment. “We’ll finish up here and then come with you. Do you have an office like Collins?”
After a quick deep breath, Alo shook his head. “I…use one of the shared ones off the stacks. You have to be here a long, long time before you get that.”
[The rest of the meal went like that, though Most of Tomas’ questions were met with “That’s an office conversation,” or some variant thereof. Kari didn’t say another word in the dining hall that day, and if Tomas noticed, Kari couldn’t tell.]