Part 1: Privacy
Another glimpse was all Tomas got of the stacks as Alo led them to his office, skirting the labyrinth as Collins had. They’d gone out from the dining hall to the street before reentering the main foyer. Alo had nodded brusquely at the keepers of the inner doors, and they’d allowed them through without hesitation. Up the left-hand staircase they’d gone.
Now Alo was opening a door on their left. Down another hall to a door on the right, which Alo unlocked. A small lamp on the wall glowed softly inside. Alo turned a dial on the sconce’s base, and the glow intensified. Dark shapes atop the desk became looming stacks of books of vastly varying ages and sizes. A familiar flower bloomed in a little pot on a side table, and shelves similar to those in Collins’ office comprised one wall. A window with curtains drawn was set into the wall opposite the door.
Alo stood by the door as they entered the little room and gestured to the two chairs before the desk. As they sat, he shut the door and moved to sit behind the desk. Alo ran his hands over his short, springy hair once he’d scooted himself up to the desk and took a deep breath. Then, he deftly pulled a book from partway up one of the stacks.
“This book contains a relatively thorough account of our methods for distributing the Black Wheat.”
Suddenly the book in his dark hands seemed too small, too new to possibly contain everything it surely needed to. Words escaped Tomas for several moments before something occurred to him. “You distribute?”
Alo nodded. “All the traders who know to come up your way are associated with our organization. We keep you secret to protect you and the Wheat. Until recently, I suppose.”
He nodded. “The climate was disturbed, correct?”
It was Tomas’ turn to nod. “But the Stranger came three years ago.”
“Yeah, a red-caped man appeared one day. We think he’s why the weather changed.”
Alo nodded gravely. “Collins failed to mention that. Upsetting, but it doesn’t change much for me at the moment. My area of expertise is working with the economics of the Black Wheat. The caravans you know are all accounted for in this ledger over here.” He indicated a relatively large, young book with an attached ribbon protruding from the bottom. Nothing was stacked on top of it. “That’s not all the caravans, though. Our branch in Villesav is actually the hub. The blackcapes there are the ones with the big job: all the Wheat goes through there—even the stuff that winds up here. We quietly imply it comes from across the sea to keep people off the trail.”
“Why is the secret so important? We know it only comes from us, but is it really that special?” Kari was the one who asked that.
Alo nodded very seriously in response. “Poultice made with just a pinch of soot can close wounds an experienced surgeon can’t. Those in the know can bake bread that will fill you up for three days. There’s so much more, too. Another thing I study here: practical applications. Did you know it isn’t flammable?”
“Yes?” Tomas didn’t understand what he was getting at.
“Oh! White flower very much is. It’s like sawdust. Most farming towns have an explosion every year or so. Gruesome stuff.”
The two across from him nodded in silent wonder.
“I could go on, but that’s not really what you want to hear about, is it?”
“No, not at the moment, I don’t think,” Tomas said, returning to his senses.
“What then? Here in private, I’ll do everything I can to be transparent and informative. I don’t like keeping secrets from those so deeply affected by them.” He glanced at Kari when he said the last.
She rolled her eyes.
“So you know threats to the Black Wheat exist already?”
Alo nodded. “You’re a secret for that exact reason. I’ll never fully understand why some are so bent on its destruction. There are far better ways to wreak havoc on Trium’s plans.”
[Alo’s eyes went wide as the tundra sky when Tomas asked that.] He shook his head slowly. “Collins really didn’t tell you anything, did he?”
They shook their heads, not sure whether to be annoyed.
Alo shook his head too. He took a slow, deep breath, then said, “Trium is…why we do anything and how we do everything. Trium are the Almighty, and yet they don’t directly control you or I. He’s the Father of Creation and the Mother who nurtures; She heals our wounds and directs our paths, if we let Him.” Alo shook his head again, grimacing. “I’m not doing very well at this. Collins is the expert on Trium and related studies. When he reappears, he’ll be able to illuminate much more than I have.”