This is the sixth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 5, you can read it here.

Part 6: Felicia

Janet glanced at her watch. Her shift had ended at half past nine. It was now past midnight. Where had the time gone? She looked up at Paxton. “I need to leave without getting lost and without anyone seeing me. I don’t suppose you can help me with either one of those?”

“We cannot go into the lobby,” said Paxton, “there are too many safeguards there. But we can help you get as close as we can.” He opened the door and looked into the corridor. “I can see the way this dwelling is built. We can guide you.”

“What if someone sees you?” asked Janet, then remembered that they’d hidden under Hela’s nose not too long ago. “Okay, sure. Thanks.”

Paxton went ahead of her. Robin went behind, knives out. It was like having one’s own odd security detail.

“Are the knives really necessary?”

Robin looked at the daggers in her hands, shrugged and put them in her pockets. Janet felt like the woman was only humouring her. She turned back to Paxton. “How do you even know your way around? Have you been here before?”

“No. But I see clearly.”

“What does that mean?”

“He sees magic,” Robin said from behind.

“There are threads that connect the rooms to where they should be, so they can be pulled back into place. They may stretch and twist, but they are still there to guide those that can see.”

“That’s handy.”

“It is. Are we not trying to evade detection?”

Janet got the point and kept her mouth shut for the rest of the way. It was a different route to the one she had taken earlier — up stairs and down stairs and further than Janet had walked earlier, she was sure. Finally, Paxton stopped at a corner.

“The lobby is just around the corner,” he said, pointing.

“Great,” said Janet. “Thanks heaps. Really.”

“It is we who must thank you,” said Robin, taking Janet’s hand in two of her own. “You have saved our lives. We will not forget.” She let the hand go before Janet could respond, and in a moment she and Paxton were nowhere to be seen.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Janet muttered. “Good luck to all of us, I guess.” All she had to do now was cross the lobby without anybody seeing her. Without Felicia seeing her, really. Smith and Hela, with luck, were somewhere else (and if they weren’t it was likely game over), and anyone else who saw her didn’t know her. Not well enough that she couldn’t claim it was a double when questioned. Felicia, on the other hand… well, Felicia was usually focused on the computer, wasn’t she? If Janet simply walked across the room as though she knew what she was doing, then maybe Felicia wouldn’t notice. 

Hopefully. There wasn’t anything else she could do.

There were angry voices around the corner. Janet leaned around the wall. There was the lobby, wide and clear and empty, as far as she could see. The receptionist desk was out of view.

She took a breath and focused of her surroundings. If doing this could block her thoughts from others, then maybe it would help her pass unnoticed. So she let her mind dwell on the glittering chandeliers, the solid wall she was leaning on. The sweat on her hands. Her heart beating in her head. Another breath. One more. Then she pressed her shoes into the hard ground and stepped forward.

It was almost a disappointment to find that nobody reacted. Nobody was there to react, except for Felicia and a tall man cloaked in white. They were the source of the angry voices, locked in argument. Lucky for Janet. She tried to look as though — no, she did look as though she belonged here. She knew where she was going, she had business and she was attending to it. Yeah.

As she passed them, their argument became clearer. “You need me,” the man in white was saying. “You cannot afford —“

“You have no true place here, Exile of Durridel. You are a guest, here under sufferance. And you have nowhere else to go. Can you afford to upset us? Where would you go, if we refused you our hospitality?”

“That would doom Himmeria and Durridel and all the lands between. You folk with your talk of duty, you are all just the same. You—“ he whirled.

Janet had stopped walking, too interested in the argument. A mistake. The man was taller than anyone she’d seen before — over six feet? Seven? His eyes were black and they held hers. “So this is my replacement?” he sneered. “This is your hope?”

“I – what?” 

Behind Telar, Felicia rolled her eyes and said nothing.

“I see what you are,” the man said, looking down at Janet. “A scared little girl who thinks she is brave because she speaks her mind, but really you are just thoughtless. You won’t last.” Before Janet could think of a response (although what kind of response could she make to that?) the man had swept past her and out of the hall.

“Wow.”

“Don’t mind him,” said Felicia.

“Who was that?” Janet asked, although she thought she already knew. Exile of Durridel, Felicia had said, which meant —

“Telar, the Exile Prince.”

“What did he mean, about my being his replacement?”

“He’s got it wrong. He’s a guest; you’re an employee. Different things. So don’t mind him — nobody else does. Has anyone told you how he got kicked out of two different worlds?”

“But Hela said you guys had to mind him, because he was like me. Between the worlds.”

“He helps stabilise things a bit, in theory. If you ask me, I can’t see much evidence of that. But even then, he’d never be able to do what you could do. Why are still here, by the way? I thought your shift ended a few hours ago.”

Janet fidgeted. “I, uh, left my phone and went back to get it. Got lost. I know I’m not supposed to be wandering around but I thought -“

Felicia smiled. ”It’s fine. I’m not going to tell anyone about it.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, I’m on your side.” Felicia winked.

“I wasn’t aware there were sides.”

“There shouldn’t be. But I’m afraid politics ruins everything.”

Janet glanced around the empty lobby. ”So what did you mean by saying Telar can’t do what I can do? I can’t seem to do much.”

“Not yet. But you know why you’re here, right?“

“I’m supposed to keep the place stable, I think? But apparently I can do that just by — belonging here.”

“It’s not just that. This is your world. You’re the only one who can control the portals properly.”

Janet stared. “What?”

“Not the origin points — that would be up to Himmeria and Durridel. Their portal entrances are in their worlds, and so under their control. But on this end, it’s all you. When you’ve established a connection with this place, you’ll be able to open them, close them, move them around if necessary.”

“Are you kidding me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” After a moment’s thought, Janet added, “And why would they trust me to do that?”

“That’s the problem. I’m not sure Mr. Smith actually trusts anyone from your world to do that. That’s probably why he didn’t tell you. Didn’t want you experimenting.”

“But he trusted the person who worked here last — for a while, I mean — was it Sylvia?”

“Ah, yes, Sylvia. We set up this interface for her.” Felicia gestured to the computer. “He trusted her to do what she was told, but he never taught her enough for her to fully understand it all.”

Curious, Janet went around the counter to look at the computer screen. She couldn’t make sense of what she saw there; it was just boxes and lines, with strange symbols floating between. “So you can use this to control the portals?”

“In a sense. I can’t really move the portals, just monitor them. And despite what Hela or Smith may have told you, they can’t move the portals either. They can move everything else in the hotel around, since there’s a lot of ether-space to work with, but that has its limits. And without a proper anchor to do maintenance, they keep slipping further and further out of control.”

“So what you’re doing now, is that what I’m supposed to be doing?”

Felicia smiled thinly. “Another reason I’m on your side. I’d really much rather be working on the translation matrix.”

“What’s that?”

“A overlapping set of spells that runs through the entire hotel, that translates everything everyone says. It’s the most complicated spell in this place.”

“Even more complicated than the portals?”

“Of course. All the portals do is move you from one place to another. They need a lot of magical power, but that’s it. To translate we need to embed the vocabulary and grammar, not to mention any slang or figures of speech, from every language that could be conceivably spoken in this hotel. Then we need to manually enter the preferred language of each guest and employee.” Felicia sighed. “Not to mention the power requirements involved in having a perception filter, personalised to each individual, working all the time.”

So that explained how Janet could understand everybody. “Oh. Then what language are you speaking now?”

“English, of course. I need to know all the languages I program into the spell matrix.”

An idea was taking place in Janet’s mind. “So, you want to get back to doing that, but you can’t until I have a handle on how the portals work?”

“That’s about right.”

“How long will that take?”

“Who knows? The process varies. It depends on your thoughts and emotions and the thoughts and emotions of everyone else here.”

“Is there a way to speed it up? Like, if you taught me what all of this meant?” Janet gestured to the computer. If she had control over the portals, then things would stabilise, and people could be sent back. Meaning Robin and Paxton’s presence could quite conceivably go unnoticed. And if not — well, she’d have control over the portals. At the very least, she’d know where they were. She could let them through to Himmeria, or perhaps some other part of Durridel that wouldn’t get them killed. 

“Understanding would help,” said Felicia. “Connection is the key, but you can’t really control that. Learning more about how this whole place works would help you.”

“So … could you help me do that? Teach me how it all works?”

Felicia drummed the desk with her long nails. “Mr. Smith won’t like that.”

“I thought you were on my side.”

“Not to the point of putting my own job on the line. I mean, what’s in it for me?”

“You could get back to your own job?” But of course she already knew that. Janet tried to think of what she could offer. “I could teach you some Cantonese.”

“I already know some basic Cantonese. Although … there are some interesting variations in Hong Kong Cantonese and the Malaysian version. What’s your background, exactly?”

“Malaysian.” Janet paused, then added, “I should say that my Cantonese isn’t that great. I mean, if you already know some, I don’t know how much I can help you. But —“

“Miss Ling. Didn’t your shift finish a few hours ago?”

Janet turned slowly. Smith was right behind her. He must walk like a cat, she thought, or she had been so engrossed in her own conversation she hadn’t noticed.

“I, well, I left —”

“She left her phone in the basement,” said Felicia. “I sent some people to fetch it. Then we got talking and I’m afraid time slipped away. Did you know Miss Ling is familiar with Cantonese? Her family are from Malaysia.”

“I am well aware of that. Be careful you don’t let this distract you from your duties, Felicia.”

“It is difficult to distract me from my proper duties, sir.”

“Hm. Janet, before you leave, I’d like a private word.” He gestured towards the door. “It won’t take long.”

“Uh, sure.” Janet gave Felicia a look of pure gratitude, before following. Luckily he was leading her to the front door — out of Felicia’s earshot but not in his office. Unless there were spells here that would help him — she forced herself to take a deep breath. 

Smith faced her. “I know why you are here so late.”

That stopped Janet in her tracks. “You do?”

“Trying a little unauthorised activity of your own? Be careful, Miss Ling. You do remember what would happen if you put one toe over the line?”

“Yes, sir.” Janet concentrated on the floor and tried to think about nothing.

“Don’t overstep. You’re here to learn and to belong. That’s it. No more.”

“Yes, sir.” 

“You’d better go get some sleep. It’s very late.”

“Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Miss Ling.” He turned and walked away.

And that was it. Did he really know? The question spun through Janet’s mind as she pulled out of the parking lot. Surely if he did, he’d do more than just warn her. Was he just trying to intimidate her? Why the hell would he do that? 

To stop her trying things on her own. Stop her trying to control the portals. It made a kind of sense. No wonder Hela had looked at her so suspiciously when the door appeared. Surely that hadn’t been her doing, though. Didn’t she need to feel like she belonged before she could do that? Or was that just something they had told her to stop her from experimenting? How far could she trust these people?

It was half past one when she reached her house, but she wasn’t in the least tired. There was a lot for her to think about.

Want to keep reading? Part 7 is here.