This is the seventh part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 6, you can read it here.

Part 7: Room Service

Janet spent the next few shifts on high alert, expecting Robin or Paxton to pop up, or for Hela or Smith to grill her about what she had done. Grill her, and then fire her. But nothing happened. She helped Hela organise the basement storeroom, and then the one next to it, and after that they moved onto laundering and sorting the linens. 

This might have been more boring than dragging furniture around, but Hela must have decided that Janet was ready to move onto the next stage of her training. As they shifted steaming tablecloths from the machines to the dryers, she began to lecture Janet on the layout of the hotel, and the processes of serving guests, checking them out and checking them in.

“It’s different depending on which entrance they use. Usually they have to stay in the room they entered while we do the initial vetting. Who are they, what is their position, what is their purpose? After the bargain is struck they may move into another room.”

“Bargain?”

“Everyone who comes here always wants something. Safe passage or shelter, usually, but sometimes the requests are more unusual or demanding. Of course, we can’t just provide them with what they want for nothing. There has to be an exchange. That keeps things balanced.”

“So you ask for money?”

“It doesn’t have to be money. Goods, information, a favour.”

Hela also gave Janet a map. “Study it when you have time, while you’re in the hotel. The magic in it won’t work once you leave. It’s a map.”

Janet stared down at the A4 sheet of paper. It only showed the floor she was on. But then Hela tapped a corner and the whole thing changed. Janet stared at the new lines. It looked like the basement. “Does it show where I am? Like the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter?”

Hela frowned. 

“Never mind,” said Janet, and kept the map. She studied it when she could, which was apparently not often enough for Hela, who quizzed her often and seemed upset when Janet got things wrong.

Hela was not the only one giving Janet lessons. The night after they finished tidying the first storeroom, Felicia had pulled Janet aside before she left.

“Hey, you still wanted to learn about the portals?”

“Yeah, but I thought you didn’t want to put your job on the line.”

Felicia shrugged. “If Mr. Smith thinks I’m quizzing you about your particular brand of Cantonese, he’s not likely to find me out. And I will quiz you, don’t worry about that. But the sooner we get some sort of status quo here, the better.”

So Janet would come in early or leave late, and spend that time behind the desk with Felicia. Many times it crossed her mind that this was a front, and that Smith knew and approved of this, because there couldn’t be a way to hide what they were really doing. Felicia described all twenty-six of the portals, and tried to get Janet to commit them to memory.

“In time, you should be able to sense them in your mind,” she said. “That’s when you’ll be able to control them.”

“How do I do that?”

“One step at a time. You need to understand them.” And with that she launched into another barely comprehensible lecture. As the weeks passed, Janet learned to make a kind of sense of these lectures. It helped that she kept practicing the exercise Paxton had explained to her. Her family thought she had taken up meditation.

Now when she walked down the hotel corridors, she thought she could see the threads that connected them to the rooms around. It was probably her own imagination – Hela had quizzed her enough that she had memorised the layout of the ground floor, at the very least.

One night, Hela greeted her with: “Alright. I think it’s finally time for you to do what you signed up for.”

Janet’s mouth went dry. “What do you mean?” Did Hela know about the lessons Felicia was giving her?

“Room service. That was in the job description we posted, was it not?”

Janet did not relax. She could feel the beginnings of a headache. “I thought we did room service last week.” It hadn’t been service exactly; she and Hela had gone to all the rooms that had finished their food to pick up empty plates.

“You haven’t taken plates to rooms, and I’ve been with you.”

“You mean you think I’m ready to wander around this place by myself?” Despite herself, excitement rose. She hadn’t met any official guests, other than Telar.

“All on your lonesome, yes. Do you think you’re ready?”

Janet considered it. “Well, I’ll have the map with me. As long as things don’t change suddenly, I should be fine.”

“There haven’t been any shifts for a while now. I think you’re finally starting to belong here.”

Janet smiled, but it was a strain. According to Felicia, when that happened she would be able to sense the portals in her mind. That hadn’t happened yet, had it?

She tried to sense the portals in her mind as Hela lectured her on the finer points of room service. All that happened was that her headache got worse.

Room service turned out to be fairly uneventful. A young boy called Timur did most of the room service work, so she was only called on to go when Hela felt the job would be relatively easy. So the rooms were easy to find and the people did not act as though it were unusual to be served by a girl from Earth. Quite possibly they didn’t know she was from Earth, after all, she hadn’t seen anyone who wasn’t humanoid.

Her headache was getting worse, though, so when she was sent up to room 747 on the top floor, she took a moment to get her breath back before knocking on the door. That was when she noticed a staircase that led up. To the roof? Or to Himmeria? All the 7 rooms were meant to be near that entrance. She crept closer, wondering if there was anything she could do to the portal. If she was in her own powers, then she’d be able to open it, or close it, or something, right? 

Something thumped in the corridor behind her and Janet came to her senses. Even if she could control it properly, they’d all know. And she’d likely as not mess it all up and send the hotel careening out of reality somehow. She found Room 747 and dropped off their apple pie. Then she went a different way back. There was an elevator in the middle of the floor that should take her down without her having to walk past the stairway again.

Only then did she think of Robin and Paxton. This was the first time she had been left on her own. The first time that they might be able to talk to her. But there was no way to know where they were, and she didn’t dare to so much as whisper their names. Besides what could she say to them? Better to leave it alone and hope for the best.

When she reached the elevator, Janet was dismayed to find she wasn’t the only one there — Telar stood before it in his white cloak. Janet considered finding another way down, but too late, he’d seen her. She went into the elevator with him. 

“Ground floor?” Janet kept her tone as sweet as possible.

He glared at her and said nothing. She pressed the button and stood there as they descended. 

“If you are going to let peasants in, you should keep them under control.” Telar sniffed. “They are causing trouble.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Janet was getting better at hiding her emotions. Hiding her fear and surprise. She pictured the garden hedge in her mind and tried to shut out her immediate reaction (oh shit oh shit he knows, fucking how?)

“You don’t really think nobody will find out that they are here? Everyone in this building as far more magic than you.”

“I already knew that, since I have none.”

“Keep it in mind. Stop acting like you belong here.”

“I do belong here!” It surprised Janet to find that she meant it. She wanted to belong here, at any rate, and it was close enough to the same thing.

“We’ll see about that.” The lift doors opened and Telar swept out. Janet let out a shaky breath. How had he known? And why had he not told anybody?

The worry kept going through her head as she went about her duties. She didn’t know how to find Robin and Paxton without going about calling their names like a fool, and that was a surefire way to be found out almost immediately. Perhaps that was what he’d been hoping; that she’d give herself away through stupidity. 

“Are you alright?” Hela asked.

Garden hedge, garden hedge. It would be a good idea to give Hela at least part of the truth. “I have a headache,” said Janet, then added, “something feels wrong.”

“What do you mean? You’re sick?”

“No, I mean, something is wrong here. Don’t you feel it?”

Hela looked Janet up and down closely. “No. Exactly what are you feeling?”

Janet shrugged. “My head hurts, and, I don’t know. It feels like it’s coming from outside. Somewhere on the edges.”

“It’s probably just your imagination,” Hela said, but she was more reluctant to give Janet things to take out.

Janet was more than glad when the shift ended. Hela waved her off. “You don’t need me to walk you to the door anymore. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Janet was pleased to finally be able to make her own way around the hotel. She was looking forward to home, and sleep. Soon enough, she’d have some control over the portals, and then she’d find Robin and Paxton, try and get them into Himmeria, somewhere safe.

Lost in thought, Janet didn’t notice the commotion until she was nearly upon it. The lobby was often busy, but now it was packed. Full of bodies, noise, and chaos. These people looked stranger than the guests she had seen tonight. She saw a creature with wings, and one with scales. But there was no time to gawk now. She elbowed her way through the crowd to the reception desk, where Felicia was trying to have several conversations at once.

“I’m sorry,” she was saying, “but you’re all going to have to wait. I don’t know any more than you do.” She caught Janet’s eye and beckoned. Janet came behind the desk.

“What’s going on?”

“The portals,” said Felicia. “They’ve closed, all of them.”

Want to keep reading? Part 8 is here.