This is the eighth part of my fortnightly serial. If you missed Part 7, you can read it here.

Part 8: Meetings

Smith’s office was larger than Janet remembered it. It was the same room — there was the mahogany desk, with the scented candles and the dim lamps, and the carpet was the same shade of blood red. But now instead of being a small close space, it was large enough to seat ten people. Magic again. At least it meant they’d be comfortable. It wasn’t just Smith, Hela and Felicia here, but three other staff — she knew the head cook, Frankl, and she’d seen the two tall men in blue in the lobby, acting as porters, but didn’t know their names. Janet sank into a leather armchair, noting that the edges of the room were still shadowy. Perhaps there weren’t any walls in this room, just a patch of light that grew and shrank. There was no way to be comfortable here, now she knew this room was designed so her thoughts could be read.

She didn’t want to be here. She would not have been here if it had not been for the press of people around the reception that had made her escape impossible. Smith had been the one to restore order, filing people away in a set of spare rooms that Janet had never seen before. Then he’d said, “Meeting, my office, now.” That could have been an order for anyone, really, only Felicia had turned to her and said, “Come on.” Janet could not ignore that, so now she was here, trying very hard not to wonder if she had caused this somehow.

“The portals closed earlier this evening,” Felicia was saying. “At least, they started to. That’s why it didn’t come up on the sensors, because it happened so slowly. It started in the Himmerian Wing and spread from there.”

“How did everyone end up in the lobby?”

Felicia shrugged. “Not everyone. Just everyone whose rooms stopped existing, or moved to their proper places. Without access to the other worlds, our access to magic has become more limited. And it’s going to get worse.”

Smith said, “Miss Ling, I believe you went to the Himmerian Wing earlier tonight?”

Janet stared. “I didn’t have anything to do with this!”

“But you knew something was wrong,” said Hela. “When you came back, you said something felt wrong in your mind.”

“I just had a headache.” She still had a headache, but it might be better not to mention that.

“I don’t think that’s true. Sir, I think Janet’s connection has been getting stronger without anyone noticing. If we show her how, she should be able to get it open again.”

One of the porters in blue leaned forward. “That’s if she wasn’t the one who closed them in the first place.”

“If she was the one who closed them, don’t you think she’d be a little more clumsy about it? This went undetected until the last moment. Something else is going on.”

Smith gave Janet a piercing look that seemed to go through to her very bones. “I am not convinced.”

“If I may be of assistance?” said a silky voice from the doorway. It was Telar. “I met Miss Ling coming down. There were no traces of magic upon her. I doubt she had anything to do with this.”

Janet glared. He had no reason to help her, unless doing so would help himself.

“Then how did it happen?” Smith asked.

“You should know that tensions between Durridel and Himmeria are high. Perhaps they decided to close the corridors between them.”

“No. Not without negotiating. That would break the treaty.”

“I cannot know for sure. But I know these people. They would have taken the easy route. No need to negotiate with people you will never see again. These Himmerians, these Durridels, they are all the same.”

Felicia scowled. ”No doubt you think so, Exile, but the truth—”

Smith interrupted Felicia. “You think you can get them open again.”

“I am certain of it. I simply need your permission to take control of the portals.”

“Impossible,” said Felicia. “Sir, you cannot hand over control to an outsider.”

“I am a guest, not an outsider. And who else has the power, position, and understanding to help you with this?”

“Janet does.” Felicia turned to Smith. “Sir, I’ve been teaching Janet how the portals work. You heard Hela — she’s established a connection with them already. You could let her try. I don’t see that any harm could come of it.”

“She could make things worse,” put in Telar.

“With oversight, sir, I think we could keep everything under control,” Hela said. 

Smith looked Janet up and down. “No.” He stood. “Felicia, show Telar the way the portals are laid out.” He strode out of the room.

Felicia sighed and shrugged at Janet. “I tried.” She stood up. “Come on, then, Exile Prince.” 

Telar let her pass, smirked at Janet, and left. Slowly the other staff filed out of the room.

Janet remained sitting. ”Doesn’t he trust me?”

Hela had reached the door. Now she turned back and sighed. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. Trust you or not, you’d be easier to control than the Prince. I swear, I think sometimes he’s angling for a ruling position here.”

Janet decided not to remark on how easy she’d be to control. “But I thought he was just a guest here.”

“He is. But he’s not content to remain that way. A guest here, forever, no real place of his own? Forget it. He’s angling for something else.”

“For what? And how do you know?”

“I know because it’s obvious, or it should be. And if I knew what he’s angling for, I’d stop him.” With that, Hela walked out, leaving Janet alone.

Janet took a few moments to get her breath back. Nobody actually told her to go anywhere or do anything, after all. She thought she could feel the walls closing in around her.

No, the walls were literally closing in around her. They brought the shadows in with them. Janet quickly fled the office. She supposed that since her shift was over, she could go home. But that didn’t feel right somehow. 

“Psst.”

The sound had come from around the corner. Janet approached with caution.

“Janet?” The voice came out of the air.

“Is that Paxton?” Janet fervently hoped it was.

“It’s us,” Robin came into view from behind. Janet turned and turned back and Paxton was there too. 

“Oh, thank god.” Janet leaned back against the wall. She wasn’t sure her legs could take her full weight.

“We saw the elders meeting. Have they found out about us?”

“Not that I know of.”

“What’s happened then? You have to tell us.”

Janet considered, but after all, why not? She hadn’t been sworn to secrecy. Besides, who would they tell? She described the situation in a few brief sentences. Robin and Paxton exchanged a guilt-filled look.

“What is it? What do you know?”

“When did it happen?” asked Robin. “When did the portals close?”

“I don’t know exactly when. Earlier tonight, I think.” Janet looked at their faces. “What? Did you do something?”

“We were trying to get into Himmeria, earlier tonight.”

“What? Why? Why tonight? What have you been doing all this time, anyway?”

Paxton shrugged. ”Finding our way about. It hasn’t been easy. The threads don’t show where the portals are, so you have to piece together the threads. Where the gaps are. It took a while. And they don’t show where the entrances come out, not precisely, so we couldn’t risk returning through any Durridel portals. We were only able to find a portal to Himmeria tonight.”

“And you tried to go through. What happened?”

“It closed. Right before us. And I could feel everything shift.”

“Oh, great. So this is because of you?”

Paxton looked at the floor. Robin bit her lip. They didn’t need to answer.

“Listen,” said Janet. “I think the Exile Prince knows you’re here.”

“He couldn’t.”

“He dropped some hints earlier tonight. I don’t know what he plans to do, but he’s managed to convince Smith to let him fix the portals. I’m sure he’s going to use this to do something. Try and get himself in power or something.”

“But he couldn’t,” said Paxton, shocked. “He’s a guest here. An outsider, like us.”

“Well, I’m sure he’s up to something. There has to be a reason he hasn’t said anything. We’ve got to do something before he fixes things.” If he could fix it. 

“You are the anchor,” said Robin. “Can’t you fix this?”

“Smith won’t let me. I don’t know why.”

“Why do you need his permission?”

“Because he’s my manager.”

“You did not need his permission to let us stay.”

“And I’m sure I’m going to regret that just as soon as he finds out.”

“Never. You should never regret that. Please, Janet. You can help us. Help open the portals so we can leave. You have already done so much for us, but it could all come to naught.”

Janet ground her teeth together. “I would if I could. But I don’t know what to do. I don’t really have control over the portals. I’m so new.” She sighed. “If I could actually connect to the portals.”

“Surely you do, though.”

“If I did, they wouldn’t be closed.”

“But it has been many weeks, and you have acted as an anchor through all of that. You let us in. That makes you a guardian of that portal, at least.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You acted as a guard of the portal, as one of the hotel. We made an exchange with you in order to stay here.”

Janet frowned. “You taught me to block out thoughts.”

“In exchange for letting us stay as long as we needed to.”

“And you think that means I now have a connection to the hotel?”

“To the portals, yes. Even if it is a weak one.”

Janet considered. “I did get a headache when the portals closed. Maybe. That could have been a coincidence.” Regardless of whether she could, she knew she had to try. This was her mess, after all. “I’ll try and get you out of here. But I don’t have the first idea of how to go about it.”

“Surely you know where the portals are.”

“Kind of?” They weren’t on the map Hela had given her. Felicia had pointed them out, but those had been ‘absolute positions,’ which were apparently different from their position relating to other rooms. Anyway, things were bound to be all mixed up now. She could see the tangle of threads that led out of the corridor.

She could see the way the threads … “Paxton, you said there were threads that led you from room to room, right? Are they, sort of silver, and almost not there, wavering type string .. things?”

“They can appear that way. You can see them?”

“I think so.” She focused on the floor. Yes, they were definitely there, more visible than ever.

Robin frowned. ”They do not lead you to the portals though.”

“Could they lead me? I mean, I’m supposed to have a connection to them, right?” Janet looked up at Robin and Paxton — who had disappeared.

“Miss Ling? Why are you still here?”

Janet turned. “Sorry, Mr. Smith, I was just looking for a way to be useful.”

“Your shift is over, is it not?”

“Yes, but I thought, considering what happened, maybe —”

“We do not need your help.”

“Look, I know I messed up when I first started. I know I haven’t exactly been your idea of the best anchor, or even the best employee. But I’ve been trying, I really have. Can’t you give me a chance? Or at least explain why you don’t want my help?”

“It is past time you left, Miss Ling.” His voice was like stone. 

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” said Janet, raising her voice a little in case Robin and Paxton were still around. “Back tomorrow and ready to help. Goodnight, sir.”

She walked down the corridor to the lobby, feeling Smith’s eyes on her back all the way.

Thanks for reading! Part 9 is here.