CHAPTER 24: THE LADY IN THE LOBBY
Marie opened her eyes and took a long look at herself in the mirror.
She took her comb and slowly pulled it through her hair. Slowly, because it had become so thick and curly that one wrong move could result in a painful tangle, or even worse, the comb drowning in her hair, never to be found again.
No greys, she noted. That was good.
She checked her face for wrinkles. Under the eyes, through the forehead. Nothing
She certainly didn’t look any older. She still couldn’t believe that she was thirteen. Back in St Anne she had known thirteen year old mothers. She still felt so young.
She opened the dresser and took out a small silver pendent that Mariana had given her the night before when they had celebrated her birthday. It was beautiful, tiny and intricately engraved with the words “Be forever free.” The face had a tiny engraved picture of a tower. She held it in her hand, while in the other she held the bone comb. The comb was yellowing and crudely carved, it’s design rapidly fading. Two very different gifts, from such different worlds.
“Marie?” Mariana’s voice came from downstairs.
“Coming.” she called, putting the pendant around her neck, and the comb in the pocket of her jeans.
“I said “no” Mariana.”
Mariana rubbed the bridge of her nose wearily. It had been a long time since Isabella had called her “Madame”. She had finally agreed to be treated as a family member and not a servants, which Mariana was very glad to see. The downside was that, where Isabella could once have been ordered, she now had to be persuaded.
“Isabella, you’re being very difficult, I was up all night making these for you.”
“And they’re very nice. And I am very grateful to Mariana. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are a pair of trousers. If you wanted me to wear them you should have made me a dress.”
“Isabella, where we’re going, girls don’t wear dresses, they wear trousers.”
“Then they’re stupid girls. I’m not wearing these. I will look like an ugly boy.”
“So what’s the difference?” Virgil asked brightly “Instead of looking like an ugly girl she looks like an ugly boy…”
“Virgil…” said Mariana sternly.
“I’m just saying I fail to see the problem.”
“Virgil.” said Isabella “Look at me, are you watching?”
She took the trousers from Mariana and began to throw them lightly into the air, catching them as they came down.
“Wow, look at that, I can throw them up and catch them and everything.”
“You see!” said Virgil hotly “This is why we shouldn’t have Kathy around here, she is a bad influence on these girls!”
“Look! Look! I can throw it even higher! Are you looking Virgil?”
“Are we ready to go?” Marie asked as she came through the door.
Isabella took a minute to take in the image of Marie wearing a pink T-shirt and black jeans. Then she lost control.
“Yes, I’m wearing trousers. Ha, ha, ha. Grow up.”
“Oh I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s just…” the rest of the sentence was lost as she struggled mightily to keep her sides from splitting.
“Do we really have to take her with us?” Marie asked Mariana.
“Yes we do.” said Mariana “Now come on, Isabella, get changed.”
“Oh no, there is no way in Hell I am wearing those!” Isabella snorted.
“Isabella. If you don’t you will be the only one there wearing those clothes. And you know how funny Marie looks to you now? That’s how funny you will look to everyone else. So I suggest you put these on now and stop wasting time.”
“Fine.” said Isabella sulkily, and she took the trousers and left the room.
Mariana and Marie looked up at the sound of something crashing to the ground, followed by a loud curse.
“How do you put these damn things on, Marie?”
“One leg at a time, Isabella.”
“Ah. Yes, that makes sense.”
Monsieur Charles Gautier knew a thing or two about hotels. Hotels, as Monsieur Gautier could tell you, attracted the unusual. There was something about them, the fact that they were often between two points on a journey perhaps, or the way that being far from home caused people to act differently. He knew hotels were more often haunted than almost any other kind of building, and that they bore witness to more than their share of murders and suicides. But then, there was a positive side as well. People were far more likely to fall in love at first sight in a hotel, or to receive some wonderful piece of good news. So many telegrams had arrived in hotels announcing the births of grandchildren, or desperate professions of love. It even happened once that a man staying in the hotel had heard that the brother he had thought dead had been found alive and well. Monsieur Gautier had delivered the good news himself and the memory still made him smile.
“Thank you, thank you so much!”
“Do not thank me Monsieur, thank the Hotel. I believe she likes you and has brought you this good news.” The man had been too happy to even notice what he had said but Monsieur Gautier truly believed this. He had believed it ever since he had first come to work in the Hotel Baur Au Lac as a boy of seventeen, fetching bags for the wealthy travellers who crisscrossed a Europe still smouldering from the great war. He had believed ever since she had walked through the lobby door.
Gautier looked up from the guestbook to see the young German couple from Room 229 hand in their keys and thank him for a wonderful stay. He smiled graciously and bade them farewell in perfect German, and watched them leave arm in arm. Taking his fountain pen he marked the departure in the guestbook that he had adamantly refused time and time again to replace with a computer. It would, he felt, rip the very soul from the lobby to have such an ugly thing at the reception desk. When he passed on, he mused, they would most likely have one installed. But Gautier had no intention of going just yet. He glanced up at the clock hanging over the fireplace. Ten to three. You are becoming impatient in your old age, Charles, he chided himself
He still remembered it down to the smallest detail. He had had a cold, and his nose had been running profusely. The bellhop uniforms in those days had had no pockets to preserve the lines, and so, without anywhere to keep a tissue, poor Charles had been reduced to surreptitiously wiping his nose on his sleeve and hoping that none of the guests filed a complaint. He must have cut a pretty pathetic figure, all in all. Seventeen, scrawny as a rake, pale and sick looking with his nose and mouth as wet as a dog’s nose. Then she entered.
She walked in calmly, and seemed to ignite the very atmosphere. There was something about her that caused his senses to up their game. He felt that he was hearing things from across the room that he hadn’t been able to hear before, tasting subtle aromas in the air.
“Welcome to the Hotel…”
“My God, my dear boy. You look fit to drop.”
He could hear her voice in his bones. It was so deep.
“Forgive me Madame…”
She smiled and shook her head.
“Here, take this.” she pressed a beautiful lace handkerchief into his hand.
“Madame I couldn’t possibly!”
“Shush. It’s a gift. One mustn’t refuse gifts, it is frightfully rude.”
She was a full foot taller than him. Her age seemed to jump around, one minute she seemed very old, the next not much older than forty. Her eyes said she was one age, her body another. She was very confusing, almost dizzying.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Charles.” he whispered numbly.
“I like you Charles.” she said. “I am unsure why, but I am quite certain that I do. And I shall remember you always.”
“Where is the conference hall?” she asked.
“Oh, please let me show you, may I fetch your bags?”
“I have none. I’m not staying the night.”
The sharp pang of disappointment at those words must have been clear on his face, as she smiled apologetically.
“But I may see you again, Herr?”
“Gautier, Madame. Charles.”
“Charles.” she acknowledged “I look forward to it.”
He silently nodded and she passed through the lobby like a high priestess through a temple, and then was gone.
Later that night, he had asked Ignatious the valet if he knew anything about the mysterious woman. Ignatious had left Spain at the end of the Civil War and had made his way to Switzerland, (romancing every woman he met on the way to hear him tell it). He had laughed when Charles had asked him.
“Ah yes, the old silver girl. Little old for you, isn’t she Charlie?”
“Do you know her name?”
“Nah. She wasn’t a guest, just here for the big conference. I have to say, you’re not wrong. If she was a little younger then your friend Ignatious would be…”
“Do you know what the conference was for?” Charles cut him off quickly.
“Nah. All I know is that load of bull old Hans tried to get me to swallow.”
Hans was the cook, older than anyone else in the hotel. Stooped and grey haired with a nose and face like a toadstool growing on an oaktree.
“Yes my friend, according to him you’ve fallen for a ghost.”
“Well. This is what he said” and Ignatious adopted Hans’ gravelly Swiss-German accent “They show up every ten years. Hundreds of them. They book the conference hall, they come, they meet behind closed doors. Some of them come through the front door, most of them just seem to appear in the hall. I don’t know how they get in. Down the chimney maybe. People of every shape and colour, dressed in the most outrageous clothes you’ve ever seen. They pay their bill and then they’re gone for another ten years. And do you want to know the really strange thing? I’ve seen them come four times now, and they always look exactly the same. Not one of them has aged a day!”
Gautier paused mid-thought. Hans. He hadn’t thought about old Hans in years. He had died a few years after Gautier had first come to work in the hotel. He could still remember him so clearly. It struck Gautier as strange that it was the old memories that remained crystal clear, and the new ones that he found were fading more and more as he got older. Hans. Old and ugly as a mule, with a voice that could curdle cream. And yet, he could cook like a god. Give him some tomatoes to slice and the arthritis in his old fingers would melt away and they would become as agile and nimble as a child’s. Then with a jolt he realised that he, Gautier, was already ten years older than Hans had been when he’d died. There was a thought. He was older than Hans. It boggled the mind. He glanced up at the clock. Five to three. Five more minutes. You can live for five more minutes, can’t you Charles?
The clock over the fireplace chimed three and Charles Gautier, twenty seven, paid it no mind.
He looked over to the door, where Kalus, the new bellboy, was uncomfortably fidgeting from foot to foot. “Klaus!” he called across the lobby.
The boy snapped to attention at the desk clerk’s bark.
Charles sighed. Had he ever been that awkward looking? As a former bellboy himself he tried to be fair with them, but this one was really testing his patience.
“Stop hopping Klaus!”
“Yes mein Herr!”
“You must think of yourself as a guard on duty! Do the guards outside Buckingham Palace hop around?”
“I don’t know mein Herr.”
“They don’t Klaus.”
“No, mein Herr.”
“I don’t want to have to tell you again, Klaus.”
“I don’t want to be told, mein Herr.”
“Good. I mean…”
Charles tried to work out if the bellboy was being insubordinate or overly accommodating and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
“Yes mein Herr?”
“Would you by any chance need to use the bathroom?”
A look of exultant hope broke over Klaus’ face, tempered with the terrible fear that this might be a trap.
“Well…” said Klaus.
Charles looked around. The bellboys were only supposed to relieve themselves during breaks, which came once every two hours. He had always hated that rule himself. And after all, what was the point of a promotion if you couldn’t exercise some authority?
“Go on then.” he said, gesturing to the bathroom “But make it quick, hear?”
Klaus nodded rapidly in gratitude and fidgeted off to gents as quickly as he could.
Poor kid, Charles thought. Much longer and he might have sprung a leak.
The door opened. It had been eight years since he had last stood at the door but the old instincts kicked in as if it was yesterday. Without realised he had already turned, bowed and announced:
“Wilkommen zum Hotel Baur Au Lac…” he trailed off.
“Dear me. I did think you would have moved a little up the ladder since I saw you last.”
Charles had had ten years to remember that voice. It was like, he thought, hearing a truly wonderful piece of music. It had the same way of making everything feel totally real, and once it was gone you just went back to sleep.
“Hello Charles.” she said.
God above. It was true. She hadn’t aged a day. It was ten years later and she had not aged a single day.
“Hello Madame.” he whispered “Welcome back to the Hotel Baur Au Lac.”
“Thank you.” she said “It’s changed a lot.”
“Yes. We’ve had the lobby redone.”
“Hm. I’m not sure I like it.”
“It took a while to get used to.”
“You’re looking well.”
“And you’ve loosened up.”
“You’re more at ease. That’s a good sign. Believe me when I say that for people who become more uptight the older they get there is very little hope.”
He felt an urge to ask her how old she was. He stopped himself for two reasons: One, it would be extremely rude. Two, he had a feeling he would be absolutely terrified if she answered.
Klaus sidled back from the bathroom.
“Thank you, mein Herr.” he said, trying to take his old place.
“Go away Klaus.” said Charles “You’re on your break.”
“No I’m…yes, mein Herr.” said Klaus as Charles shot him a look, and sidled off again.
She was stifling laughter.
“My. Aren’t you territorial?”
“I don’t trust him.”
“Don’t trust him? My, my Charles. Don’t trust him to do what? To run away with me?”
“I don’t trust him to give you the service you deserve. Madame.” he replied shyly.
“And do you know what I deserve? Charles?” she asked.
“I…” but his courage failed him, and he lowered his gaze.
“Well.” she said a little sadly “I had better be going. Is the conference hall still in the same place or has it been “redone” to a different part of the hotel?”
“It’s right where you left it.”
“Thank Charles. It was good to see you again.”
And she turned and began to cross the lobby.
No, no, come on Charles. You’ve rehearsed this moment a thousand times, don’t let it happen this way again.
“Your name!” he called out.
She froze. He didn’t blame her. Half the patrons in the lobby were staring at him.
She didn’t turn around.
“I only give my name to friends Charles. And I choose my friends very, very carefully.” she said, still facing away from him.
“Are we not friends then?” he asked.
She said nothing for a few seconds.
“If you are still here the next time I visit.” she said “I will tell you my name.”
And with that she was gone.
Gautier looked at his hand where the key to Room 229 still lay in his wrinkled palm. He smiled to himself. The young couple had seemed very much in love, which was why he had given them room 229. It was only let out to certain guests, those whom Gautier could tell truly meant something to each other. He looked up to see Klaus, balding and fat, waddling amiably past the reception desk, on his way to unlock the door to the bar.
“Klaus?” said Gautier.
“Yes Charles?” Klaus replied, the days of “Mein Herr.” long gone.
“The Mariana suite’s free, get someone up to clean up 229 will you?”
Klaus nodded and continued on his way.
The Mariana suite. He wondered how she would have felt about him naming a room in the hotel after her. Would she be flattered, or offended at the use he had put to the name it had taken him thirty years to learn?
He felt the change in the air, and raised his ancient head to the lobby entrance.
She stood there, and she had not changed a day. And his heart felt young, and his blood felt like fizzing lemonade in his veins. But he had been doing this too long to be overawed any more.
“Madame Mariana, good to see you again. Welcome back to Zurich.”
Mariana smiled warmly at him, and so it was understandable that it took him a few seconds to notice the two small figures peeping out from behind her dress and gawping at the lobby like a pair of goldfish who’d suddenly found themselves on the kitchen floor.
“Thank you Charles. It’s good to be back. ” said Mariana.
“And these are?”
“Ah…these are my granddaughters, Isabella and Marie.”
Granddaughters? That was a shock.
“Hello to you both.” said Charles kindly “Are you all right? You’re both looking a little pale.”
“Oh they’re fine, they’re just a little overawed.”
“Ah. Do you like the Hotel girls?”
“It’s very…shiny.” said Isabella.
“They’re a little jet-lagged.” Mariana explained “Have the others arrived yet?”
“They are already waiting in the conference room. One of these days you will tell me what it is you do in there.”
“No, Charles.” said Mariana “I’m afraid I won’t.”
“Ah, some great secret yes? Maybe you keep the fountain of youth hidden in that room?”
“Don’t be absurd.” said Mariana “We simply go to bed at a reasonable hour every night and get plenty of exercise.”
Charles did not share the joke.
“You are never going to tell me, are you?”
“I never say never, Charles.”
“Never. How about this: This may be the last meeting we hold here. If it’s not, I promise I will tell you everything you want to know about me on my next visit.”
Charles smiled sadly “You joke, Madame.”
“No.” said Mariana surprised “I will.”
“Mariana.” he said quietly “How old was I when we first met?”
“I was seventeen. And that was 1919. You have been gracing us with your presence once every ten years. And it is now 1989.”
“So you’re saying…”
“Yes. Madame. It means, unfortunately, that this will most likely be the last time we meet. So if you’re going to tell me, now would be the time.”
“No.” said Mariana.
Charles had to admit that he hadn’t expected that. He had practised the speech, and had felt sure it would do the trick.
“No.” said Mariana again “And I’ll tell you why. Because almost everyone who I have ever cared for has died on me, Charles. And you are not going to be one of them. I forbid it. I absolutely forbid it. So when I walk through this door in ten years time you are going to be here. I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair. But you will be here. And then I will tell you everything. And let that be your incentive. Understood?”
“Yes Madam.” said Charles with a smile, amused that he had just been ordered not to die.
“Good. And we’ll have no more talk of dying. Now, room where I left it?”
“Just the way you like it, Madam, second on the left.”
“Thank you Charles.”
And she walked out, her two granddaughters skittering nervously behind her on the polished floor like ducklings following their mother.
She stopped to look at them when they were in the corridor.
“What?” she asked.
“What?” Marie replied.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Mariana asked.
“You’re smiling.” said Isabella.
“And? I often smile.”
Isabella and Marie shook their heads.
“I do so.”
“You never smile. Not ever.”
“She was making jokes.” said Isabella, nudging Marie “Did you see her? She was making them. He was saying things and she was making jokes about the things he said. Like a person.”
“I make..” Mariana began, and stopped.
“What do you think it means?” she asked the girls.
“I dunno.” said Isabella “Are you going crazy again?”
“No…” Mariana mused, a little uncertainly.
“Maybe you’re happy?” Marie asked.
No one said anything for a few seconds.
“So. Just how far ahead in time have we come?” Isabella asked.
“We left France in 1434 and unless I missed then we should be in Switzerland in 1989, the 136th session of the council and that means we’ve travelled…”
Her brow furrowed.
“554 years. And since it took us around eight seconds to get here we were travelling how fast?”
“Ummm…69.25 years per second.” said Marie proudly.
“Very good.” said Mariana, beaming.
“Now she’s beaming.” said Isabella “Look at her.”
“Mariana, are you going crazy?” Marie asked, her voice full of concern.
“No.” said Mariana sternly “Stop asking.”
“Would you know if you were?” Isabella asked.
“Because I was, and I did.”
“What was it like?”
“It’s like being sane without seatbelts.”
“Why doesn’t Virgil have to come to this thing?” Marie asked “Isn’t he a Temporal too?”
“Was.” said Mariana “He doesn’t attend. It’s less awkward for everyone.”
“Did you go to these things when you were crazy?” Marie asked innocently,
“Once.” said Mariana
“Was that awkward?”
“What did you do?” Isabella asked.
“Mention it one more time and I’ll drag both of you halfway to the Triassic period and leave you there.” she said darkly.
There was silence.
“I don’t know what that is.” said Isabella quietly.
Marie had not known what to expect when they stepped through the door to the conference room. Maybe a circle of hooded figures gathered around arcane symbols on a cobbled stone floor with torches casting ominous shadows on the grey walls. She was not expecting thirty or forty people of all ages and races clamouring for the buffet. Isabella was the first to notice something.
“Most of these people are wearing their own clothes.”
“Well, most of them just appeared here in this room.”
As if to reinforce the point, a gentleman in Regency garb materialised in front of the shrimp and was instantly breated by the other Temporals for cutting the queue.
“We came through the lobby.” Mariana reminded her.
“So we could just have appeared here and I wouldn’t have to be wearing trousers?”
“Well yes. But I wanted to see Charles again.” said Mariana.
Marie was not listening. On the wall, over a grand table, someone had hung a crest, a silver embossed tower on a varnished base. She reached for the pendant around her neck that Mariana had giver her for her birthday. The tower was too small to make out much detail, but she was fairly sure the design was the same as the one over the table.
“All these people are Temporals?” Marie asked.
“All of them.” Mariana nodded “We meet here once every ten years to talk, swop stories, catch up.”
“I thought there’d be more.” said Marie.
“There are.” said Mariana “Some have died. Some haven’t been found yet. Some choose not to come. We call ourselves the Council of the Temporal Adepts.”
“And are you their queen or something?” Isabella asked.
She had a point, Marie thought. All the other Temporals seemed to be treating Mariana with a great deal of reverence, bowing as they passed her and avoiding her gaze when she was looking at them, and staring at her when she wasn’t.
“I am something of a senior figure, perhaps.” Mariana admitted.
“How senior?” Marie asked.
Mariana gazed at her.
“It’s rude to ask someone their age.” she said.
“That’s not what I’m asking.” Marie replied.
“You want to know where I came from?”
“Do you see the tower there?” Mariana asked.
She turned to the crest over the table.
“Yes.” said Marie and Isabella in chorus.
“Well. I saw it being built.” said Mariana.
“Mariana, girls, you’re here!” came a voice.
“Hello Kathy.” said Mariana and she pecked her on the cheek.
“Milo won’t be here for another hour or so, we‘ll start then.” she said.
“He can travel through time and he still manages to be late, how does he do that?”
“Don’t get me started. Hey girls, how’s tricks?”
“At home.” said Marie, knowing instantly that she meant Virgil.
“Sweet. Girls, I do believe that there are some boys your age running amok somewhere around here. Daniel?”
There was a blur, and a boy of around eleven was standing beside them. He was tanned, and his hair was a light brown going on blonde. He had a grin that would have made any secondary school teacher very nervous.
“Yup?” he asked.
“Daniel.” said Kathy “This is Isabella and Marie, will you look after them and make sure nothing happens to them between now and when the meeting starts?”
“I’ll try.” said Daniel “I promise nothing.”
“Good boy.” said Kathy.
“We’re out the back playing football.” said Daniel “Do you want to play?”
“Yes.” said Marie “What’s football?”
“Okay.” said Daniel “You can be on Al’s team.”
The football pitch that the Adept children had made for themselves was in the grounds of the Hotel Baur Au Lac, sheltered by a small wood so that the other guests would not be disturbed by the sight of children moving at half the speed of sound. Daniel introduced Isabella and Marie to the other children: Al from 22nd century England, Maket from the second Egyptian dynasty, Hajji from 18th century Greece, Baako from colonial Uganda and Louisa from 15th century Milan.
“How do you play?” Marie asked.
“It’s easy.” said Daniel “Those jumpers over there, those are our goals, and those ones over there are yours. You have to stop us kicking the ball through your goals and kick it through ours. Every time you do, that’s one goal for your side. And the team that gets the most goals wins. See?”
“Sounds simple enough.” Isabella said.
“Good, you play in goals.” said Daniel.
Alright, thought Isabella, as she stood between the two soggy jumpers, this shouldn’t be too hard. Most of the kids here are younger than I am. All I have to do is stop the ball. How tough can it be?
She watched as Daniel suddenly blurred and something white that might or might not have been the ball rocketed towards the opposite goal like a cannonball.
Oh no, thought Isabella.
They’re all Adepts.
And they don’t know that I’m not one.
Hajji, in goal, had leapt into the air, had caught the ball and thrown it out onto the pitch before his feet had touched the ground again. Maket leapt like a jaguar, a good twelve feet into the air, caught the ball on her chest and scissor kicked it to Al who sped down the field and then passed it to a future version of himself who had just appeared and was flying down the opposite wing. Just missing a ferocious tackle from Daniel, Al jerked sidewise left, right, left again and then blasted the ball full force into the goal.
Isabella caught the impact right in the chest.
She made a noise like air escaping the balloon and keeled over.
When the black lifted, the other children had formed a concerned circle around her head.
“Told you she’s not dead.” said Maket.
“I said she looked dead.” said Hajji defensively.
“Bella? You alright?” said Marie.
“Why didn’t you slow the ball down?” Al asked, a little angrily. People might think that this was his fault.
“Because I can’t, you stupid….” she winced. Her ribs really hurt.
“She’s not a Temporal.” said Marie quietly, and whatever way she intended it, it sounded to Isabella like she was embarrassed of the fact.
“Oh.” said Daniel “Sorry. Look, we didn’t know..”
“Help me up.” said Isabella and when she had gotten to her feet she began to limp back towards the hotel.
“Are you alright?” Daniel called after her.
“Fine…” was the reply. Her chest was on fire, her eyes ran with hot tears.
“Look, we can play normally if you…”
“No. Just play on.”
And they turned away and went back to their game.
She had been crying behind the groundskeeper’s shed for a good ten minutes now, and trying not to, as every sob hurt her ribs like a poker stabbed in her chest.
“It’s not a nice feeling, is it?”
She looked up and through her streaming eyes saw Virgil, transparent and silky in the bright sunlight, like a gossamer thin scrap of satin.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
He simply raised a finger to his lips.
“Does Mariana know you’re here?”
He laughed “That’s actually a very complicated question. Are you hurt?”
“Ah, so this is just recreational crying.”
“Virgil. Go away. Now.” she hissed, and the pain in her chest flared.
“Don’t be like that Bella. I didn’t come over here to pick a fight with you. Actually, I understand how you feel.”
“You have no idea.”
“Let me see. You’re a normal, ordinary person. Everyone around you can do these amazing things and you’re left outside looking in though the window. It feels like life is passing you by while everyone else is actually living. And I understand how you feel because you feel bad that you can’t control time. And I feel bad because I can’t take a drink of water. That’s what I mean.”
She sniffed, and didn’t say anything.
“Quick question. Where’s Mariana?”
“Um…” said Isabella “She’s over there.”
They looked out to where Mariana and Kathy were watching the football match from the sidelines.
“Hm.” said Virgil “Funny. Because I could have sworn that was her up there.”
Isabella looked to where he was gesturing. In a window high up at the top of the hotel, a tall figure stood, staring out over the treeline. It was Mariana, no doubt about it.
Isabella, not quite able to believe what she was seeing, looked back at Mariana on the sidelines, actually laughing as Marie scored a goal and ran cheering into her arms. Back again to Mariana, staring through the window with a look of cold disquiet.
“Can she see me?” Isabella whispered. She wasn’t sure why she was whispering, but she was.
“No.” Virgil whispered back. “You can certainly pick a good hiding place.”
“Why are there two of her?”
“Because she came to the meeting, then went back to the castle, got the two of you up and brought you back here for the council meeting.”
“She was already here twice.”
“Because there were two meetings today. And the real one is not the one with the all you can eat buffet. It’s the one up there.”
Virgil glanced up to the window, where the other Mariana had now closed the curtains and turned away.
“And that’s the meeting that Marie really needs to hear.”
“Marie? What has this got to do with Marie?”
“You won’t believe me if I tell you, she won’t believe you if you tell her. She needs to hear this for herself, understand? I can’t go out there or Mariana might see me. Or one of the Nine. So I need you to tell her to go and stand under the chandelier on the seventh floor. Tell her she then needs to shift eight feet up. That will take her under the table. She’ll be able to hear everything. They’ll be starting soon so you’ll have to hurry. And if she won’t come you tell her this…”
And he whispered the words to her.
“Alright. I’ve got to get back before they miss me. And look, love, don’t feel too jealous.” He bent down and looked her straight in the eye. As their eyes met she could make out the outline of a shrubbery through them. Even as she stared straight at him, it felt as though she was talking to herself. She couldn’t sense him.
“If things pan out the way I think they’re going to.” he was saying “Then every Temporal Adept in the universe is going to wish they were like you.”
“What do you…?”
But he was gone, already through the flowerbed, heading towards the hotel.
“Virgil?” she called, and then cursed in pain as her bruised ribs made their feelings on loud shouting known.
The football match had been disbanded in favour of a game of high speed hide and seek/chasing, and Marie and Daniel were now hiding in a tree on the edge of the forest.
“So, where do you come from?” Daniel whispered.
“France. 1434” she told him.
“Wow.” he said “You’re old. You’re an old woman!”
“Shut up!” she said, laughing “How old are you?”
“Hmmm.” he thought “Born in 1993, we’re in 1989 now…I’m minus four years of age.”
“Ahhhhh. You’re a little baby.”
“Silence, you wrinkled crone.”
“Young man, keep that tone and I’ll show you the back of my hand.”
“What does that mean, exactly, I’ve always wondered?”
“This.” she said, and she playfully smacked him across the face with the back of her hand and was quite shocked when he pulled back with a yell.
“Bloody Hell!” he exclaimed “What was that for?!”
“Sorry!” she said “I was just playing, I didn’t hit you that hard!”
“The Hell you didn’t!” he sputtered “Damn near took my face off!”
“Sorry. I’m really sorry.” she said “Here, let me take a look at it.”
He removed his hand and there was indeed a large, angry weal on the tanned face.
“Sorry.” she whispered “I didn’t mean to hit you that hard. I thought it was just a tap.”
Daniel’s face softened, and he chuckled. “It’s okay. God, you’re strong!”
“No I’m not. I’m really not.”
“Yes you are. Felt like getting hit with a bag of cement.”
“Not bad for an old crone.”
“Not bad at all.”
“So where do you come from? 1993 where?”
The blank look said it all.
“They haven’t discovered it yet in your time.”
“What’s it like?”
Daniel made a “so-so” gesture.
“And who do you live with?”
“My parents.” he said amusedly “I’m only eleven, I haven’t moved out yet!”
“And are your parents Temporals too?”
“No, no. They know though. They’re alright with it. Arabelle, she’s my mentor, came and explained the whole situation to them. Every few days or so she comes and gives me lessons. I’m getting pretty good. At space anyway. I could shift through space almost on my first day. Time was a bit trickier but I’m okay now. I can slow down to 0.1 s/s . How about you?”
“Oh. ” said Daniel, sounding a little disappointed “Why? Don’t you live with your parents?”
“Oh God, sorry!” said Daniel, wincing visibly.
“Don’t be sorry, it happened ages ago. I don’t even remember my mother.”
“But, you still miss her, right?” Daniel asked.
“No.” she finally answered “I don’t even think about her.”
Daniel looked shocked, as if he couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
“What about your Dad?” he asked finally.
She reached into her pocket, slowly drawing out the old yellow bone comb. She began to idly run her index finger over the teeth.
“Yes.” she said quietly “I do think of him.”
“Hey lovebirds!” came a harsh whisper.
Marie and Daniel glanced down. Isabella was growling up at them like a dog that had treed a pair of cats.
“Hey, you’re going to give us away!” Daniel hissed.
Isabella didn’t even look at him.
“Marie! I really need to talk to you!” she said.
“Bella, I’m the middle of something here.”
“This is a little more important!” Isabella replied “Virgil really needs…”
“Yes! He wants you to come with me and stand under a chandelier!”
Marie looked at her.
“Did that ball hit your head?” she asked.
“My head is just fine! Now get down here!”
“So I can stand under a chandelier?”
“No! The chadelier is under the table, you have to wait under the table. They’re having a meeting and you have to hear what they’re going to say!”
“I don’t know!”
“Then why should I go?”
“Because Virgil said so!”
“When, back at the castle?”
“No! Here! He’s here, and so is Mariana!”
“I know Mariana’s here!”
“No!” said Isabella, starting to shout “She’s here again!”
“Just get down from the tree!!” Isabella screamed at the top of her lungs.
Isabella turned to see a little boy of around six pointingfinger at her
“Shut up!” Isabella roared.
The boy burst into tears and ran off into the trees.
“Hey, that was my brother!” said Daniel.
“I. Don’t. Care.” said Isabella in a voice that foretold death and great suffering.
“Don’t talk to him like that, he’s my friend!” said Marie angrily.
Isabella thought of a million and one extremely cutting things to reply before biting her tongue and simply saying: “Listen Marie, Virgil said that if you wouldn’t come I had to ask you something.”
“What?” said Marie, still angry.
Isabella sighed and tried to calm herself “He said, “ask her “Who are the Nine Unknown Men?””
Marie said nothing.
Then she leapt down to the ground and looked Isabella in the eye.
“Where?” she said simply.
“Wait!” said Daniel, who meant to leap down after her, saw how high it was, thought better of it and began to clambour down slowly “Where are we going?”
“”We” are going nowhere, Blondie.” said Isabella coldly “Marie and I have business to take care of.”
“I’m going with you.” said Daniel.
“No you’re not.” Isabella informed him.
“Yes I am.” he replied.
“Yes he is.” said Marie.
Isabella looked like she’d been slapped.
“Why?” she asked through gritted teeth.
“Virgil said I have to stand under a chandelier and then shift up until I’m under a table. Did I get that right?”
“Then we need him because I’m terrible at shifting through space and he’s really good. Or at least he says he is. He might just have been trying to impress me.”
Both girls looked pointedly at Daniel who blushed.
“Can’t it be a bit of both?” he asked.
Both girls rolled their eyes.
“Let’s go.” said Marie