Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The realignment halls

My footsteps raise small puffs of dust from the floor, and each puff of dust intensifies the smell of mould. It's gloomy in here, so it's hard to be sure, but I think the puffs of dust are actually greenish, and I'm a little worried that what I think is dust is actually just a thick layer of mould. Nonetheless, I've been told that this is the only way in, so this is the way I go. I pull my sleeve across my mouth and try to breathe shallowly, hoping that it will make a difference.
The room is narrow and long, and by the smoothness of whatever it is on the floor, hasn't been visited recently. This also worries me, as I only know of this place from ancient references. It's looking more and more likely that the realignment halls have been shut down or destroyed long ago, and the space is being reclaimed by Nature in her cthonic garb. I plod on anyway, clutching a tiny spark of hope in my heart. Even if the halls aren't in use any more I might be able to find something useful.
I reach the end of the room and stop, stymied by the wall in front of me. There's no obvious handle or way through, so I reach out, a little gingerly, and run my hand over the wall. It's smooth and dry, and nothing flakes away or bursts into sporeclouds. I relax a little, and use both hands to touch and probe all the wall I can reach. It goes up to the ceiling, about thirteen feet above me, so if the way in is up there I've no chance of finding it. The wall remains obdurately solid.
I shuffle over to the corner of the wall, pulling my sleeve back across my mouth again. Dust rises to the level of my knees, but I encounter nothing on the floor that might be a handle or lever. At the corner I check the wall that adjoins the one I want to pass. It's colder than my wall, but otherwise smooth and dry again; no secret panels, no touch-switches. Not even a neatly-printed white placard with instructions for seekers of enlightenment.
I shuffle across to the opposite wall. The flame of hope in my heart is guttering now. I reach it, again not finding anything on the floor, and reach out. Almost immediately I touch something yielding and fibrous. Spiderweb! I think, and I have to cruch my stomach hard and bend forward to stop myself screaming. I back up a little, staggering in my awkward pose, and make myself take a deep breath. Then another, and another, and then I can stand up again. It's the last thing I want to do, but I reach out again, and check out the spiderweb.
It's a bell-pull, a silken rope tied around a peg in the wall. My relief is so strong that I actually break out in a cold sweat on my forehead and my knees tremble, jellylike. I allow myself a tiny little chuckle at how stupid I've been, and then untie the bell-pull. It drops heavily to the level of my waist and hangs there, immobile in the stillness of the room.
I yank on it, tugging firmly, and almost immediately a line of light shines out of the middle of the wall as a door cracks open, and hangs very slightly ajar. The light is the soft yellow of the glowglobes used everywhere in Tal Mallan, and the flame of hope burns more strongly at last. I approach the door and, hopefully, the realignment halls.

Monday, 14 September 2009


The chick-shaw dropped me off outside the bath-house and skittered off again, claws rattling against the cobbled street. A few seconds later the driver's howl of fear reached me; the street was so steep that I thought I'd been horizontal coming up it at one point so going down again must be far worse. I always walked down the steeper hills in Tal Mallan, and occasionally I wondered why they'd been so perverse as to build on them.
I entered, and in the vestibule was a cedar desk as fragrant now as it had been when it was first cut. It stretched a good twenty feet and was pristinely empty, not even dust dared rest upon it. A young lady sat behind it reading a book, and I noted that there were fourteen columns of characters across the double page. Almost certainly that meant it was written in Haruspic, the language of the Haruspice-eaters. She closed the book before she looked up, and she smiled at me dreamily.
"I'd like a bath, please," I said, and she nodded. Standing up, she moved further along the desk and produced a register which she proffered. A pen was attached to it with a blue silk ribbon, and I signed where she pointed. Two towels then appeared from some hidden container, along with a discreet bill slipped on top of them. I read it; it was written in Elatinate, the common language, and swallowed as discreetly as she'd passed me the bill. I paid anyway, as I had reasons to be here other than the bath. She pointed to a door in the wood-panelled wall, and I departed the desk.
The changing rooms, or deshabillation as the Mallan called them, were simple: some large wardrobes with plenty of hangers, some stacked footlockers with heavy iron keys, and a low bench running the length of the room. I disrobed and hung my clothes up, putting my wallet and the sealed package under my spare towel in a locker. Then I passed through.
The bath room was a large, cedar panelled room with high, broad windows that started thirteen feet above the floor and went up to the ceiling. There were twenty four baths laid out in a rectangular pattern, each sunk mostly into the floor. A lip, raised about six inches all round, stopped the unwary from walking into the baths, but not from tripping over and falling in face first. I imagined, knowing the Mallan temperament, that that would be a cause of much hilarity. Fragrant steam billowed and gusted in the air whenever the door opened or closed, and I could smell meadowsweet, wild violet, gentian and Attic rose wreathing around me. Almost immediately I felt myself relaxing.
I slipped my towel off and stepped into the second bath in the third row. The bath-house had only two other occupants, so getting the bath I'd been told to take was thankfully easy. I'd had no idea what excuses I could have made for waiting for a particular bath to come free. The water was hot enough to make me catch my breath, but I acclimatised quickly, and soon the only evidence was the beading of sweat on my brow. I laid back, relaxed, and waited for my contact.