“What?” he said. “I only just lay down!”
“We’ve brought you a sleeping waker,” said Feorin. “A waking sleeper,” corrected Milka. “We need a receipt.”
The man rubbed his eyes and looked at Leaf.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Harrison. I expect they’ve stuffed up again. You’re a Piper’s child, aren’t you?”
“No ...” said Leaf. She tried to act puzzled and disoriented, which wasn’t hard. “I was in the hospital ....” Harrison got out of the bed with a frown.
“But She never takes anyone under fifty!”
“We need a receipt!” interrupted Milka. “And quickly. We’ve got better things to do.”
“Like drink tea,” said Feorin.
“All right, all right!” Harrison shook his head several times, blinked, and wiped his eyes, then went over to the desk and quickly wrote something on a piece of paper, using a ballpoint pen. Milka took it and pursed her lips in distaste.
“Poor penmanship,” she said. “Those pointy things are not proper writing instruments!”
“Will it do as a receipt?” asked Harrison.
“I suppose so,” said Milka. She folded the paper very precisely into a square one-eighth of its original size and put it in her pocket. “Feorin! Come on.”
The two Denizens stalked out, leaving Leaf standing in front of the desk. Harrison rubbed his eyes again and leaned forward, propping his chin on his hands for a moment, with his eyes closed as if he were asleep. Then he shook himself awake again, pushed the chair back, and stood up.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’d better sit down. This is going to be a shock.”
Leaf took the chair.
Harrison paced in front of the desk, scratching his head. Finally he stopped and turned to face Leaf.
“Look, I don’t know how to tell you this. Uh, let’s see ... how can I put it? The two ... ah ... people who brought you here. Well, they’re not human. They’re like kind of aliens, called Denizens, and normally they live in a place ... a world I guess ... called the House. Only this isn’t there, it’s another planet somewhere in maybe the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, I think, or maybe ... oh ... I’m too tired to even think, let alone explain. Anyway, most of the real people here are asleep and they’ll stay asleep until ... but there are a few normal humans like me who are awake ... but we’re prisoners too .... Ah, I bet none of this is making sense ....”
“You say you’re a prisoner here?” asked Leaf. She wanted to be sure he wasn’t a willing servant of Lady Friday.
“Yeah,” said Harrison. “I was dumb enough to take a job in ‘Dr. Friday’s’ hospital back on Earth. Next thing I know ... here I am, and here I’ve stayed. What year is it back home?”
Leaf told him. Harrison asked her again and she repeated it. He stood completely still the second time, the muscles working in his throat as if he were holding back a sob.
“Then I’ve been here for fourteen years .... I thought it was longer. Weird stuff happens when you go through the House between Earth and here.”
“We got here via this House place?” asked Leaf.
“According to Axilrad,” said Harrison. “One of the Denizens. She talks to me sometimes. Ah, what does it matter .... I’m stuck here, you’re stuck here, we’re better off than the sleepers ....”
“What happens to the sleepers?” Leaf felt her whole body tense up with that question, because she really meant “What’s going to happen to my aunt?”
“You don’t want to know,” muttered Harrison. He kept pacing. “Really, you don’t. You’re bound to be in shock already; I don’t want to make it worse.”
“I do want to know,” said Leaf. She took a deep breath, preparing herself for whatever she might be about to hear. “And I already know about the House and the Denizens and Lady Friday being a Trustee of the Will and all.”
Harrison stopped pacing and stared at her.
“How? I mean, you are a human?”
“Yes,” said Leaf. “But I’ve been in the House before. I’m a friend of Arthur, the Rightful Heir to the Architect.”
“You mean Arthur’s real?” Harrison sat down on the edge of the desk and looked directly at Leaf for the first time, his eyes suddenly lively, the weariness gone. “The Denizens talk about him sometimes. Axilrad said he doesn’t exist, that there are always rumors about a Rightful Heir ... but if he can defeat Lady Friday ... maybe ... there is a chance I can get home after all ....”
“He’s real enough,” said Leaf. “He’s already beaten Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, and Drowned Wednesday ... and probably Sir Thursday too, only I don’t know for sure. Now, tell me ... what happens to the sleepers?”
Harrison looked away again and clicked his fingernails in agitation.
“She only used to bring across a dozen or so a month,”
he said. “I don’t know why there’s been this sudden influx. Thousands of them, and I have to turn them in their beds every twelve hours, until they ... until it’s time ...”
His voice trailed off.
“Until it’s time for what?” demanded Leaf.
“They go to Lady Friday,” said Harrison. “Then—”
Whatever he was going to say next was interrupted by a sudden electronic squawk, followed by a crackle from the wooden box on Harrison’s desk that Leaf had taken for a large paperweight or something, but was in fact an intercom.
“Harrison! I hear you’ve got new help. Get over to the Yellow Preparation Room now and set up a dozen for the boss.”
“Axilrad,” Harrison explained to Leaf. “The Denizen I work for. She’s not so bad, compared to most of the others. Come on!”
“But what happens to the sleepers?” Leaf asked as Harrison hustled her to the door.
“You’ll see,” said Harrison. Despite his comment about Axilrad being not too bad, he seemed extremely fearful of keeping her waiting. “Follow me.”
Harrison walked so fast he almost broke into a jog. Leaf kept up with him as best she could, though her legs were still not fully working and it took her much more effort than usual just to maintain a fast walk.
A hundred yards or so along the corridor, they passed a large rectangular window of clear glass set into the inner wall. Through it, Leaf could see a large circular lake a few hundred feet below, and for the first time she got a clear sense that all the corridors and rooms she’d been in were definitely in the crater wall of something like an extinct volcano.
Looking out the window and up, Leaf at first only saw the strange, purple sky. Then she noticed a delicate tracery of pale gold, in a crazed pattern arching up from the far rim of the crater. It appeared to be an ultra-thin wire or metal framework, but it took Leaf several more seconds to work out that there was glass or something like glass between the metal wires, and that together they made up a domed cap that sat over the whole crater—a dome that was at least a mile in diameter and three or four hundred yards high.
“Hurry up!” called Harrison. He’d gotten a long way in front while Leaf was gawking out the window. The girl stopped sightseeing and ran after him. But when she’d caught up, she slowed again. The lake in the middle of the crater had reminded her of something. It was a large body of water, easily big enough to sail a small craft on.
Water ... lake ... sea ... boat ... ship ... Mariner, thought Leaf.
She let Harrison get ahead again. She didn’t stop; she just slowed her pace so that he disappeared around the curve in front of her. Then she pulled out the Mariner’s medallion on its rather sad twined necklace of dental floss and raised it near her mouth.
“Please help me,” she whispered to the small whalebone disc. “It’s Leaf here, Arthur’s friend. He gave me the medallion. Please help me. I’m a prisoner of Lady Friday’s, somewhere in the Secondary Realms. Please help. Or tell Arthur. Or Suzy Turquoise Blue. Please help.”
She managed to repeat this almost-mantra several times before Harrison came into sight again, waiting outside a door marked 5. He frowned at Leaf, waited till she was only a few feet away, then knocked. He didn’t wait for a reply, but opened it straight away and went in. Leaf followed more cautiously, worried about what she was going to see.
The Yellow Preparation Room was indeed yellow, hav—
ing daisy-colored walls and a brighter, egg-yolk-colored ceiling. A large, rectangular chamber about the same size as Leaf’s school gymnasium, it contained thirty of the same basic beds as had occupied Friday’s hospital back on Earth, and all the beds were occupied by sleepers. Leaf quickly looked at the closest, to see if she recognized anyone, particularly Aunt Mango. But no one looked familiar. They were all quite old.
A Denizen stood in the middle of the room, behind a wooden table that was loaded with numerous bottles of different sizes and shapes, each containing a mysterious-looking fluid. A female Denizen, wearing an old-fashioned Florence Nightingale getup, complete with a starched white hat that made her even taller. While she was very attractive and at least six feet tall without the hat, she was not awe-inspiringly beautiful, or much taller than normal, so Leaf figured her to be only a mid-ranking servant of Lady Friday. She was intent on pouring a rich blue fluid from a bottle with a very long neck into a measuring cup, and didn’t immediately look up as Harrison and Leaf came in.
“Urn, excuse me, Axilrad, we’re here,” said Harrison, ducking his head in a little nervous bow.
Axilrad tipped the measuring cup into another bottle, then looked up and saw Leaf. Her frown of concentration immediately deepened. She put the bottle and measuring cup on the table and strode over to the girl.
“You’re no sleeper! You’re much too young! What are you?”
“I’m Leaf. I was asleep and I woke up—”
Axilrad reached out and gripped Leaf’s chin, turning her face up to the gas flare in the ceiling.
“You’re a Piper’s child, aren’t you? Who sent you? What is your purpose?”
“I was in the hospital and Dr. Friday came and then I must have gone to sleep again—”
Axilrad let go, and Leaf felt her neck twinge as her head dropped back to its normal position.
“This is odd,” said the Denizen. She didn’t look at Leaf, but spoke as if to herself. “She never takes anyone so young. There must be a reason. I shall have to go find out. I do not like a surprise of this sort.”
“What’s a Piper’s—” Leaf started to ask, though the question didn’t sound all that convincing, even to herself. Axilrad ignored her, instead striding to the door, barking out a command as she left.
“Harrison, prepare a dozen sleepers. The cordial is made up, in the checkered bottle. They are to go to the crater as soon as they’re ready. I will be back soon, but do not wait for me. Get the girl to assist you. She is not to go out of your sight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Harrison. He bowed to the closed door. Leaf watched him with a sinking feeling. The man behaved like a slave and he wasn’t likely to be much help for anything.
“Look at each sleeper,” instructed Harrison. “They need to be lying on their backs. If they’re not faceup, turn them so they are.”
“Why?” asked Leaf. She walked over to the door and tried the handle, but it was locked.
“Just do it!” squeaked Harrison. He hurried to the table and picked up a silver spoon with a very long handle and a bottle with a checkered pattern in the glass. It was full of a sludgy fluid the color of dead grass.
“I’m not doing anything unless you tell me why,” said Leaf. There was one other door, down the far end. She started to walk towards it.
“She’ll punish both of us if they’re not ready,” said Harrison. He moved to the closest sleeper—a woman—and poured a measure of the brown-green fluid into the spoon, which he then expertly slipped into the woman’s mouth. She swallowed and then immediately shivered and sat up, without opening her eyes.
Harrison quickly poured the mixture into two more sleepers, then had to set the bottle and spoon down to turn over the third, who was sleeping on his side. As he poured another spoonful, he spoke.
“The mixture raises them from a very deep, coma-like sleep to a higher level, where they can be given commands and move. When they’re ready, I will order them to walk out that door, which leads to the crater.”
“This door?” asked Leaf, who had been about to open it.
“Yes,” said Harrison. “You can’t escape, you know. There’s nowhere to go. Even if you could leave the mountain, the plants would get you. You have no idea how horrible—”
“Yes I do,” said Leaf. “How often do those seedpods get in?”
“Give me a hand and I’ll try to answer your questions,” grunted Harrison. He was turning another sleeper, a very large and heavy man.
Leaf looked at him, then at the sleepers, and shook her head.
“I’m not helping you help Lady Friday kill these people,” she said. “Or whatever it is she does.”
“That’s what you say now,” said Harrison. “I tried that too, when I first came here. But if you want to eat and drink and have somewhere safe to sleep, you’ll soon change your tune.”
Leaf didn’t answer. She’d forgotten they weren’t in the House and so would actually need sustenance. In fact, just the mention of eating and drinking made her feel suddenly thirsty. But it wasn’t enough to get her to help out Harrison. She’d have to be a lot thirstier to help someone prepare a whole bunch of innocent people to get killed ... or worse.