After Beltran’s visit, some of my restrictions were lifted. I was not allowed to speak to Etude, and I had no idea where in the cavernous dungeons he was being held—the same dungeons where the Eye was discovered some seven centuries before. I was also kept from the high towers, where everything important seemed to happen, but there was a garden in a square left open to the sky, and I was allowed access to it and the library, my one luxury. It was utterly, unspeakably magnificent and so large that one could easily get lost. I was never a scholar like Hank, but being raised in the centuries before television, books have remained my first love. I spent many, many hours between those stacks in the company of ghosts who would sometimes steal one of my treasures when my back was turned—at least, until I learned to be more cautious and to feign interest in books I had no intention of opening again. Their thefts were an attempt, I’m sure, to get me to go innocently searching, to explore the dark archways, caged nooks, and octagonal chambers that abounded at all levels of the library. It wasn’t explicitly a labyrinth, but it was certainly labyrinthine. I was sure that through at least one of those arches—which were especially numerous at the lower levels, full as they were of columns holding the whole of it aloft—I could fall into the shadow realm. The dead are often attracted to the living, to the signs of life, to mirth and breath and joy and pain, which they do not feel, and they will try to take it if they can.
I made acquaintance with one—if one can have a ghost for an acquaintance. The dead are disembodied and not at all rational. Their world is memory, and they speak in dreams. Judging from her dress, which I only caught in glimpses between the shadows, my girl was a servant in the time of Napoleon. She must have spent much of her life scrubbing the floor, for that is what she did compulsively. When she spoke, it was always to herself or to someone else not present—in French. I heard only fragments of stories, and she would often disappear midway through. Sometimes she would glance at me first, suddenly, as if just realizing I was there before blinking away in fright.
But as one week turned to two, and two to three, my continued presence in the library coaxed a certain calm from her, as with a tiger, and she told me stories. She didn’t tell them to me directly, but if I sat and read near the lower arches—which were close enough to the water that I could hear the echo of gentle lapping in the near-total silence—she would often appear after a time, scrubbing the floor—always scrubbing, scrubbing—and start talking to herself, which was of course talking to me. I would put a finger in my book and close it and look away from her, to the floor, and listen to her tell her friend Charlotte all the reasons why she had best stay away from the farm boy down the lane, for he was a ne’er-do-well if ever there was one. I would listen to her argue with a man—a father, perhaps, or a lord—about why she hadn’t cleaned the kitchen or brushed the horses. She told a great many lies, especially about where she went when she wasn’t needed and why it is she lingered so long there.
How she came to the Keep of Solomon, I can only guess, but the reason for her departure from her home seemed clear. Her dalliance with the farm boy down the lane had turned sour after she caught him mounting her friend Charlotte behind a tree. Realizing he had no intention of honoring his promises, she planned to visit a “lady of the dells”—a witch—to procure her revenge. But that required a day’s travel, round trip, and servants in those days did not have week-ends. She managed to secure permission through a clever deception involving a prized mare and the “accidental” throwing of a shoe. She was to take the animal to town, and since travel then was risky and roads sparse, schedules were always imprecise. It would’ve been easy for her to take the necessary detour, especially since she would not actually have to lead the animal on foot, as her master thought, but would be able to ride it bareback. I suspected the money he gave for the shoe, which she had removed and later replaced, would go to the witch as payment for services.
Everything went well until the eve of her departure, when Charlotte either discovered the truth or guessed it and informed their master. Although my young acquaintance didn’t say, I’m sure she was sent away after that and eventually came in service to The Masters, where she met her end within the walls of the Keep of Solomon—through violence, one would guess, since she remained there as a wayward spirit. Whatever had happened, she didn’t speak of it, merely of her love for the farm boy, through which I could discern the sense of utter worthlessness she felt when she saw him grunting and thrusting into her friend.
I think she was also worried for me. I think she understood I was a prisoner of some kind. I think she was also jealous, as the dead often are of the living, as well as angry at what had happened to her, and sad about it as well, and all of those emotions played out in her speech, sometimes across a span of mere sentences.
One day, while she was scrubbing the floor and telling her friend Charlotte how beautiful she was and that she could do so much better than a simple farm boy, I heard the words “don’t trust him” in between the rest. They were out of place. They were spoken in the same voice, but the tone and cadence were different, as if they had been interjected from a different time and place. I looked up and the young woman was peering at me. She was speaking gaily to her friend Charlotte, but her eyes were on me.
I nodded, and she disappeared again.