The Stairs

Of all the places in the palace, this corridor is your favourite; the smooth texture of the walls (the elders say the material is called glass), the aching, clenching cold of the air, and of course, the snow pressed up against the glass, softly glowing in places. It should be pitch black in here, but legend has it that when the palace was first buried in snow, the lights came on, and stayed on, and they have been on ever since. No one remembers how they work; sometimes you whisper with your friends about what would happen if they ever went out.

Plenty of people gather in the Cold Promenade; there are benches all along the gently curving walkway, perfect for catching up with old friends, sneaking some time to be with the one you love, or just sitting and quietly reflecting on life, and the reality of it all. You sit down at one of these benches now, the metal biting the backs of your legs. Inside the palace it’s much warmer, but you like the top promenade. It’s the closest to being outside you’ll ever get. Sometimes you fancy you see light that isn’t from a box on the wall, brighter, harsher, high up towards the ceiling, filtering down through the layers of snow. The elders say you read too much, and are just imagining things. No one has seen the outside for no one is sure how long.

It’s odd how time works here. Like we are frozen on the inside as well as out. There’s something called ‘day’ that was opposite to another thing called ‘night’ and as far as you can tell from your books, it was a way to mark small segments of time, depending on the amount of light in the outside. Night was a time for sleep. But in the palace, the light is always the same and everybody sleeps when they feel tired, which is invariably different from one person to the next. Although most families try to wake and sleep together, the Joneses could be asleep while the Moores are waking, and never meet even though they live next door to each other. There’s something called ‘hunger’ for another example – you’ve read about it – and that seemed to be another way to mark time in the world before snow. A person would ‘get hungry’ – you think maybe hungry is some kind of device to warn that an interval of time was approaching. These intervals of time passing were marked by ‘square meals’, and there were three of them in a ‘day’, although sometimes the last one would happen at night.

You are jolted from your thoughts by the sound of approaching, whisking fabric signalling that the elders have tracked you down. They pause just out of earshot, eyeing you, and appear to be conferring. You have to restrain yourself from rolling your eyes. Eventually Bathomas, their leader, detaches from the group and smiles warmly at you; but as always, it’s a smile that somehow manages to look like a frown, not quite reaching his eyes.
“Reader,” he says, peering at you through battered chunky glasses. “Have you been considering the matter we brought to your attention this morning?”
“Not really,” you say, quite truthfully. You had intended to think about it, but something about the press of the snow outside, those glimpses of light… it made what the elders want all the more nauseating.
Bathomas sighs loudly, eliciting tutting from the gathered elders beyond.
“You are the Reader of the Shard Palace. You are the only person the populace will listen to when it comes to matters of such… delicacy.” He gestures to himself and his cohorts, “You know that we have fallen out of favour. That they call us hypocrites.”

You struggle to see why this is your problem. The people are right; the elders are hypocrites. They have spent their lives living to their own purposes. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that in principle, but if you try and hold people to standards that you only uphold having already had your fill of thoughtless indulgences, as soon as you get into a position of power, there will be trouble ahead, as the old song goes.

Jasmin, Bathomas’s right hand, joins you, wearing the same smile-not smile they all seem to pick up on the first day joining the elder ranks.
“If they keep breeding indiscriminately, we will run out of space,” she says through her teeth, spit flecking the air between you. Bathomas makes a strangled clucking noise, but he doesn’t call her down.
“What is it you are hoping I’ll say, exactly? There’s no guarantee they will listen to me any more than if you made the proclamation,” You murmur.
“It’s not a proclamation. Not yet anyway. Just some exhortations of civic duty, a reminder to the people of the situation we’re in,” Bathomas assures you hurriedly, before Jasmin can speak. Her eyes narrow.
“Who needs a reminder? We look at it every day,” you argue, pointing at the glass walls.
“You are The Reader; you’re responsible for every life in this place. No one knows more of our old customs than you. If anyone can convince them of the shape our future must take, it’s the person who knows the most about our past.”

You gaze at Jasmin steadily, the weight of her words settling into your bones. What you know is precious little compared to what has been lost. If only you could figure out what had happened to cause us to be buried in the snow, maybe you could figure out how to get the palace unburied. But so far, no luck, and meanwhile, the practicalities of the situation demanded serious thought. Finally, you nod.
“You can write something up for me, and I’ll take a look at it, okay? Until then, I am quite busy, you know.”

You ignore the sneer on Jasmin’s face, the barely concealed relief of Bathomas’ expression. Getting to your feet, you leave them standing in the Cold Promenade, resolving to lose yourself in the library for a few hours.

Three flights of frosty stairs down, you’ve been in the library for a good few hours. Piles of papers lie, spread fanlike on the floor around you. Damp booklets and the odd book here and there complete the collection. It is not much of a library, true, but it’s all the ancestors had in the palace when the snow descended and they were trapped. As always, when you try to think of the time that has passed, your mind slips over the concept, unable to grasp any detail that could help you figure out how long you have all been imprisoned down here. If only you could find the way out… but no one has ever found a way.

You reach for the next book in the pile, and realise you haven’t actually read it before. You haven’t even seen it before, and you thought you’d seen all of the books in the library by now. There are no letterings on the spine or the cover. Turning the book over, you go to open it, but there is a clasp locking the book closed. A key rattles on a chain that loops around the clasp. Smiling triumphantly, you try to unlock the book with the key, but it doesn’t fit. Why was the key with the book then? You tug and the key and chain come away – you pocket it for further study later.

Your head whips up and you drop the book as the sound of footsteps clattering on the stairs reaches your ears, and a glimpse of swishing material is enough to send you running for the other end of the library. Will they never leave you alone? You’re not ready to give that speech they want – how can you tell your people they have to stop having babies, conserve resources like clothing and heat? Real life has been taken from them, and now their half life is out of their control too? Not if you can help it. You think you remember there being a staircase down here somewhere… there!

You hurry up the steps, breath caught in your throat, heart stammering with excitement. The walls are slick with the ever present moisture in the Shard palace, and you try to step lightly, unsure of your footing on the unfamiliar stair. As you thump up the steps, you come to a corridor that branches from a landing, and pelt down it on a whim. It’s deserted beyond the odd bit of paper, some rags in a corner; the lights are dimmer. They aren’t likely to follow you up here, you think, a smile on your face.

Looking around, you aren’t so sure you want to be up here either. The lights really are a lot dimmer than they are on the lower levels. The heavy, muffled silence that is the comforting background to the Cold Promenade or the market hall on quiet days is not as absolute; your footsteps squelching on the sodden carpet manage to echo wetly. Like all hallways and corridors in the palace, this one curves gently from right to left. No one has ever found what they curve around – is it some kind of central column, a simple core of metal like spiral staircases cling to? Or something more? You press on; you really don’t want to run in to Bathomas or Jasmin, at least until tomorrow. Maybe you’ll be able to find a hidden cache of undiscovered books; this thought cheers you up a bit.

There are rooms peppering the wall to your right and left; worryingly, some of them have caved in, the ancient compacted snow turned to ice harder than metal. You poke your head into a few rooms; but they’re empty, long since stripped of their furniture and anything else useful. It strikes you that it’s odd the elders are so keen to proclaim a birth limit and yet there’s all this extra space up here.

You come to the end of the corridor, and are faced with another staircase. Amazed, you bend down to get a closer look at the first step. It is made of a material the like of which you have never seen – rough, like chair cloth, but hard. It’s cold like everything else, and a gritty, brown colour. Could this be… stone? You’ve read about stone – a lot of palaces in the books are made of stone, not metal and glass and ice as the Shard Palace is.

Voices crawling down the corridor behind you make you jump, and you recognise Jasmin and one of her cronies. You can’t be distracted now. This could be the discovery to make your name as a Reader; you may have stumbled across the elusive central column around which all the floors curve gently but never (until now) reveal!

Only one thing to do – take the stairs and see where they go. But should you climb the stairs, or descend?


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