Art Pact 74

"Oh my beating heart!" she exclaimed, turning away from the window. Her face was a red bloom. She turned again slightly, sneaking a little peak, then back, redder still. "I never did!"

"Whether you did or didn't," I said coolly, "they are now. Which means that there's nothing for us to do except stay here and keep ourselves to ourselves."

"But surely you can't mean we're trapped?"

"There's only one way out of the tower," I told her, "and that's through the front door. Unless..."--I sniffed, and tapped the heel of my shoe against the table-leg--"unless you'd like to go out through the ladder in the basement."

I'd intended the possibility as a false option, knowing that she'd never condescend to descend into the dank maze of passages that had connected the buildings in the snow times, but to my surprise and dismay Rita took the suggestion seriously, so seriously in fact that she almost immediately assented.

"Of course, the ladder! Good thinking, Joan."

I raised an eyebrow at that, not one hundred percent sure whether she was mocking me or not, but whether she was made of stronger fibres than I had credited her with or not, she was not made to mock, and the expression on her face was one of awed admiration.

"Come on then," I said.

She sneaked another imprudent glance out of the window, this time colouring so far red that she might comfortably have hidden on a /field gules/, and then we made our way down the spiral stairs that followed the outer wall of the tower. On the ground floor I heard her step hesitate, and I turned to see that she was stopped, her dress train sliding down the stone steps like a cataract tumbling over a dip in a river. She was looking at the front door, and perhaps considering whether or not it would be possible to avoid the tunnels by slipping out in some manner that would not disturb what was going on outside.

"There's no chance," I told her, breaking her out of her ratiocination.

"What? Oh, yes - no" she flustered. But I was convincing enough, and she followed me down the steps again until we reached the absolute base of the tower, finally a room with no windows in which she could not be distracted. The basement room was a simple bare circle with four racks of shelves arranged in a cross-fashion in the centre in such a way as to support each other from toppling over. The shelves were lined with the artificer's supplies - brass cogs and spindles of many sizes, grub screws, lanterns ready for the insertion of a magic flame, a skull limned with silver, pottery grotesques, dried animal foetuses, snakes suspended in murky fluids, hammers, knives, glass jars of acids or potions or tinctures, iron brackets, spiral spring coils, and countless other wonders which might have entranced or repulsed Rita if only she had not been so consumed with a need to escape the tower's environs for a short time.

I knew immediately where the trapdoor into the basement was, but I let her think that I did not in order to observe her attitude towards searching. She was of a methodical bent, I learnt, starting at the outside of the room and working her way around. Sadly, since the trapdoor was against the wall on the opposite side of the tower she discovered it after only half a revolution, and so I had no way to confirm my conception that she would spiral inwards keeping in the same clockwise direction if she had not found the thing so handily in her initial circumnavigation of the room.

"Here it is! Help me."

Although there was, strictly speaking, little I could do, I bent down anyway and pretended to grasp the iron ring attached to the trap door. We heaved, and I saw a few muscles ill-accustomed to use stand taut in her forearms. It was almost too much for her, but buoyed up by my apparent assistance she tapped into some hitherto virgin reserve of strength and the door cracked loose of its over-right frame, popping open and then allowing itself to be tipped up against the wall where it rested nonchalantly.

"You're very strong, you know," she told me.

"Would you like to go first?"

"I'd..."--she peered down into the darkness--"I'd rather not."

"That's OK," I assured her, feeling for a moment more sisterly than I was accustomed to be. I felt around for the first rung of the ladder with a hand, then turning round stepped onto it and began my descent into the gloom.


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