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Authors: Catherine Green

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BOOK: Life In The Palace
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“Are we ready to start now?” The other occupant of the kitchen asked, turning her back to the hissing stovetop.

“Yes, Sima,” Dava murmured, straightening her brown skirt linen as she sat and tucking her caramel hair behind her ears.

Sima was seated at the head of the table. Noy moved around to sit to her left with Dava. The three girls took out notebooks and gave their teacher their full attention. Sima wore a long cotton dress with careful tailoring that created an air of flowing fabric even when seated. Around her neck was an amber pendant that complimented the golden tones in the scarf wound around her head. What may have been described as a turban, looked more fittingly like a crown. Her bright blue eyes flickered around the table.

“Before we start, does anyone need to decompress?” Sima asked looking at Tal.

“It’s getting harder,” Noy began.

Sima turned, acknowledging Noy with a gentle nod. “You’ve all moved up a level.”

“No one said it would be this hard,” Noys said her eyes on the table.

Opposite, Tal nodded and Dava shifted in her chair.

“Would it have made a difference?” Sima asked.

Noy looked up, “No. But it might have been nice if someone tried.”

“I think Sima did,” Dava commented almost under her breath.

Sima smiled and stayed silent.

“The attacks are more frequent. They’ve started coming in pairs. What does that mean? Every patrol is full on battle. We used to fight like once a month, now it seems like that’s all I do.” Noy banged the table with frustration.

Dava sighed, “I don’t think I have time in the day for any more Service. I’m supposed to be in school. It’s all I can do to keep up with the class with all the Service I’ve been doing recently. And it still doesn’t seem to be enough. I’m trying to find an edge. I keep learning the Way but nothing seems to help.”

Tal nodded sadly, “Tell me about it. I keep scanning to find the answer, or at least a vague direction. All I come up with are more stupid riddles. Last week was dancing in steel-toe capped boots. Today it was cheese sandwiches! What on earth is that supposed to mean? We should fight the toasters of bread? And my group project is going nowhere fast. Try explaining to Others that you couldn’t study because you had to spend the whole evening preventing Evil from taking over the world.”

“Couldn’t you just tell them you were busy praying?” Noy asked.

“Not if she wants to finish the project, she needs the girl to still be talking to her,” Dava quipped.

The joking didn’t actually lift the mood around the table.

Noy spoke quietly, “I feel like my Interloper is killing me. It’s like I’m at the
Interloper World of Adventures
amusement park, it’s taking me for such a ride. I know you’re going to tell me that it’s only as strong as I am but right now it feels three times stronger than me. How are we supposed to close the sinkhole if just getting into the Palace is such a struggle?”

Noy looked down again, not wanting to meet her friends concerned expressions.

“I think you’re doing well if yours in only three times stronger than you. Mine might as well of taken over totally.” A big tear rolled down Tal’s cheek. Dava squeezed her hand.

Sima gave everyone a moment to breath. “Your struggles are real. It is very hard. If it was easy we wouldn’t be rewarded. Let’s break down what’s going on here. Firstly, you’re in a higher level of the Palace. That means the threats are much more real. Now you’re adults, this is the real world. It isn’t always nice. Sometimes we lose.” Sima sighed, “All too often we lose, or we don’t know where the battle lines lie. We don’t run the world, we just perform the Service.” Sima explained.

“Of course,” Noy interrupted, “He Who Knows is the Great Decider. As long as it is His grace that keeps the world turning, then we will perform the Service.”

“Exactly, they teach it in pre-school but now you have to live it. Our Service is not dependent on outcome. Through war, and famine and earthquake, our Service will continue. If the whole world burns and crumbles around us until He Who Knows All summons us home, we will Serve. It sounds very poetic when you learn the teaching. It is somewhat more challenging to put it into practice.”

Tal licked her lips, “Which we do by just continuing on?” The others looked equally concerned.

“There is no grace in banging your head against a brick wall. This is why we have Guides. We look to those further into the Palace for clarity in our actions. We’re going to use our next few sessions to create a specific plan, both for you as a group and as individuals. May it be His Will, we’ll all stand ready on the Day of Accounting.”

*

A wave of chatter from the dining room signaled that the boys had finished their session with Guide Leib, Sima’s husband. Noy and Dava rushed to compare notes with the boys. It was amazing how Guide Leib could bring the same lessons out of troop formations and textual analysis as his wife could from their emotional response to the latest battle.

Tal hung behind, clearing up the mugs of sweet herbal tea they’d hardly touched.

“When you’re ready, will you tell me about it?” A soft voice said behind her left shoulder.

Tal turned and looked Sima in the eye. “It’s silly. I should just get over it.”

Sima poured more tea and motioned for Tal to follow her out onto the small wooden deck off the kitchen. Tal pulled her feet up on the wrought iron chair and hugged her knees close to her chest.

“Sometimes the sillier it seems, the harder it is to conquer. Very often we find the big tragedies easier to deal with. We know what the script is. One of the most potent tools of the Interloper is to tell us that our struggles are worthless.”

“It feels worthless. I started studying with this Other. I needed a study partner and she was new and didn’t know anyone else. We’ve been studying together all summer. I did everything they taught us in school we’re supposed to, I told her that I’m religious and that I Serve He Who Knows. But she’s nice and she’s friendly and she asks questions.”

Sima sipped her hot tea slowly, “Does she have a name?”

“Chloe.”

“What do you like about her?”

Tal looked up suddenly, “I’m embarrassed to say it.”

Sima nodded encouragingly.

“She’s really cool.” Tal said and then laughed at herself. “Ok, I admitted it. I can hardly get into the Palace because I’m all jealous of my cool study partner. She always wears black and white with all of this funky silver jewelry. She’s gorgeous but she doesn’t seem to know it. She has this aura of coolness that she wears like a cloak around her.

“I never even thought about that world before. I went to school only with People. Last year I came in contact with Others but not the top of their little society. Those ones were untouchable, and I didn’t even want to touch them. What are their lives? They go to school, they hang out, they go to wild parties, then they graduate. They get jobs and cars and stuff, eventually they get married have a couple of kids and live in beautiful houses in the suburbs. They drive carpool in a Lexus and have year round tans. If they’re lucky they wedge their kids into Ivy League universities and they avoid being traded by their husbands for a newer model. They retire, have a condo in Florida for the winter and then they die while the kids fight over the inheritance.”

Tal paused for breath and Sima gave up trying to suppress her smile. “That’s a very specific picture of life as an Other.”

Tal shrugged, “I watch TV. The point is; I never wanted any of that. We live with He Who Sees. Every day He moves the world for my benefit. My life is full of the pleasure and glory of connection. No Other can touch that. They don’t even know that we exist, and even if they do, they don’t believe us. What I do counts. If she does nothing with her life, it doesn’t upset the cosmic balance. I am called upon to ensure the continuation of creation.” Tal’s voice reached a crescendo.

Tal shut her eyes, “So why do I wish I was her?”

Tal looked at Sima, her eyes glistened with tears of compassion.

“Because you also live in the world. You are right, we are not the Others. But we’re not Angels either. We live in both worlds. We have to be patient with ourselves. Those physical things are very desirable. It is not possible to live only in the Palace. Our Service is performed here in the physical world. It is as essential as the Palace. Our task is to learn how to use it.

When we reach the Throne Room, we will be asked if we enjoyed what the physical world had to offer. We must stay away from the things that create Disconnection. But there are many beautiful parts of the physical world that complement the Palace.”

Tal was silent for a moment, “The Courtesans stay away from the physical.”

Sima shook her head, “Even the Courtesans do not live only in the Palace. Yes, they avoid much of the wider world to maintain their levels of purity, but have you ever been to one of their houses?”

Tal shook her head.

“They live beautifully. Those that can afford it have marble floors and crystal chandeliers. On the Day of Connection they eat sumptuous banquets. You can’t rise in the Palace by denying the needs of your physical self. We have to be kind to ourselves. Sometimes the battle is won by knowing where to give a little. Have you tried just being friends with this girl?”

Tal shrugged, “Why?”

“She asks you questions; maybe she’s trying to be your friend. You think she’s untouchable, but you don’t know what she’s thinking.”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to be friends with Others.”

Sima put down her mug. “It’s not encouraged, partly to protect our mission and also for the very reasons you describe. It’s hard to see their world and still remain focused on ours, but it’s not forbidden. If you remember who you are and your purpose in the world, there’s no reason why you can’t have an Other as a friend.”

“Really? But what do I tell her?” Tal sat up straight in her chair.

“The truth. We have nothing to hide.”

Tal paused. “But what if she believes me?”

Sima shrugged, “So she believes you. It’s not the end of the world. We have to protect ourselves from being generally recognized as the Servants of He Who Knows. If the whole world knew then we could be blamed for events, pressured to change the course of history or, much worse, worshipped. Our power is only to Serve. To keep our Service pure it must be hidden.”

“And the best place to hide is out in the open.” Tal finished.

Sima smiled, “But one Other knowing the truth isn’t going to give the whole game away. You can be friends with Chloe, don’t expect her to believe you, but don’t be afraid if she does.”

Tal looked thoughtful but there was a new sparkle in her eyes.

Chapter 6

B
ernie was wearing
cut-off jeans and a pale yellow spaghetti strap top. Her bare knees were pulled up to her chest leaning against the coffee shop table. By now I was pretty sure that we were friends, but I got the occasional vibe that I was being watched.

“Today is the big Magog trip?” she asked, laughing at the very idea.

“I’m still not sure where this Magog place is except in the middle of Quebec. Is it really as bad as they all make out? They don’t actually lynch English speakers out there, do they?”

She raised her eyebrows and giggled. Then she saw the panic on my face. “No, it’s not really that bad. There’s no lynching, maybe a little bit of pointed impoliteness. But they’re taking Maxine as backup. It’s only three days. What are you going to do while they’re away?”

“I hope to pass this class. I haven’t exactly been giving it my upmost attention. The group presentation is this afternoon. Josh should be here soon.” I looked at my watch.

“Are you ready for it?”

“I’d be better prepared if it required a full deposition on the finer details of Seth Wilks, but I think we might scrape through. I feel bad for Josh. He’s definitely been carrying me. He’s such a nice guy;. I date his brother instead of him, then he saved my ass in a project I was supposed to be doing with him, but instead, I spent most of my time smooching the aforementioned brother. Is he the nicest guy in the world?”

Bernie lent back in her chair, “He is a very nice guy, but you forget that he lives with that brother of his. Josh spent the past year plus watching brother mope around and lick his wounds. Finally, finally Seth is happy. That makes Josh very happy, also apparently he’s been enjoying the project.”

“Why, it’s beyond lame?”

“I think it’s your other group member.”

I nearly jumped out of my chair, “He’s interested in her! I thought to put them together but I didn’t think he’d ever go for it.”

Bernie cracked up, “I don’t think he likes her like that. I think it’s more of a sociology experiment. She’s one of the People, actually an observant one, right?”

“Yeah?” I didn’t follow.

“Josh was saying last night that he never met a practicing one. They’re supposed to be the defenders of the universe against Evil, the original superheroes. Before Buffy, before Spiderman, there were the People standing between us and Oblivion?”

“I guess so.”

“That’s what they believe. It was in my Women in Religion class last semester. I think Josh is fascinated to meet a real one. He keeps waiting to see if she’s going to run into a phone booth and change.” Bernie’s eyes sparkled with amusement.

I felt bad for Tal, “She is a bit weird but she means well.”

“I don’t think Josh means her any harm. I think he’s just fascinated. Anyway after the exam he’s not going to talk to her anymore.”

“I don’t think she spends much time with boys. She seems nice enough though. She never said anything about being a superhero but I hear why she might want to keep quiet about that.”

“Do you think she wears her underpants on the outside?” I laughed but I didn’t feel it.

“It’s not appropriate to talk to her about her undergarments,” Josh said, shaking his head as he sat down.

I looked at him seriously, “You haven’t been mean to her, have you?”

“No,” he looked serious enough, “It’s just cool to meet a real one. It took a while for her to warm up, but then she told me all about it. How they serve their God, and how there’s this constant battle to keep the world connected. The battles sounded funky, they fight against these animals that represent base emotions and drives in the world. There are all sorts of tactics and weapons they can earn in reward for the service.”

“Is it real?” I asked.

Josh started laughing, “Chloe your face is a picture. Get a grip. Of course it’s not real. It’s a metaphor to justify sexual repression and to get people to give charity. But that is what’s so interesting – the faithful totally buy into it. It’s amazing to see it in real life.”

“Just do me a favor and don’t mock her.”

He drew a cross on his chest, “Cross my heart and hope to die, I’ll be a good boy.”

*

Tal was hurrying through the wrought iron gates to campus when she heard Cale calling her name.

She contrived to both stop and continue hurrying.

“My presentation is in five minutes,” she said accusingly.

“Sorry, but what’s with the Serf boy?” Cale asked.

“Josh? He sounds interested. I haven’t really done much Serf recruitment before. I can’t tell if he’s just stringing me along or if I’m really getting somewhere. But the project’s finished. When am I going to speak to him again?”

“Aren’t you both friends with this Chloe chick?” Cale asked.

“We are, but should I talk to him with her there too? It feels weird.”

Cale shrugged, “There’s no reason why not. She’s an Other; it’s not like she’s going to start believing us. It might make it harder for him to hear, but I don’t think she’s a problem.”

Tal didn’t like to say that she was hoping to avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of her supposed religion with Chloe. Being friends with an Other wasn’t worth losing one of the People to the Palace. They needed every warrior they could get.

Tal jumped from one foot to the other, “Ok, I’ll see what I can do. But I won’t get very far with either of them if I’m late for the presentation.”

*

The humid blanket of Montreal summer had never felt so sweet.

“It’s over.” I moaned.

“There is still the exam,” Tal reminded me.

“It’s multiple choice, so I don’t care. At the very least I’ll answer C for everything.”

Josh chuckled, “I think they actually design the exams so that trick doesn’t work. But I don’t think we have too much to be worried about. That was definitely the worst part. Did you see those two Asian kids in the third row playing footsie?”

“Yeah, they were bordering on not appropriate for public display.” I rolled my eyes, “But that big guy in the back picking his nose was worse.”

“I didn’t even see that! I was too distracted. What about you, Tal, what was the worst bit?” Josh looked at her expectantly.

She looked around for a minute. “At one point the Prof looked up from the Kindle, he thought we couldn’t see and actually listened intently. Then I thought we were going to fail.”

“Oh my goodness, you’re right. I nearly forgot what I was saying.” Now it was over, I felt unbelievably warm towards both of them. “Do you want to go and get coffee or something now? Unless anyone’s in a hurry to go study for the exam.”

Josh nodded, we both looked at Tal. She was wavering.

“Come on Tal,” Josh said, “I actually wanted to continue that discussion we were having the other day.” I shot Josh a look but it seemed to be the deal clincher for Tal.

Still slightly uncertain, she said, “I was actually going to meet some friends, maybe they could tag along.”

“Sure,” Josh said warmly.

I elbowed him sharply as we started walking. He responded with a look of total innocence. I was not fooled for a second.

While Tal was calling her friends to tell them to join us, Josh said quietly, “Got something better to do?”

“No,” I said sharply.

He raised his eyebrows. I knew what he was talking about.

“The band’s rehearsing all afternoon. Seth and I have a date later tonight.”

“I’ll remember to wear earplugs.” He couldn’t have wedged more sarcasm into his voice.

“Good, I wouldn’t want to feel inhibited.” I shot back. I grabbed his hand pulling him back as we were about to enter the Second Cup opposite campus, “Now, Josh Wilks, you promised. I don’t know what you’ve got up your sleeve letting her friends tag along but you’d better behave.”

“I promised,” came his mock indignant reply, as he pushed past me into the building.

We got drinks and settled ourselves into a table next to the giant windows. Tal pulled over a few chairs ready for her friends.

“Do you think we actually got a good grade?” Tal asked me as I sipped my Frappucino.

Josh shrugged, “Our report was good. And while our presentation did not set worlds on fire, the PowerPoint slides did match our topic and we did all speak in the English language.”

“I felt bad for the Iranian guy,” I interjected, “I don’t think he realized there was going to be an oral presentation.”

“Speaking of oral presentations, not that I want to put you on the spot, Tal but you did promise to explain this whole Interloper thing to me.”

Tal smiled and licked her lips. Then she looked at me.

I shrugged, “I’d actually be quite interested in hearing. I don’t know that much about your faith. You don’t eat bugs right?”

“No, we don’t eat bugs. There is a little bit more to it than that. I don’t mind telling you if you’re interested.” She sounded self-effacing but she looked very eager.

Just as she was about to start, her friends arrived. I nearly fell off my chair. They were guys.
I thought she didn’t hang out with guys? Apparently this chick has hidden depths.

“Chloe and Josh, this is Cale and Jov.” They both wore short sleeved button down shirts, brown loafers and baseball caps. Cale was a redhead in a pale green shirt and NYC cap. Jov was blond in a brown and white checked shirt with Lakers cap. Cale pulled up another chair, so that they both sat between Tal and Josh.

Tal beamed, “Josh was just asking me about the People.”

Cale and Jov looked at each other. “We’re cool,” Cale said.

“Very,” Jov added. I got the impression these two were a double act.

“Why?” I asked without thinking.

“We fight Evil, Oblivion in fact,” Cale said calmly.

“Like Superman, but with the underpants on the inside.” Jov explained.

I guess that answers Bernie’s question.

“There aren’t so many phone booths around these days. I guess the advent of the cell phone really messed things up for you guys.” Josh’s face was serious but his eyes danced.

“It’s not such a physical change. It’s more like the Matrix.” Jov looked pleased with himself. Tal looked like she might fall off her chair but she played it cool.

Josh raised his eyebrows slightly but waited for the explanation.

“In the Matrix, their bodies are being used as giant batteries while their minds are hooked into the Matrix, right?”

We all nodded.

“But Neo and the other resistance fighters have full use of their bodies, but they can jack their minds into the Matrix?”

We all nod again.

“When Neo really gets good, at the end of the first movie, which was the best in my opinion, then he sees the Matrix for what it is, a bunch of binary code. Then he can manipulate the Matrix by changing the code.”

“It’s a classic movie,” Josh said.

Jov nodded, “It can seem dated because so many people copied it afterwards, but when it came out it was shear genius.”

“What’s this got to do with you guys?” I wasn’t sure if I was the only one missing the point. Josh smirked at me, Tal looked relieved and I realized I wasn’t.

Jov spread out his hands. “Like this, all humans live in the physical world, like ‘real’ world in the Matrix. The People, we also live in the Palace. You can think of it like the Matrix. The difference is that the Matrix is a construct. The Palace is real, it just exists on a different spiritual frequency. The People, like Neo are able to be in both.”

“So your bodies stay here but your minds are in two places?” Josh asked.

Cale nodded. Tal beamed, apparently Jov had scored.

“What’s the binary code part?” Josh was thinking hard.

“I guess He Who Knows,” Jov said, “but in the movie only the Matrix is made out of the binary code. In reality everything is made out of Him.”

“I thought it was made out of quarks and neutrons?” Josh smiled.

“Which are parts of He Who Knows,” Cale replied, nonplussed.

We were all quiet for a moment. I tried to get the last bit of my drink out without slurping the straw. I was unsuccessful. I gave up, lest I break anyone’s concentration.

Finally Josh said, “And this Interloper thing is like your conscience?”

Jov cocked his head to one side, “It’s more like being possessed by an alien.”

“Like in
The Host
?” I asked quickly.

Jov looked at me.

Tal said to him, “It’s a book by Stephanie Meyer, the one who wrote
Twilight
.”

“That vampire thing?” Tal and I both nodded. “With the kissing?” We nodded again.

“All the blogs said Buffy was better.”

I shrugged, “Buffy was in a league of its own.” Jov nodded and seemed to relax.

“She’s actually right,” Tal said. “It is like in
The Host
.” Jov looked like he was getting agitated but Tal kept going.

“In
The Host
, the aliens get implanted into the brains of humans. Then the aliens take control of the body. But when they implant the alien in the main character, the human mind doesn’t go away, and there are two minds in the one body each acting independently. They struggle to take control of the body.”

“Really? It actually sounds cool, you have the book?” Tal nodded.

“Does it have much kissing?” Jov was still not totally convinced.

“Some.”

Cale looked from me to Josh, “The Interloper is a force inside us. It’s like another voice in your head. It’s different from a conscience because your conscience is part of you, you have some degree of control over it. The Interloper is an outside force whose only purpose is to drive us off the path. We have to learn when it’s us thinking and when it’s the Interloper. It takes a lot of practice.”

“What happens if you get it wrong?” I had this funny feeling that Josh was beginning to take them seriously.

“In the short term, it damages your standing in the Palace. In the long term, it can take over completely. Some People are so totally taken over by their Interloper that they cease to function in the Palace.”

“Like the Cyborgs in
Doctor Who
, inside is a person but it’s trapped inside a machine.” Jov added.

BOOK: Life In The Palace
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