The Illumination of Karen
Inside, it was quite small and dark, there being next to no sunlight from the already rather gloomy alley outside. What little light there was came from several small gas lamps. The air felt dry and dusty. To the left, behind a heavily loaded counter, sat a wizened old man who greeted her tersely as she came in. To the right was a large table that left just enough walk-space for one person between it and the shelf-lined walls. On every horizontal surface, books lay stacked high.
Immediately opposite to the entrance was a small and dark doorway leading to a stair that went down a few metres. It too was lined with books on wall-mounted shelves, and sitting on the steps. Karen made her way leisurely around the table, reading titles and opening a book or two. Most of these volumes were familiar to her either through her work or her studies. This seemed to be a second-hand bookshop as many of the items had clearly been owned before.
Suddenly, a man emerged from the inner door with two or three books under his arm. He glanced a bit uneasily at Karen, paid for his finds and left with a quiet and seemingly familiar greeting to the shopkeeper. Karen, who had assumed that the stair led to some private area, was now delighted at the prospect of a back-room. Often, the more rare and valuable volumes are held in an inner chamber of used book shops, so this thoroughly enthused her. She enquired of the shopkeeper if the stairway was open to customers. He sat engrossed in a book and just waved absentmindedly in that direction with a little annoyed grunt of assent.
With that, she eagerly descended, coming to a small room with three corridors leading away in different directions. She chose one at random and soon found herself in a veritable maze of chambers, hallways, stairs and landings. In some places the ceiling was low and in others high. In one large and tall oval chamber, Karen was amazed to see fully three floors that were all evidently part of the same shop. Along every wall stood bookshelves, absolutely crammed with literature. There were leaflets, sheets of music, novellas, monographs, scientific treatises, poetry, every kind of writing imaginable. There were other knickknacks as well: Little statuettes, the odd necklace or charm, stuffed animals, paintings and prints nailed to beams or the ends of shelves. There was only just enough light anywhere that you could read, and there were deep shadows in nooks and corners everywhere. There were quite a lot of people too. As far as Karen could make out, she had seen at least seven people who were obviously part of the staff. They were either organizing things among the shelves, or sat cataloguing behind desks at various locations. Then there were the customers, most of them apparently much engrossed in their own quests for erudition. No one seemed to notice her, except when it was necessary to squeeze by each other in the cramped passages. Most of the people there seemed like dedicated bibliophiles and autodidacts, so Karen felt much at home and very safe among them.
It was difficult to get a grasp of the layout of the store. It seemed as the proprietor had taken possession of several floors of the building. Then just knocked out walls and inserted stairs as need dictated. To understand the system of organization, if indeed there was one, seemed even more challenging. So far, Karen had discerned no apparent order at all. Now though, she spotted a few classics on body-control and focus-projection on a shelf, and decided to search that section thoroughly. Maybe she could find some text on these subjects that she hadn’t read before. Already a cursory glance told her that there were many more books of the same kind in that area. If fortune should strike, she might even find a work that dealt with her current problem. With that thought, Karen felt quite proud about having found this potential treasure trove by means of her daring and determination. “A curious and inquisitive approach begets knowledge”. So said the philosopher, and so thought Karen contently to herself. Then she set about perusing the shelves around her with great care. For hours she pored over the various volumes, finding many that were entirely new to her. Once she inquired about closing time from a passing clerk and learned that the store was always open, day and night.
She had found two or three volumes that seemed promising when someone to her left said, “Excuse me”. Karen looked up, somewhat startled. There stood a young woman, probably not more than 30 years old, with an inquisitive expression. “Yes?”, she answered.
The young woman spoke with a pleasantly deep and musical voice:
“I do not wish to disturb you, but I noticed that you have very a specific taste in literature. Are you by any chance a student of mind-focus?”
“Yes, yes I am.” Karen answered, wondering what the woman might want. Maybe advice on literature?
“How wonderful! So am I! It is so nice to meet a fellow student of The Art, don’t you think?”
“Well, yes, I suppose it is” said Karen, a bit taken aback by the other’s enthusiasm. It wasn’t that Karen didn’t enjoy talking to others in her field of study. She was however not all that sociable a person, and right now she was very focused on her task. Seeing this woman’s beaming face and eager attitude, she rather despaired of a swift end to the exchange.
“Oh, forgive me, I forgot to introduce myself. I am Alexia. How do you do?” Said the stranger.
“How do you do? I’m Karen. Can I help you in some way?”
“No, no, I was just curious about you that is all. Are you a student at the Arcane University?”
“No I’m not. Maybe sometime in the future though.” Karen hesitated to say that she was about to take the entrance exam. She didn’t wish to expound on that subject, possibly having to admit her inability to master the necessary skills only days before the test. She would have loved to speak about it, had she felt certain that she would succeed though.
“That is my dream. I’m taking the entrance exam in a few days and I’m so nervous.” Alexia said this with a wistful look on her face, her hands clenched in eager anticipation.
Karen could hardly believe her ears. This woman was about to take the entrance exam to Arcane University? She was a baby! In all the books she’d read about AU, there had never been mention of anyone under the age of 40 who had even attempted to take it, much less succeeded. Maybe Alexia was really older than she looked. Maybe she was very gifted in the body-control technique of age-retardation. That seemed unlikely though, it was a difficult technique, very complex. It was a combination of many of the more basic techniques and some of the very highest. Usually, people didn’t manage to slow down their aging significantly until well into their sixties. It was a priority during a student’s first decade or so at AU, in order to gain the time needed for their further studies.
“R-Really?” She stammered. “You look so young!”
“Oh, thank you!” Answered Alexia with a smile and a look of endearment that could melt glaciers. “I am actually already 33, so it feels so good to hear that from an honest-seeming person like you.”
Oh dear, she’s one of those, thought Karen. “You’re welcome” she said, making an effort to pull the corners of her mouth into an answering smile.
“So, are you taking the exam too?” There came the dreaded question.
“Yes.” Answered Karen, hesitantly. She really didn’t want to talk about this. She just wanted to go home now, and continue practicing. Well, maybe sleep a few hours first. She felt sure that some of the things in these books could help her at least a little.
“Do you think you’re going to make it?” Said Alexia.
“I… I’m not sure. I still have some trouble making connection with the flower.” Even though she didn’t want to talk about it, Karen felt that this would come out anyway in the end. She just wanted this conversation to end. Then a thought struck her, and she added: “So I really must be getting back home to continue my studies.”
“Oh, of course. I am sorry. I didn’t mean to detain you at all. But if you’re still having trouble so close to the exam, you should come with me to our study group. I’m sure that we can help you.”
“Study group?” Karen enquired, despite herself. She wasn’t really interested, but the thought of people studying mind-focus in groups outside of AU was baffling to her. It was a long-standing tradition that those who studied with the aim of getting into AU did so on their own. At least in Arcaport. Other countries had other traditions, but here it was such an established fact that it was almost unthinkable to do otherwise.
“Yes of course. We meet and help each other overcome any difficulties by sharing our respective experiences. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken me to reach this level of skill without them.”
So, here was the explanation thought Karen. Still, she had a hard time believing that shared experiences alone could make such a remarkable cut in the required time of study. She knew from her own experience that the most time-consuming part of learning mind-focus, was increasing the level of potential. It wasn’t a matter of learning certain tricks. Even when you knew what you were doing, it took time to build up the level of connection and control. Sure, sometimes you had to understand a new principle, and that could take time. But it was still nothing in comparison with the sheer amount of basic practice needed to advance.
Therefore, even though she mostly wanted to go home, Karen was a little intrigued by this apparent anomaly and asked: “Are there others as young as you there who are taking the exam?”
“Oh yes! I’m not even the youngest. There are, I think, ten or twelve of us who are preparing for this year’s exam, and most of us are under 35.”
“That is amazing.” Said Karen. Although what she really felt was a severe jab of annoyance. She resented that there were so many people, so much younger than her, who seemed to be at her skill-level. Karen had used to be proud of her relatively rapid mastery of The Art, but that feeling was crumbling inside of her like burning paper now.
“Oh, it‘s not so amazing, we’ve just had great help, that’s all. You really must come with me. We’ll have one of our sessions in less than an hour, and it’s not far at all.”
Indeed, this woman is direct! Thought Karen. Again, she was surprised by Alexia’s forward manner and fumbled through her mind, searching for a reply. After working her lower jaw up and down a bit she eventually said: “I’m sorry. I really can’t spare the time. But thank you so much for inviting me.”
Alexia’s answer surprised her even more:
“Oh, please come with me! I know you’ll like it. To be honest, there are nearly no other women there for me to talk to. I would so like for us to become friends. Wouldn’t it be great if we could enter AU together, and be able to share that entire experience from the start?”
This outburst was certainly unexpected. But it did start a train of thought in Karen’s mind. She herself had never had any friends who were interested in The Art, it was such a rare path to follow. Of course she had missed having someone to talk to about her greatest passion, but she had always just accepted that. She also assumed that she would meet new friends once she had gotten into AU, which had only added to its attractions. It hadn’t even occurred to her that Alexia could become a friend. There simply was no room for other thoughts than of the exam in her mind right now. But there she stood, a person who apparently had the same longing for like-minded companionship as Karen, offering her friendship.
She did feel a bit wary. How sincere could Alexia possibly be? They had met only a few minutes ago, and it was already obvious to Karen that they were very different personalities. Was Alexia pulling her leg for some reason? She couldn’t fathom what that reason might be. On the other hand, different people form attachments in different ways. Alexia certainly seemed like a passionate individual. Maybe she truly felt an attraction to Karen already. Maybe she had an instinct about this sort of things.
These thoughts were running laps in Karen’s head when she noticed the woman’s pleading face.
“Well, sure I’d like to be friends with you. It’s just that I really should be going back home. I want to get into AU just as much as you, and I’m still not ready! Surely we will meet again at the exam?”
“You’re right, I am sorry Karen. But won’t you please just come with me and meet everybody for a short while. We could chat a little on the way and then I will let you go home. What do you say?”
In the end, curiosity got the better of Karen.
“Well. To tell the truth, I am not really familiar with these parts of town, and I would be grateful for a little help in getting back. If you’ll show me to the nearest train station afterwards, I’ll go with you. But I won’t partake in any lesson, for I have come this far alone, and I want to finish in style. Deal?”“Deal!” Again, she received that smile. She wondered if there had ever been anyone who could resist it.