The Many Lives of Aç Sulsum
Presenting Avi Silver’s short story collection: Tales from a Library. Each tale reveals a slice of personal history from the countless individuals who dedicated their lives to this famous ka-Khastan “vault of knowledge.” Follow their stories through the ages, and learn the secrets and longings of those who had something they felt worth keeping safe in the catalogs.
Suri tears down the North Wing, the heat of the flames bearing down like a great stone upon her back. In her arms she clutches her scrolls, the sole survivors of twelve years of work, nowhere near enough to soothe the desolation of this moment. It’s burning, the whole of Aç Sulsum, it’s burning faster than she can believe, faster than she can bear. All of human history, set alight.
The blaze came without warning. One moment, she was preparing her sources for the Curator, and the next, she heard the sound of screaming. The Librarians ran down the halls in droves, carrying the so very little they managed to save, the tails of their robes trailing flame. Suri had never heard such a sound in her life: the nightmarish drone of a thousand crackling parchments, the pathetic stampede of human feet, the rising wail of collective loss, disharmonious and devastating.
How easily it fell; how quickly it succumbed to ash. The Curator logs, gone. The broken godslave chains, gone. Ela Khajam’s underworld epics, gone. The Prophet Evin’s comb, gone. Empire-era cargo lists, gone. All gone.
She stumbles around a corner, cradling the scrolls to her chest as tears turn to steam upon her cheeks. There is so much to mourn, and no time for mourning it. No time even for believing it in full. From somewhere in the East Wing, Suri hears a crack like the breaking of the world’s own shinbone, and she prays that when the ceiling falls she will not be beneath it.
The earliest herb guides, gone. The tunnel maps, gone.
Part of her wants to yell for help, if only for the feeling of release, but she must save her breath. Besides, there aren’t any Librarians here anymore. Most evacuated quickly, while the stubborn died where they stood, burned on the pyre of their life’s work. As far as Suri knows, she was the only one foolish enough to actually run back in.
I am Sulsumet, she thinks, steadying her mounting terror against the memory of her initiation. The only fools among us are those who abandon curiosity. And she couldn’t live with herself if she let perish the knowledge she holds now in her hands. If she left it to burn, the proof would burn with it, lost to humanity, and that she could not bear. Not after everything else. Not after the centuries spent trying to recover.
The Wishing Bells, gone. The cave poems, gone.
What once seemed noble now seems so terribly naive. How had the Librarians ever believed they were safe from the old masters? How had they ever dared to hope they would be left, at last, in peace? For Suri knows how the blaze was set. There is no mistaking Their fury.
An uneven brick catches her foot, and Suri falls to the ground with a yelp, her scrolls tumbling from her arms. Frantically, she gathers them again, the stone floor oven-hot against her fingers, and scrambles back to her feet with a new throb in her ankle. Barely noticeable compared to everywhere else that it hurts.
The librarian’s codex, gone. The slave accounts, gone.
Behind her, the tapestries catch and curl into a choking, dark smoke that makes her eyes stream. It burns deep inside her chest, like her very heart insists on falling with the place she dedicated it to. Her traitorous lungs seize, and she grits her teeth, pleading with her body to carry her through. Keep breathing Suri. You owe Aç Sulsum that much. She pushes through the smoke, stumbling to the end of the hall until she reaches a junction.
Left or right? Left or right? She should know this, on any other day she would know which way leads her to the exit. But today the air is dark, a great unyielding funeral shroud, and she is disoriented. She numbly considers that there is no guarantee that another fire isn’t blocking the exit anyway.
The Tomb drawings, gone. The demon songs, gone.
She swallows, hearing the distant sound of splintering. All she can do is guess.
She turns right, bolting down the hall, past the classroom where she made a fool of herself her third day in training, past the stacks, where she had her first kiss between the shelves, past Sulsumet Heshim’s Desk of Wonder, where the famed librarian dropped dead with one final “Aha!” and left his students to wonder forever about the finding that carried him to his grave.
I cannot die here, she thinks, half-mad with determination, I cannot leave this world without telling them how this all began. She whirls around another corner, and is nearly bowled over by the clarity of the air in front of her. Greedily, she gasps for it, trying to soothe her ragged lungs. If she can breathe here, then the fire has not yet made it to the tip of the North Wing. She still has time, if only she can think.
Suri clutches her scrolls tighter, a loud sob tearing itself free of her throat. Remember, she pleads with herself. Please, remember. We’re so close, just let me remember the–
Around the corner. Down the second set of stairs. Past the skylight. The exit.
The knowledge comes to her like a vision, and before she can even say a prayer of thanks she is running, pressing a kiss to her research. Sweat pours down her back; the soles of her shoes stick hot against her feet. Her ankle throbs with every footfall, but she does not stop running. She bears witness to the sprawling arches, to the small potted plants that have not yet been eaten by flames, to the murals on the walls depicting the story of Humanity. She runs, and she imprints it all in her mind, because her memory is the one thing that cannot be taken from her.
Around the corner, her heart a rabbit fleeing the hawk. Down the second set of stairs, the stone pinging up her legs. Past the skylight, where she could howl her victory to the moons. The exit, right in there in sight except–
No, Suri thinks, feeling suddenly very far from herself. No, that isn’t fair.
Standing before the murals, admiring the oldest of them with all the calm of an unmatched predator, is the shalledra. In spite of herself, the first thing Suri thinks is how beautiful the creature is: its skin is a shade of fuchsia she has never seen before, striped through with a white that is almost blinding. It is poised to command the godslaves, to bend the earth to its desires with little thought of its breaking point. It is graceful, and terrible, and it runs its elegant fingers along the mural, pursing its lips as it pauses atop the face of one of the humans. The paint begins to scorch.
Suri is frozen in place, her heart pounding in her ears. She steps backwards, but she knows there is no place to run. The scrolls rattle in her hands.
The exit’s right there, she thinks desperately. There has to be a way to get to it, you cannot have come this far. The work, Suri, the work. Gods forsaken, you cannot lose the work. You have to tell them– The shalledra turns its head toward her lazily, and the look on its face is something like amusement, or pity. It steps forward, eyeing Suri in what she hopes could be consideration. Shalledrim are intelligent, brilliant even. Perhaps she has a chance, if she can just use her reason.
“Please,” she rasps, her voice gone raw with smoke. She cradles her work like a infant, and though she knows she should be focused on begging for her life, she is distracted by the proximity of the creature before her. It is impossible not to be, knowing what she knows. “Please, I…”
The shalledra sighs, shaking its head. And it raises its hand.
The sour scent of Suri’s fear changes, mingling now with the smell of smoke. She looks down at her scrolls crumbling into hot black char, and she wails her despair and turns wildly as though there is something anything she could find that might salvage what’s being lost. But this does not last long, because soon she realizes she is burning, too. Her life’s work is ash in her hands, and her flesh splits open with blistering pain, and the shalledra walks calmly past her, uninterested in the spoils of its war. And Suri screams not for her own body, but for what she carries to her death alone.
They came from us. The last thought, the horrible truth, searing her bones hotter than any flame. Oh, gods, they came from us.
A Study in Loss, Undocumented
“My good people! We humble wanderers of the Greatwood come bearing the best of news: we have wandered your way.” Püksük Piç stands proud as a scarecrow in the town’s center, his voice carrying to the ears of every villager within a mile radius. At least that’s how it feels to his son, Ravan Tan, who stands mortified, watching his father pour his heart into this production.
He takes off his wide brimmed hat with a sweeping bow. “I am Püksük Piç , master of song, leader of this handsome band of travelers, whom I am pleased to call my own true family. We take our caravan all across the land, from settlement to settlement, learning and documenting the ways of the people so that future generations might learn from their wise and varied ways.” A small group is forming now, farmers and shopkeepers alike, listening curiously to what he has to say. “You may call us the Wandering Literates.”
Tan wants to sink into the ground. Here comes the Grand Introduction.
“My wife,” Püksük says, gesturing to her with a grin, “Yeresna Sekhat, the greatest keeper of folklore and history this side of Listener’s Peak.” Yeresna takes a bow, making baby Jeteta shriek happily in her arms. At least someone’s having a good time. “Tatka Piç , my eldest daughter. An expert on plants and the insects that dwell on them. The crawler you fear is her latest friend!” Tatka smiles her sweetest smile, daring anyone to bring up the obvious bump at her waist. “The young mapmaking twins: Azga Yul and Çitla Yul. Come to Azga with all your questions– Çitla is a quiet one, and would be much happier sketching your farmscape.” Even now, Çitla is tucked away in the caravan, working on the map of their route to the town and completely ignoring the townspeople. Tan feels a pang of envy.
“Ah, and my eldest son–” Tan grits his teeth. He hates this part. “Ravan Tan. Our expert in language!”
What an absolute freak show. Tan’s only thankful that no one started snickering this time.
“What about the baby?” calls someone from the crowd, sending a laugh through the square, “What special studies does she follow?”
“We don’t know yet!” replies Püksük, entirely unfazed by the fact that he’s probably being made fun of. “In truth, we were hoping for a master of fauna, but Jeteta seems happiest when we tell her monster stories. So perhaps we have a demonologist in the making!”
“We got kicked out of the last town because of it!” chimes in Azga Yul cheerfully, earning a jab in the ribs from Tatka, “They thought she was a demon herself!”
“And if she is, more power to her. Makes her a genuine expert, wouldn’t you say?” Püksük grins, and then the crowd is laughing with him. Tan looks to his mother and sees that she is smiling. A good sign, something he should be grateful for. After all, the longer they stay in a town, the closer they can get to its people, and, as his father says, ‘intimacy is the foundation of sharing.’ Tan closes his eyes, taking a deep breath through his nose, wishing once more to disappear.
After what seems like hours, the Grand Introduction ends (“They loved it, Yeresna!” his father declared all the way back to the caravan, “they were completely charmed!”), and the family huddles around their fire, planning for the coming days.
Azga Yul currently holds the speaking stone and is using it enthusiastically. Çitla sits beside him, stacking pebbles. “I’m thinking Çitla and I go on rounds with the gatherers. I can learn the details of the region better, and he can map their routes as we walk!” He looks to Tatka, who is drinking a third cup of tea even though Tan has only had one. “Maybe you want to come with us, Tatka. It’s a good opportunity to see the plants they use!”
“I’m not sure,” she replies, swilling her tea thoughtfully, “I met a boy in the village who said he has some experience with local herbalism.”
Tan snorts. “Is that what they call it here?”
Tatka smacks him on the arm, which he definitely deserves despite the fact that he’s probably right. “You’re an ass, Ravan Tan.”
“I have the speaking stone!” whines Azga Yul to his sister, who takes precisely zero notice.
“But luckily–” she continues, jabbing Tan on the nose with a swollen finger, “I can’t get double pregnant. Something you’d know if you found yourself a girl instead of scowling at everyone who passes your way.”
“I don’t scowl!” scowls Tan.
“Darling, you absolutely do,” says his mother, giving the agitated Azga a pat on the head. Jeteta, in her father’s arms, tries to imitate the motion, and succeeds in knocking Püksük’s hat askew. “But that’s not the point. And neither of you have the speaking stone right now.”
“Sorry Mother,” says Tatka. “And sorry Azga. On both mine and Ravan Tan’s behalf, because he’s not about to apologize.”
Ravan Tan grunts, pressing his back against the tree, and decides not to listen to the rest of the conversation. The family will make their plans whether or not he applauds what brilliant ideas they all have. He looks up at the stars, searching for familiar constellations, and for a little while tunes everything out. There, his favourite–the Weaver, goddess of one of the northern towns, who keeps the world together with her many knots. Tan hugs his blanket around himself, feeling like a tangle.
He looks up, hearing his name as though it’s from far away, and sees his father’s face. The gentle expression pulls tension into his chest.
Püksük gently rocks the sleeping Jeteta, whose fist still clasps a chunk of moss. “Where would you like to go tomorrow? With your, ah, your word list?”
Tan looks away from him, shrugging. “I’ll find an elder.”
“Do you have a plan for approach?” his father asks, all the boisterous cheer gone soft for Tan’s sake. It feels like mockery.
“Look for the wrinkles and the greying hair? It’s not a hard process, Dad.”
“You know,” says his mother slowly, “I spoke with a seamstress earlier. She embroiders the constellations into ladies’ dresses for one of their festivals. Perhaps you would like to–”
And just like that, Tan’s reached his limit. He gets up, mumbling something about being tired, and goes to the caravan. It’s not as private as he would like–nothing ever is in the caravan–but it’s something. He is grateful when no one follows him. No one, that is, except Çitla Yul, who comes in an hour later and silently places a stone, perfectly smooth, into Tan’s hand.
The next day, Tan sits in a small tavern, going through his dreaded word list with the oldest man he could find. He points to the table, looking up at the elder.
“Table,” says the old man, chewing on the end of his pipe.
He points to the fire.
“Fire,” says the man.
Tan pauses, sensing an opportunity, and looks up from his list hopefully. “Is that… is that the word for the individual thing you’re eating, or for the… the larger concept of it?” he asks, squinting.
“You daft, boy?” the man barks, loudly enough that people look over. “It’s a lamb! Goes baa, eats the grass, shits everywhere.”
Tan takes a very patient breath in through his teeth. “No, sir, I know what a lamb is, I just thought–”
“Sure doesn’t sound like you do!” the man laughs, nearly hacking up his insides in the coughing fit that follows. “Seems to me like you proud reading types don’t even know about lambs, don’t even know how the world works. You gonna eat your books in the winter, boy? You gonna chew up the leather and see if it helps you grow a couple inches?”
Several other old men at the tavern find this hilarious, and Tan is getting ready to pack up his list and go back to the caravan, where he will stay either until his family leaves or he dies of embarrassment, when another voice enters the tavern.
“Grandpa, are you antagonizing our guest?” A boy about Tan’s age is walking through the crowd of the elders. He’s tall, with strong arms and cheeks freckled from farm work. Despite his youth, the old men clap his shoulder as he walks by, greeting him with familiarity. Tan swallows, quickly looking back down at his word list.
“He doesn’t know what a lamb is!” says the old man, grinning through his remaining teeth and looking very pleased with himself.
“Then maybe it would be polite to take him to the farm and show him,” says the boy, his gaze falling on Tan, “rather than teasing him.” Their eyes meet, and Tan quickly shuffles his papers into a heap, mumbling about forgetting something in his caravan. The boy tilts his head, frowning a little. “If you’d like to come by…?”
“No, I–” Tan is stuttering, and bangs his knee on the table as he stands up. “I have to keep going. With my word list. Lots of… lots of people to talk to. Perspectives to hear. Language. Yeah.”
And after that demonstration of his own prolific language skills, Tan is out the door, hardly hearing what the boy calls after him. It might have been his name. He sits in the caravan, staring at the list of words alone.
Infuriatingly, no one else in the family is struggling with their specialties. That very night, Tatka Piç has already discovered two new uses for a common herb, one of which, she is excited to say, is for treating nausea. The next day, Püksük gathers his family around the fire and sings the town’s wedding song, with Jeteta banging her idea of rhythm on a local drum. The day after, Çitla Yul presents the family with a detailed map of the gatherer’s routes as Azga explains the significance of the stopping points, and Yeresna chimes in with the names of their guardian spirits.
And on and on it goes.
Everyone discovers something, everyone feels proud, and Ravan Tan is stuck cursing his word list. The worst part is, it’s not even the technique’s fault–it has helped him figure out a few dialectical differences. But the discovery always comes so slowly that he wants to pull his hair out, and each interaction leaves him feeling more tired than the last.
His father points this out one night, suggesting that he pause his interviews and just enjoy the town. And even though Tan can tell that he’s trying to be kind, it stings. He storms back toward the town, determined to find something useful. Of course, by the time he arrives, it is far too late to knock on any doors, so his feet carry him back to the tavern.
Tan drops down at a table by himself, simmering in silence. He orders an ale, and drinks it quickly enough that his tongue feels wobbly, and he wishes with all his might that his studies would just make sense. That’s the unfair part: there is so much he is good at, but he cannot do the one thing that he absolutely needs to. He just isn’t good with people, not like Bes was, and he can’t–
For a second, Tan feels like all the air has been sucked from the room. The tavern walls feel tight and suffocating, and he is still struggling to catch his breath when someone sits down beside him. It is the boy from before, with the strong arms and the freckled cheeks. He smells like cut grass, and the surprise of it draws Tan back from the world ending within him.
“You’re back!” the boy says, smiling widely. “I’m glad to see you again. I was worried my grandfather…” He trails off, and Tan realizes that his eyes are stinging. “Are you alright?” he asks quietly, and Tan is grateful for the illusion of privacy as he quickly wipes away tears before they can fall, shaking his head. “Bad day?”
“Bad year,” mumbles Tan, staring into his ale.
“You want to talk about it?”
“What, my entire year?” Tan laughs, looking at him incredulously. He would accuse the boy of making fun of him, but his expression is too earnest.
“I mean, I don’t have anything else going on this evening,” he shrugs, and when his smile returns, Tan notices the way it pushes up two freckles on his cheek, like the rising of the moons. It makes him warm behind his ears. “Unless you wanted to come find out what a lamb is.”
“I know what a lamb is!” Tan tries to snap, but he’s grinning a little in spite of himself. “I don’t know your name, though.”
“Seyhan,” he replies. “And you’re Ravan Tan, right? The, ah, Tall Second?”
“Just–just call me Tan. Please.” He drops his face into his hands, rubbing his eyes until he sees stars. “I never really grew into the ‘Ravan.'” His name is possibly the biggest embarrassment in his life, and proof of why it is a bad idea to allow children to name themselves. Maybe Tatka Piç isn’t the slightest bit sweet, but at least people can’t tell that just by looking at her.
“Tan, then,” Seyhan says with a soft laugh, picking up Tan’s ale and taking a sip of it. The brazen familiarity catches Tan off-guard, and his shoulders relax. “Tell me about your bad year.”
“Tell me what a lamb is,” Tan shoots back, fingers brushing Seyhan’s as he reclaims the ale.
Seyhan raises his eyebrows, and he takes Tan’s arm in a way that makes the world seem a whole lot smaller. “I’ll show you.”
Together they walk to The Farmer’s Ring, where Seyhan lives with his grandfather. In the fields, the air is abuzz with the sounds of nightbugs; above them, the sky is a blanket of stars, with the soft glow of the moons gently illuminating the earth below.
“Alright,” says Seyhan, placing his hands on Tan’s shoulders. “If you look over there, that little pile of snow is in fact not snow at all, but an animal known as a–” Tan laughs, turning and giving him a gentle punch in the arm before he flops down into the grass. Seyhan settles beside him, and Tan feels more relaxed than he has in a very long time.
He looks up at the moons, and they look back down at him, and suddenly he’s telling a story. “There’s a village to the east where they believe that the moons are the mismatched eyes of a god with two souls. The souls are at war, which is why the eyes change and shift as the weeks go on, mapping the successes of their battle.”
“Who’s winning tonight?” Seyhan asks.
“Kashem, for sure,” Tan says with a nod, pointing up. “Her great white eye is wide, allowing her greatest sight, while her brother-soul’s small red eye is a sickle shape, in need of rest.”
“So is she going to win the battle?”
“No,” says Tan, frowning slightly. “It doesn’t work like that. They’ll fight forever, but neither will win. It’s just their… their cosmic necessity, I guess, to stay at war. There are small victories, like when one of the moons goes dark, but it always comes back later. It’s a cycle.” He nods again at this, looking over at Seyhan. “No matter what the local mythology is, everyone agrees that it’s part of a cycle. Ulloa, a few towns south, they think it’s a dance. On the coast, they describe it as a call to the waters, I think. But I don’t know my coastal lore super well.”
“Sounds like you know plenty to me.”
Tan looks away from Seyhan, feeling pride bubble in his chest. This, this is something that makes him feel capable. “It used to… it used to be my study.”
“Why’d you stop?” asks Seyhan, a crease in his brow. The moons on his cheek shift slightly.
“My brother died.”
The prospect of those words coming out always felt like an impossibility. Even the thought of them used to make something collapse in his chest. But here, beneath the eyes of the warring god-souls, the endless dance, the call to the waters, next to a stranger who doesn’t make him feel strange, Tan finds speaking them to be a relief.
“He was our… our linguist. He was only a year younger than me, but he knew so much. He understood things I don’t even have the words to explain, and he was funny, and he could talk to people and… and he’s dead now.” The words pour from him like draining a wound. “Khaipa Bes. That was his name.”
“Khaipa Bes,” Seyhan echoes, and the repetition brings him back to life, if only for a moment.
“When he died, I took up his role. I just thought that… if I didn’t, then it would be gone, and then he would be gone. Really gone. And I couldn’t have that, so I picked up his list, and I tried to do his work.” Seyhan takes his hand, intertwining their fingers. “But I didn’t expect to be so bad at it.” Tan laughs this time, shame sliding off him like water. It’s just the truth. “And I really, really don’t like doing it. And my whole family is just so…” He crinkles his nose, looking for the word.
“They make you do it?” asks Seyhan, frowning once more.
“No! Not at all!” insists Tan. “They want me to stop. They want me to go back to the stars, because they know it makes me happy. And that makes me so angry, because I want to, more than anything, to but I just… can’t. What right do I have to study what makes me happy when Bes can’t study anything at all?”
A silence passes between them. The nightbugs chirp and and trill, and Tan feels the stars looking into him, not through him. What a comfort, to be seen once more by the sky.
“Yeah,” says Seyhan. “That sounds like a pretty bad year.”
And this makes Tan laugh and cry at the same time. Because it was. Maybe it still is. And he can’t even feel stupid because then Seyhan is holding him close to his chest, and Tan closes his eyes, and he thinks that maybe words aren’t even the most important part of a language.
Like the stars. When he looks up at them, he isn’t driven by knowledge of what they are, but the feeling like he is a part of them. It’s the way his father can only describe music by playing it, or the way Çitla Yul speaks through roadmaps. It’s the way Tatka goes quiet when she’s alone in the woods, the way Azga can talk for hours without tiring, the way his mother conjures past into present. The way Jeteta laughs at terrible things.
The way Bes spoke the entire world into opening its heart.
It’s all the same, Tan thinks, sighing as Seyhan’s fingers comb out the tangles in his hair. It’s all the same.
The nightsky watches over him, its vast and private histories thrumming comfort through his bones. Love and study, death and travel, language and astronomy: there’s not much difference, so long as the feeling remains.
Chassia and Teylon
The first time Chassia awakens in the garden, she assumes it is a dream like any other. Why shouldn’t she? It holds all the characteristics of her typical dreams–the twist of time, the tilt of color, the blurred edges around the borders of her awareness, and all of this strangeness completely reasonable. And so she walks through the labyrinth of flora, wide-eyed and curious. The coolness of the high walls sinks into her skin, and she smells something that is and is not quite like wood: crisper, sweeter, nearly mildewed. Beneath her feet, the mossy stone path wends and winds. Her feet move entirely of their own will, guiding her toward something impossible.
When Chassia finds the man, he cannot speak to her, nor she to him. He stands before her in strange robes; his long, dark hair is tied back in the ka-Khastan style, in a low bun at the nape of his neck. His gaze is bright as moonlight, and Chassia wants to ask him what time it is, for the sky gives nothing away. There is a smile in his eyes as he tilts his head to the side like some thoughtful spaniel, and she would laugh if her voice could gain any traction.
She steps forward, and the man offers his hand to her. Who are you? she wonders through the silence, raising her palm to meet his. The wind weaves like water through the garden, and Chassia swears she feels the rise and fall of his chest, the inhale just before he speaks–
And she awakens to the shouts of her mother. Perhaps the entire neighbourhood does. Her hair sticks to her skin, damp with the humidity of a Chiropolene spring. She gazes out her window, both with and without herself, disoriented by the haze of the rising sun. Compared to the clouded texture of the dream garden, the edges of her waking are at once sharp and confining.
She sighs heavily, hearing the limits of her mother’s patience. She rises, washes her face, dresses–carries out her morning as she does all mornings, in a rhythmic monotone aligned with the seasons and the wishes of the upper-caste family she serves. She eats her breakfast and follows her mother and sister to the rice terraces, her basket heavy with seedlings to be planted.
As her fingers sink into the mud, she is reminded once more of the sweet coolness that came from the garden walls. This surprises her–most of her dreams slip from her like oil upon her waking, but this one refuses to leave. She remembers the smell, the mist, the man. His spirit-hour eyes and bashful hands, the silence between them that could have filled a full three-act harvest play. Come dinnertime, she is still unable to shake herself from the feeling of the dream.
And so she is not particularly surprised when she comes to once more in the garden. Still, she thinks, how strange it is to repeat a dream, to be placed in such a perfect replica of the previous night. The not-quite-wood smell settles into her hair; she hears the soft song of birds. And the man–he is there, too.
He sits in front of a scroll, brow furrowed in concentration, hardly noticing Chassia’s presence. For a long moment she is still, watching him at work. His lips outline the words on the page as though they are prayer, though she thinks she has never made a prayer so impassioned. When he at last looks up at her, his expression is at once startled and delighted, and though she can see in his eyes the desire to speak, she can still taste the thick petals of silence upon her lips. He sighs, an apology in his eyes, and offers his hand to her once more.
It is three more nights before they find their voices, and with them, share their names.
“Teylon,” he says, standing before the garden’s fountain. “Sulsumet Teylon, Archivist.”
“Teylon,” Chassia repeats, feeling out the shape of the ka-Khastan name on her lips. It sounds less syrupy in her voice. “I’m Elachassia. But just Chassia is fine.” She eyes his robes, clean despite their floor-touching length, and his skin, fair even by ka-Khastan standards. Hints that he has never done a day of labour in his life. Despite the fact that this is most certainly a dream, it is a pleasing sort of rebellion to befriend someone so high above her caste.
“Like the flower!”
“Come.” He takes her hand, gentle but insistent, and leads her to the walls of the garden. As they approach, a vine creeps down, blooming inflorescences of deep purple flowers patched with delicate cream. Teylon takes a cluster of buds in his hand, and they unfurl before her eyes as though it is the height of spring. “Sempaçik kassia. It only blossoms when the sun goes down.”
“Is it evening, then?” Chassia asks, looking up and searching for the moons.
Teylon brings her hand to the flowers he has grown, and she cradles them like baby birds. They smell like sweet red wine and spiced oranges, velvet upon her fingertips. Beside her, Teylon’s voice is quiet. “It’s always evening here, I think.”
A dozen visits later, Chassia comes to understand that this is true. But the daylessness soon becomes normal, and Chassia so anticipates her recurring dreams that she begins to veer off the path of the waking world. She forgets which chores she has done, and burns dinner so often that her younger sister takes over cooking duties. One day in the rice terraces, her favourite bracelet slips from her wrist without her even noticing. Her mother is exasperated, and scolds her often, but Chassia hardly hears.
It is easy to bear harsh words when her mind is so full of stories. For Chassia discovers that she is dreaming alongside a librarian.
“The Epic of Alon,” Teylon says one night, conjuring his beloved scrolls as Chassia sits behind him, braiding his hair, “is one of the Kingdom’s most celebrated and misunderstood tales. One hundred and seventeen texts were discovered in several sites across ka-Khasta, and scholars still haven’t been able to determine the order of events in the hero Alon’s life.”
“How long have they been working at it?” Chassia asks, turning Teylon’s head to better catch the light that moves within the mists.
“Oh, you know, three hundred years– Ah, careful!”
“Three hundred years?” she asks, too shocked to apologize for tugging his hair. “And they still don’t know?”
“It’s a complicated text! There’s reason to believe we’re still missing scrolls, and some people think a couple of the ones we have are fakes. And… interest has been lost in the past few decades,” he admits with a soft frown, his fingers brushing the scrolls affectionately. Chassia feels the pang within him as though it was born of her own sternum. “I don’t know of any other Archivists in Aç Sulsum who are still trying to decode it.”
Distantly, there comes a soft crumbling sound, like a mournful earthquake, the gentle surrender of stone. Chassia cannot place precisely what this noise is, or where exactly it has come from, but she thinks she knows why it is there. “Teach me,” she says.
“What?” Teylon looks back at her.
“Teach me,” she repeats, shifting so she can face him properly. “If a group of clueless librarians can’t figure it out–”
“–then maybe you need a Chirope.” She smiles, her heart jumping to see the look on his face. His pupils fix on her, moving back and forth rapidly, trying to keep the world in focus as wonder and realization fill him. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’re pretty good storytellers.”
When the librarian at last finds his words, they positively shimmer in the air. “You know, I have heard that.”
So their lessons begin.
From that night on, Chassia spends every slumbering moment immersed in the Epic of Alon, committing the stories to memory like the best days of her life. At first they cover the classics: Alon and the Sorrow Star, The Feast of Dreadful Pleasures, The Spirit Who Rose, The Woman Who Devoured Alon’s Liver. Chassia is enraptured, and Teylon translates dutifully into Chiropolene, only pausing to explain the words which do not carry over to his satisfaction. There are more of them than she would have expected, but it does not interfere with her enthusiasm.
Soon, Chassia can recount the stories with all the ease of a Teller. Her skill delights Teylon, and the garden’s mists swirl around her like puppies underfoot as she reenacts Alon’s Double Moon Hunt, complete with the howling of the many-headed wolves.
“You understand it!” he says, laughing and holding her hands. “No, you feel it. Don’t you?”
“It burns within my very breast,” she quotes in her best rendition of Alon’s powerful masculine voice, “like the passion of this dying sun!”
And while it is true, and wonderful, it is not without consequence. For the more time Chassia spends with Teylon, the more distant she becomes from the waking world. While her spirit thrives, her body deteriorates, and her family fears for her.
Three weeks into the study of Alon’s twelve-part underworld journey, Chassia loses her footing on the terraces. Before she can catch the breath needed to call for help, she is falling, her back slamming against hard stone, arms scrabbling to catch anything in the thick, wet soil. By the time she slows to a stop she has damaged a whole line of crops, and her ankle swells like a ripened plum.
Her mother is inconsolable, shouting and demanding answers, and through teeth gritted with pain Chassia says she was lost in a dream, a dream that has followed her for the better part of four months. Her mother is alarmed, of course, and calls a priestess to the house, who sits at the foot of Chassia’s bed and runs through a list of demons and gods who might have hold of her.
No, Chassia tells them, I don’t dream of flaming spiders or wild boars. I don’t see the deaths of loved ones, or the end of the world. My fingernails stay on the whole time. I can’t recount the secrets of the neighbour’s beloved.
One day, the priestess asks if perhaps she has dreamed of a man with the head of a fish, and a lovely singing voice. Teylon’s face comes to mind, full of scales and warbling out some terrible tune, and the priestess interprets the look on her face as an affirmative.
“It is wonderful news!” the priestess declares. “Your house is blessed by the god Phinades, a most fortunate visitation. Let this girl rest, for she has been touched by great power.”
And though her mother still seems doubtful, Chassia takes the opportunity with full enthusiasm. The longer she can stay in bed, the more likely it is that she can sleep, and in her dreaming, live.
For that is what she does now in the garden: she lives, and she learns, and she falls deeper in love with the Epic of Alon with every passing night. She knows the stories well enough to debate their order, and sometimes gets into full-blown shouting matches with Teylon, arguing about the track of Alon’s character development. He begins to teach her ka-Khastan, so she might read the words herself and see that he is right, but in learning them she only holds more adamantly to her position.
“Sulsumet Chassia,” he says to her, the false librarian’s title setting her heart alight even as he teases, “you have quite nearly mastered The Woman Who Devoured Alon’s Liver, you have learned the cost of arrogance, and still you persist in these foolish fantasies?”
“Sulsumet Teylon–Archivist!” she counters with a dramatic flourish, “perhaps if you unstuck your forehead from the scrolls, you would have even the slightest concept of human experience!”
So their nights go on, story after story, debate after debate, until soon the mythologies of their own lives slip into their studies. Chassia’s lost father, Teylon’s childhood dog. Teylon’s librarian’s training, Chassia’s favourite festival, where they serve almost exclusively her least favourite rice dish. Cautiously, for Chassia no longer thinks of this as a dream, she divulges her past affections for the son of the family she serves. In response, Teylon admits to a scandalous affair he once had in the geology wing with someone named Yagniç. Chassia thinks that might have been a man’s name, which surprises her, but she does not feel the need to question, or to judge. The world outside of the Chiropolene rice terraces is wide, and wonderful.
And so Chassia feels emboldened one night when she unwinds Teylon’s hair from its braid, lets him slip her shawl from her to reveal her bare shoulders. She feels herself outgrow all of her previous inhibitions as she lays him down beside the fountain, her hands on his chest, ever cool like riverwater. They make love in the way of old friends, the mists carrying the scent of kassia flowers through the garden.
They lie naked together, staring up at the moonless sky, feeling all that has changed and not changed. “I’ve been thinking…” Teylon begins, the uncertainty in his voice sending anxiety through Chassia. She does not want either of them to regret this. “Your interpretation of the Sorrow Star as Alon’s mother might actually be right. Could you talk me through it one more time?”
When Chassia sees his sincerity, she can do nothing but laugh in gratitude…
…only to wake up once more to a day in the terraces.
The work has always been tedious, but never before has it been so isolating. Her ankle heals, and she harvests the rice, hardly able to remember a time when the seedlings were just seedlings, when she was content without the one hundred and seventeen stories that rushed through her very being. Sometimes, she tells a story to her sister, who listens along without arguing. But Chassia sees the look on her face, the kind of patience reserved for the feeble and the mad. And so she grows quiet.
Her mother watches the change in her moods, asks her if there is a man, and what can Chassia say to her? Yes, there is, but the man only holds a single piece of my heart, which beats to bring life back into a long-abandoned epic.
In the waking world she is a ghost, and she grieves.
“I don’t sleep anymore, Teylon!” she cries one night. “There is no respite, no break–”
“Then let’s pause our studies for the night–” he offers gently, and anger flares in Chassia like a heat wave.
“No! That’s not what I want, that isn’t–Teylon, please, all I want is to keep going, to order the stories. I finally know them, I know myself, and I know what I need to do. But the sun-half of my life is wasted in the terraces, and it’s meaningless to me. It’s meaningless.” She paces the garden, her bare feet falling heavily on the stone path. “Three hundred years, and none of the librarians have figured out the Epic. They had their entire lives, and I only have half of mine. And there’s no telling how long any of us will live, so…” She trails off, shaking her head and feeling the longing through her very being. “It’s my purpose, Teylon. I see it now. I could spend my entire life on Alon, if I had the chance.”
The world changes then, the mists nearly freezing in place, an insistent ringing echoing through the garden. Teylon is suddenly so close to her, and he looks at her with that same moonlit gaze from the night they met. He takes her hands in his, and she thinks for a moment she feels the softest pulse of warmth from deep within his palms.
“Then come,” he says, his voice a plea and a summons and a prayer. “Come find me in the library. Come to Aç Sulsum.”
The vision of him sharpens, honing to such a point of definition that Chassia is startled to realize how hazy he has looked every night before. She awakens with a start, having sweat through the sheets.
The choice is made before she can even pretend to consider.
She packs with quiet urgency, leaving a note for her family and a promise to herself that she will return when she has answers, and finds the first transport to ka-Khasta she can take. As she rides away in a bumpy trader’s caravan, the dawn just barely breaking over the horizon, she sees how beautiful the terraces are from afar. She thinks, in time, she might even come to miss the view.
But for now, all she can focus on is her journey to Aç Sulsum. When the trader’s caravan arrives in a small ka-Khastan town, she uses her rocky language skills to barter a bag of rice for another ride with a merchant; she rides with him for four days before trading off with another, a dressmaker who asks her to model his designs from town to town for the duration of their journey together. It is strange work, but she thinks of Alon and the Silk Demon, and Teylon laughs to hear the comparison.
She changes along the road, blossoming into herself like sempaçik kassia beneath the moons. And she finds that Teylon, too, is changing. It worries her, at first, to see him so quiet, so peaceful. The bubbling urgency she has always known simmers down to something eerily gentle, and one night, as she strokes his hair, she worries that her fingers will slip through him entirely.
“Alon’s underworld journey makes sense to me now,” she says softly. “I used to think all of the feats were ridiculous, but they’re really… well, they’re quite reasonable, aren’t they? What wouldn’t we do to reach what we love? To bring it back above the earth?”
“Sulsumet Chassia,” Teylon replies, his voice in the mists and the walls and her own pounding heart, “I’m so thankful that you understand.”
Chassia’s final driver agrees to bring her to the library in exchange for a story. He’s heard the Chiropes are good storytellers, and is pleased when she chooses to recount Alon and the Softened Sea. Her rendition brings him to weeping, and he squeezes her hand before letting her off at the mighty gates of Aç Sulsum.
It is all Teylon claimed it to be, and larger still than she could have imagined. It is a fortress and a sanctuary, a vault opened to the public, a place of study and worship. It takes all of Chassia’s composure not to charge through like a madwoman, whooping and hollering. She rushes through the halls, eyes drunk off the tapestries and artifacts, dizzy at the thought of entering the garden once more.
The librarians are equally magical, dressed in robes similar to Teylon’s. Perhaps more in fashion. She’ll have to convince him to get new ones, the stubborn man. When she approaches a librarian and asks after Sulsumet Teylon, Archivist, they claim not to know him, gesturing to the Preservationist symbol on their robes. Chassia feels foolish, and makes a mental note to learn how to differentiate the librarian’s roles.
But when she comes across an Archivist, they do not know him either. Nor does the next, or the next. By the time she reaches her fifth librarian, she worries she might be sick on the marble floors. She explains her situation through barely-controlled tears, unable to believe that it was truly a dream.
“Sulsumet Teylon,” she says, voice shaking. “Archivist. He’s tall, with dark–dark hair, and bright eyes, and he studies the Epic of Alon. It’s his, his point of focus. It’s our study.”
The Archivist looks at her curiously when she mentions the epic, and then offers their hand, suggesting that they might seek the records to find where Sulsumet Teylon is studying now. Perhaps he has left Aç Sulsum. Chassia takes the hand, wishing with all her heart that she could confidently argue the impossibility of the idea.
When they reach the Sulsumet Records, Chassia goes first to the Archivist stack, narrows it down to the literary focuses. One story after another after another after another until The Epic of Alon appears, shining despite the well-worn lettering. The scroll is old, with a smell that is at once wood and not wood, a sweetness that curls at the edges. When Teylon said the study had fallen out of favor, she did not expect it to be all but abandoned. She unrolls the scroll, searching through the names of librarians, marveling at their signatures until–
Sulsumet Teylon (Zarin), Archivist
Research Logs: KA-4760-264-18
Chassia’s grief falls over her in one hundred and seventeen distinct parts. In her dreams, she has been reborn a thousand times, made and unmade by an epic. She thinks her sorrow should undo all of it, should level her to nothing in this waking life. And yet she stands, liver devoured and spat out again, guided by a sorrow star, greeted by a feast of such dreadful, dreadful pleasures.
Looks like I have a leg up studying the underworld, Sulsumet Chassia. She imagines the words from Teylon’s lips, the quirked smile of apology, the countless scrolls cradled in his arms. His patience and his desperation. The shimmer in his eyes as she reimagined his favourite stories. She will spend the rest of her life cloaked in gratitude to have been found by this man, this myth.
So when she begins weeping in full, she finds it is not just for sorrow, but for joy. She turns to the Archivist, taking in the first breath of her life, and asks the question that makes her anew:
“How do I become a librarian?”
The travelers are visible now from atop the walls of the library, exiting the mountains with all the solemnity of a funeral procession. It has been nearly a week since Aç Sulsum received word of the party’s arrival from Khebeg. Not enough time to refuse them, not with the distance they traveled, or the lengths they went to acquire their precious cargo. Perhaps it is just his imagination, but Aldun thinks he can see it now: the mound packed with snow, carried by no less than six strong men. Guarded by who knows how many more.
If he has learned anything in this long war, it is that victory rarely feels victorious. Most of the time, it takes years before scholars can definitively say who won, if anyone at all.
Behind him, Aldun hears footsteps that he immediately knows to be his brother’s: heavy despite his slight frame, as though all of his passion was directed straight into his soles. Sayadh is a man built for honesty, down to his very bones. It makes him an excellent librarian, and a challenging companion.
“That’s them, then?” The man’s voice is tight even now, cautious and hostile in equal measure.
“Indeed,” Aldun replies, watching the distant travelers make their way back into the dense woods. “They’ll be to the gates by nightfall.”
There is silence between them. Aldun breathes in the winter air, the sharp chill of it opening space back up in his lungs. There is little left to say that has not already been said, that has not been debated through every hall, over every meal. And yet, there is no resolution. Sayadh steps beside him, holding his cloak shut. His eyes are soft, even as his gaze is hard upon the horizon, and Aldun thinks it best to respond before his brother has the chance to make the same protestation he’s heard for the past week.
“I will not turn them away at the door,” he says quietly. “Not after what they have done for us. For humanity. It would be a great disrespect.”
“I’m not asking you to turn them away, I’m asking you to consider.”
Aldun laughs, shaking his head in exhausted wonderment. What does Sayadh think he’s been doing for the past week? For his entire career as Aç Sulsum’s Head Curator? “I ask that you trust me not to be so careless as to make this decision lightly.” Sayadh opens his mouth, an argument already on his tongue, but Aldun raises a hand to quiet him. “The best path is to accept the Beg’s gift without acting on their wishes.”
It is a fair compromise, he thinks. Satisfying, even. But Sayadh’s expression is pained, and his voice trembles when he speaks. “But can you say with certainty that it is the path you will choose? Truly?”
Aldun has no answer.
The Beg are a formidable people, walking strongholds, stubborn as their winters. Aldun has heard this many times from the Collectors who journeyed far to the north, but today is the first time he sees it for himself. The hunter Gurza stands before him, her eyes piercing against the thick charcoal painted around them in the Beg fashion, her body strong beneath dark leather armor that has been tailored to look like scales. She had refused Aç Sulsum’s best interpreter, insisting on using her own, who happens to have a blade attached to the point where his forearm stops. The librarian didn’t take Aldun’s dismissal personally; in fact, he seemed quite relieved.
Which is fair. Standing beside them, Aldun feels like a schoolboy again, anxious to stay hidden among the library’s shelves. As Gurza recounts the details of the hunt, Sayadh transcribes her story onto a long piece of parchment, his mouth a tight line. None of them look at the icy mound in the middle of the room, covered by a heavy tarp.
“We had been observing the creature’s nest for nearly a month before it wandered far enough to hunt safely. Once it stepped into our territory, we pushed it west, toward the Smiling Caves.” She clears her throat, looking to Aldun. “We lost our tracker, but we have the maps of his route. I ask that he be generously credited in your records.”
“Of course. You will all be credited for your roles in acquiring the specimen.” The translator passes his response to Gurza, and Aldun does not think it is his imagination when he sees her expression betray whatever the Beg version of gratitude is. He would never dare say it aloud, but they are all of them hardened by grief. No hunt comes without cost.
The woman nods, rubbing her chin with a heavy sigh. It reminds Aldun of the way his father would scratch his beard when he was troubled. “We expected to camp outside the caves for several weeks before it would be weak enough for us to attack. No matter how well we track them, it doesn’t stop the yabazlet from being a bitch to kill. Takes a hunting knife to get through the damn skin alone.” She waves over another hunter who stands with a bound stack of papers Aldun assumes to be the logs. “Which is why we were surprised when the thing was barely able to stand before the week was out.”
Aldun frowns. “So quickly?”
“It nearly starved to death before we had the chance to put it down. Our pursuit weakened it, no doubt, but not enough for it to fall so quickly. There was hardly any fight left in it when we made the cut.” Gurza pats the back of her neck in emphasis, then nods to the hunter with the logs. “Her guess is that there may be something we don’t understand about…” The interpreter hesitates, apparently unsure of the ka-Khastan translation of the word.
“Metabolism,” Sayadh says quietly, not looking up from his task. Aldun worries this may be taken as a slight, but then Gurza says something that makes the other hunters laugh. The joke is lost on Aldun, who finds himself wishing he had his brother’s skill with language.
“She says it is lucky for me that she has no patience for southerners’ chatter, or I might have just lost my job to this man,” says the interpreter. His cheeks are red, but he is smiling as a companion shoves him playfully. “Even if he is thinner than the kindling.”
Sayadh doesn’t laugh, and Aldun is trying to figure out how in the world he is going to respond to that when Gurza hushes her team. When she looks back at Aldun, the intensity of her gaze strikes him all over again. “There are other things about you southerners that worry me, Curator. You are superstitious.” His stomach falls. “Let me tell you something. I have lived forty two years, and in those years I have killed many yabazlet. Their death is fearsome, yes. But it is also final. No matter what you do with their corpses. Burn or bury or scatter or study. They do not come back. In that way, they are very much like us.” Aldun swallows. The scratch of Sayadh’s pen against the dry parchment is deafening. “I give you this specimen, as you call it, and ask for no compensation. But you should know what it cost me. Eight lives. Including that of my brother, whose maps will stay in your care.”
“I am–” Aldun’s throat feels suddenly raw, as though it has been scraped down by stone. He swallows, feeling the complete inadequacy of his condolences behind the high walls of his library. “I am so sorry, for your–”
Gurza waves him off with a harsh look. “The hunters cannot win this war alone, Curator. We come humbly to Aç Sulsum to ask you to contribute to our efforts. If not in blood, then in wisdom. Surely you have some of that.”
Aldun does not sleep that night. He lies in his cot and traces lines upon the ceiling with his eyes, searching for answers in the stone. Sometimes, he imagines he can hear the wispy prayers of Curators who came before him, searching for wisdom just as he does now. But tonight, all he hears are the words of his brother, repeated over and over in his mind.
When the Beg finally left, Sayadh had confronted him in his quarters. He clutched the Book of Evin in his hands like a child’s blanket, weeping as he made his final protest. “The Prophet Evin’s son was rent apart by the shalledra Gehelenine, returned to him in a sack of grain like so much spoiled harvest. He wept for seven months, for the seven pieces that were once his beloved child, but he did not take his revenge. He… he mourned for his daughter when she took it herself, Aldun. This is how I will mourn for you, should you consent to keeping this corpse like some sort of war prize. We must hunt them, yes. But we cannot do this terrible work. What kind of people would it make us?”
Aldun cannot say. He thinks it would take years to find an answer that would settle his heart. But he does not have years. Many floors below him, the ice is melting, welcoming rot; there is no time to grapple with his humanity. Not when so much time has been lost already on transport.
He rises from his bed, pulling back his long hair and slipping into his robes. His brother may mourn the man this choice will make him into, but Aldun cannot think as a man. Not when he must act as a Curator.
In his fourteen years as the head of Aç Sulsum, Aldun has been presented with more shalledrim artifacts than he cares to consider. He has filed the accounts, organized the illustrations, stowed away the terrible weaponry. But never has he seen a full corpse. Not until today. Much of it is how he expected: the garishly bright skin, this specimen bearing a poisonous blue; the violent tear at the base of its skull; the mixed reactions of the scholars in the room, ranging from lurching sickness to sickening delight.
What he wasn’t prepared for was how small the creature would be.
Not once in their logs did the hunters mention that the shalledra was not yet fully grown. He supposes that wouldn’t matter much to them. It killed half their party. Aldun swallows. His eyes fall on the unridged throat of the boy before him.
No. Not a boy.
“Curator?” The nervous voice of the transcriptionist brings Aldun back to himself. To his duty. He murmurs an apology, taking a step toward the corpse and reminding himself of the words meant to begin these records.
“This is the intake log of artifact KP-4190-3-19, as dictated by Sulsumet Aldun, 82nd Curator of Aç Sulsum.” His voice is steady. He is not sure how. “Shalledra corpse. Whole, save for the gash inflicted by the finishing blow at the base of the skull, and weight loss from a brief period of starvation preceding its death.” The corpse looks up at nothing with decay-clouded eyes, still boasting a hint of brilliant silver. Aldun tells himself he is only imagining the fear in them, that it is only his own anxiety reflected back at him. “Adolescent male. Precise age unknown. Skin: blue sodalite pattern. Hair and eyes appear to be matching shades of silver. Consult artist’s logs for closer rendering.”
He glances at the artist, who does not appear to be breathing as he rapidly sketches the figure. Behind him, the Preservationist cleans her tools impassively. Aldun averts his eyes, feeling faint at the idea of how she plans to use them. He reaches for the creature’s hand, so cold from the ice, and allows the gentle weight of it to rest in his own. It’s only a child, he wants to say, but he knows the words to be irrational. For one, it is dead; all its pain ended on the edge of a Beg blade. More importantly, it is a shalledra. He cannot disrespect his ancestors with such misplaced compassion.
“The skin…” He turns the hand carefully in his own, and his voice catches in his throat. “Aside from its color, it should be noted that the skin has a texture similar to marble.” The fingers are long, slim. Much like his mother’s, working delicately at the Chiropolene harp. “There is a nail cracked on the second finger of the right hand.” Or Sayadh’s, taking notes by candlelight. “Likely–likely damaged in the struggle.”
The assumption would certainly be in line with the Beg’s logs. Aldun had read them closely, until he felt as though he had been there himself, standing beside the hunters with his own knife, watching the shalledra claw at the ground before the cut was made. In his bed, the details made him feel secure in his research. Now, holding the hand of this small and fragile monster, Aldun feels more uncertain than ever.
In the final days of his Initiation, the previous Curator had invited him to accompany her on a walk through the gardens. She held his arm for balance, and spoke candidly with him in her chalk-scratch voice. “To be a Curator,” she said, “is to step outside of time. Much like an oracle, but with fewer food offerings. You must view your present as though it is the past, and identify the details that will shape humanity’s future. Every decision is a matter of history, my dear. Do you think you have the wisdom to discern what must be preserved?”
Had it been Sayadh in his place, he thinks the answer could have been yes. But Aldun has never had the confidence of his brother, so when she asked, he simply looked away in shame. To his surprise, she patted his arm then. “Me neither. Forty five years as Curator, and some days I still can’t tell the pebbles from the beans. I suppose it’s up to my descendants to see whether or not they grow.”
Aldun had smiled, then.
He is not smiling now. But he rests the shalledra boy’s hand back upon the table, and he continues his work just the same.
No Small Cons
“That’s the library?”
The blood drains from Dogyal’s face like piss wrung from a towel. Of course he’s heard tales of the grand library of Aç Sulsum, what self-respecting member of the kingdoms hasn’t? But no story could have prepared him for the absolute fortress standing just beyond the hills: bulwarked to the moons, stuffed with bookish assassins, and topped with canons large enough for Dogyal to stuff at least one donkey in, provided it was flexible.
“Unpillaged for six hundred years and counting,” Çazma replies with a cackle, entirely unbothered.
“This is insane,” he groans, pressing the heels of his palms to his eyes.
“Completely. No more small cons after this, cousin mine!”
“Maybe I liked the small cons.”
“Yeah, but I have this wild feeling that you’ll like a mountain of treasure even better. And once we have our map, what’s left to stop us?” Çazma gives Dogyal a hearty thump on the back, knocking him backwards into the cart. To this, he can only groan once more, louder this time, as a montage of possible death plays before his eyes.
Pushed from one of the walls. Mangled in some awful trap. Lost and left to rot in the labyrinth of texts. Stabbed by a librarian. Strangled by a librarian. Pummeled to death by a librarian, with a book.
What could stop them, indeed.
But they are far past the point of backing out, and if Dogyal is being honest with himself, he wouldn’t give up this heist for anything. Not after so many months of planning and rehearsing their story, exchanging letters upon letters, and confronting the formidable task of convincing his father to allow them to take “Esra’s Fashion on Wheels” so far out of town in the first place. And that’s not even to mention the practice rounds of sewing robes at top speed, or the backyard wrestling matches to prepare for a fight with a rogue librarian. This has been the most exciting thing to happen in Dogyal’s life in recent memory.
Still, for the sake of providing the illusion of reason to this venture, he carries on looking sullen.
“Take a breath, goat face.” Çazma pulls aside the cart, giving the mule a moment to rest as she digs around for their disguises. “This was your idea, anyway. Have a little faith.”
“No,” Dogyal insists, sitting up just in time for a heavy merchant’s tunic to get tossed into his face. He yanks the fabric off his head, raising his voice. “No it most certainly was not my idea, it was my plan. There is a distinct difference between the two Çazma, as I have told you many times.”
Çazma snorts, pulling a hideous face that Dogyal refuses to acknowledge is an imitation of him. “‘The bad idea gets us out the door, and the good plan gets us back in.’ Yes, it’s a very clever little proverb. Maybe the librarians will buy it off you.”
“Is that how it works?” he asks, suddenly struck with the knowledge of how little he knows about the library. “They buy information?”
“How should I know?” Çazma shrugs, wiggling into her own tunic. “I’m just here to steal it.”
By the time they reach the gates of Aç Sulsum, Dogyal has forced Çazma to rehearse their cover story a dozen times over (“We are the finest purveyors of cloth across the kingdoms! And O, we wish to share this gift with the fine librarians who relentlessly pursue knowledge in the face of destruction!”), and is feeling very nearly confident that they could come out of this with all their limbs still attached. He tilts his chin proudly, stepping off the cart and holding the library’s correspondence to his chest. He runs his thumb over the seal of the letters, reassuring himself of the integrity of this plan. It will work. Of course it will. As long as Çazma doesn’t–
“My good Sulsumite!” she exclaims in the direction of the first librarian she sees, knocking Dogyal out of his internal monologue and nearly flat on his ass in horror.
The librarian arches an eyebrow. “Can I help you?”
“I am Çazma, and this is my cousin Dogyal. He would introduce himself to you, but the poor man had quite a bit of bad luck with the swallow pox last month. Rendered mute.” She shakes her head mournfully, and Dogyal resists the urge to pummel her for smothering his cover story right in the cradle. “We are the family of the great Esra, master of Fashion on Wheels, and we come at last to deliver you new robes!”
“…New robes?” the librarian asks.
“New robes!” repeats Çazma, lifting her arms with a triumphant flourish. Dogyal hands the letters over to the librarian with a meek bow, because it seems the right thing to do in this circumstance.
“Didn’t think that was in the budget,” the librarian mutters, checking the seals on the letters. Dogyal swallows, fidgeting with his tunic. After a moment that seems to go on forever, she sighs. “All right, well, let’s get you to the Curator.”
The initial walk through the library almost feels longer than the week spent traveling by cart, stuffed with more than the eye can possibly take in. The structure is marvelous, its enormous wings full of wonders enough that even Çazma falls silent for a few minutes. Compared to his village, Dogyal thinks this place is nothing short of an architectural miracle. For a brief moment, he forgets their scheme, and can think only about how easy it would be to spend a life here. To build a life here.
Quicker to thieve, though.
They walk past The Corridor of Language, cross the Footbridge of the Forgotten. Dogyal adjusts the fabric strapped to his back, listening to Çazma resume chattering at the librarian. As much as he resents his cousin making a vow of silence on his behalf, particularly when he knows himself to be the more charming of the two, each step he takes brings him closer to understanding her reasoning.
For all that the librarian seems exasperated with Çazma, she hasn’t once looked at Dogyal for reprieve from his cousin’s deluge of conversation. His silence keeps him out of view, and in doing so, provides a better vantage point of the library’s layout.
Çazma, he thinks, you brilliant pile of shit.
The names of the corridors are carved above the archways, inlaid with many colored stones. Dogyal takes them in as quickly as possible; this is about as close to a tour as they ever had a chance of getting, and certainly their best bet at figuring out where to find a map. Çazma is in the middle of telling yet another riveting story about the mule when Dogyal notices the statue: it stands proud as a guard, chin lifted, a vine-tangled blade clutched to its breast. High above its head, the archway reads “Explorers of the Ages.” Silently, Dogyal rounds the corner with his cousin and the librarian, giddiness and terror bubbling in his chest.
Several flights of stairs later, their meeting with the Curator goes smoother than they could have hoped. Dogyal would have liked to do more of the talking, given that he is the successor to Esra’s Fashion on Wheels, but he settles for holding up the robes with all due flair as Çazma points out their exciting features. (“Easily rolled sleeves! Soft yet durable fabric! Pockets!”) In the end, they offer to leave two dozen completed pieces for the Curator to test among the librarians.
“Should they be well-received,” Çazma explains, “you just write to us with the additional quantity you require. This trial is a perfect time to test out the design, and determine if you need any changes made! A bit more budget friendly, to test before you invest.”
The wink she gives with that statement is a bit much, but the Curator is sold nonetheless. Hands are shaken, papers are signed, and they’re sent off to dinner, where Çazma insists her dear cousin positively covets the delicacy known as pickled quail eggs. The librarians are nothing if not generous, and Dogyal spends the rest of the meal willing himself not to vomit out a nest.
By the time they reach their quarters, he finds himself a bit low on goodwill despite the success of the evening.
“You could have warned me,” he grumbles, rapidly sewing his best pass at a librarian’s robe. “It wouldn’t have killed you to just ask for my silence to be a part of the plan.”
“You were in one of your moods–gah!” Çazma curses, sucking on the finger she just she stabbed with a sewing needle. “You would’ve said no just to be difficult.”
Dogyal squints, aware that this is entirely true, but unwilling to lose an argument about it. He puts down his robe and snatches Çazma’s, picking up where she left off with her stitches. “Well. If you’re willing to forgive me for being a human with moods instead of an animated flagon of beer, I’d be glad to let you know where we’re going to find that map.”
After the shockingly fortunate events of the day, Dogyal thoroughly expects that now, at the height of the heist, is when they will certainly be caught and murdered for their folly. After all, someone always needs to be up on the lookout for thieves or shalledrim or an abundance of moths that might have a go at the parchment. But all is quiet as they slink through the halls in their librarian disguises, and they arrive at the statue without any trouble and slip into “Explorers of the Ages”. Beside him, Çazma is literally bouncing on her heels, and Dogyal feels quite a bit like he might be sick.
“Evin’s balls.” The hall contains more scrolls than Dogyal thought existed in the entire world, all beehived in wall-to-wall shelves as high as the ceilings. This is just one room, he thinks, overcome by a sudden sense of vertigo.
“Now what?” Çazma whispers, closing the door behind them. A forgotten lantern sits on a study table, offering a gentle glow that illuminates the room.
“We… take one,” Dogyal replies, his mouth gone dry.
“I don’t–I don’t know, Çazma! One that’s a map!” He blinks rapidly, taking the lantern and raising it to the shelves. “Honestly, I assumed we’d be dead before we made it this far.”
Çazma groans, grabbing at the first scroll within her reach. “Well how are we supposed to know which ones are maps?!”
“Years of study tend to help with that.”
The librarian steps out of the dark, sending Dogyal flying out of his skin. Despite the fact that she barely reaches Çazma’s shoulders, she moves with the wicked confidence of a street cat, her sharp features made even more fierce by the look of amusement on her face. Or perhaps it’s the blade in her left hand. Dogyal looks from the lantern to the librarian, realizing his incredible stupidity, and lets out an undignified noise not unlike the squeak of a bad wheel. Beside him, Çazma grips the scroll like a weapon, fists clenched like she’s ready for a tavern brawl.
“So sorry! We’re–we’re from out of town,” Dogyal stutters, grasping for any plausible explanation that could keep them alive. “New! We’re new. Quite new.”
The librarian tilts her head, using her the flat of her knife to push her fringe back from her eyes. “So which is it?” she drawls. “Are you new, or are you from out of town?”
“Out of town,” Çazma says, the steadiness of her voice alerting Dogyal to how frantic his own sounds.
He takes a deep breath in through his teeth, forcing a smile and praying it doesn’t look entirely like a grimace. “I know it’s terribly–terribly rude of us. We just, we had to explore. We were so curious about this marvelous, ah, library, and we were so curious that we couldn’t help ourselves! But, yes, we understand it’s off limits, and we do apologize, don’t we, cousin?”
Çazma opens her mouth to do so, perhaps for the first time in her life, when the librarian gasps, bringing her hands to her cheeks, knife and all. “Wait a moment!” she says, wide-eyed, “I’ve heard of you!”
“You…you have?” asks Dogyal, frowning despite himself.
“Esra’s Fashion on Wheels, right?”
“Yes!” Dogyal practically shouts, hoping blossoming hysterically in his chest as the librarian beams.
“You’re the one who gave us the marvelous new robes!” the librarian exclaims, looking to Çazma and clasping her hands together.
“Yeah,” Çazma laughs nervously, glancing to Dogyal and loosening her grip on the scroll. “Yeah, that was me!”
“Oh, the craftsmanship is just spectacular. And you–” She turns to Dogyal, her eyes positively sparkling. “You’re the one who can’t talk!”
Dogyal’s words die in his throat. In the back of his mind, a grim voice comments that he’s been made an honest man. Beside him, Çazma looks like someone just sneezed into her beer. All the while, the librarian howls at her own joke, all the feline swagger returned to her demeanor. “You’re going to kill us, aren’t you?” he asks.
“I mean, I definitely could.” The librarian nods, turning the blade over in her hands as she recovers from her laughing fit. “And most certainly should. I mean, you entered Aç Sulsum under false pretenses, lied to the Curator, snuck around disguised as librarians, and clearly intended to rob the place. But you know…” She purses her lips, looking over at the wall they had been searching moments before. “I’m going to go ahead and honor the age-old spirit of knowledge and ask what exactly you thought you were searching for?”
Dogyal watches the librarian pace the stacks, staring down the scrolls with a peculiar look on her face. Perhaps it is just his own anxiety showing through in the face of imminent death, but she seems…disdainful?
“A map,” Çazma says, crossing her arms. “We were looking for a map.”
“Any map in particular?”
“One that’ll bring us to treasure.”
“Çazma…” Dogyal says warningly, uncertain where this is going.
“Any…treasure in particular?” the librarian looks up at them lazily, lightly dragging the blade along the reference numbers.
“I dunno, lady,” says Çazma in a flat voice, drumming her fingers in irritation. “Whichever one keeps us fat and happy for the rest of our days.”
“Mm.” The librarian steps toward Çazma, who, being a complete lunatic, doesn’t so much as flinch. She holds out her hand, nodding to the scroll, which Çazma unceremoniously slaps down into her open palm. “Well, this is a supply list. So not only is your plan abysmal, but so is your execution.” She wrinkles her nose with a smile, pops the scroll back into the wall and, to Dogyal’s surprise, reaches for another.
“Do you have a name?” he asks her cautiously.
“Sulsumet Zofia, Preservationist.” There it is again–that disdain. There is venom in her voice as she speaks the last word of her name.
“And what does that mean, ah, Preservationist?” He watches her open up a new scroll, frowning slightly as she skims it.
This gets Zofia’s attention, and she looks up at him with her eyebrows raised. “It’s one of the librarian’s roles. We catalog and preserve the artifacts that Collectors go out and retrieve. Only slightly less paperwork than the Archivists have to deal with, and about as much fun.” She rolls the scroll tightly, swapping it out for yet another with a shake of her head. “Truly, I have no idea what you were both thinking, trying to rob Aç Sulsum. You’re so far in over your heads.”
“That’s how we tend to roll,” says Çazma. “It’s worked out so far.”
“Has it?” Zofia says, squinting and waving her knife at them, as though they might have ever forgotten that small, pointy detail.
Çazma shrugs. “You haven’t killed us yet.”
“And I don’t think I actually intend to.” Dogyal’s legs about give out right then and there. He has a thousand questions rushing through him, and is quite ready to barf them all out when she continues: “On one condition. Take me with you.”
Çazma laughs once, loud and sharp, and Dogyal almost drops the lamp. “Sorry,” he asks, shaking his head, “what was that?”
“You heard me, swallow pox.” Zofia looks right at him, and beneath the smug self-assurance he sees that she is serious.”Whatever it is you’re planning, assuming you have a plan at all, I want to come with you.”
“What, you’d rather die?” the librarian asks, raising the knife again, and Çazma looks over at Dogyal like she’ll gladly kill him herself if he doesn’t shut up.
“No!” he shouts, raising his hands. “Absolutely no! I mean, of course you can come along, if you’d like? Your knowledge would undoubtedly be useful, and I’m certainly not trying to die today. I just want to know… why?” He gestures to the library, feeling the way its strange magic clings gently to his skin. Or maybe that’s just fear-sweat.
Zofia goes quiet then, a look of consideration softening her features. When she finally speaks, there is an edge to her voice that reminds Dogyal of mornings with his father, of the endless frustration of being less than a foot shy of getting the life you want. “I came to Aç Sulsum to be a Collector, not to rot in the stacks for the rest of my life.” Her shoulders lower as she speaks the words aloud, and when she looks up, her eyes are burning with something Dogyal understands to his core. “Fuck my test scores. I want to see the world. And if they won’t let me study it, I’m glad to settle with pillaging it.”
“Well,” says Çazma, leaning back against a table with a smirk, “I guess I can tolerate working with a second-rate Collector.”
“And I suppose I can deal with some third rate thieves.” Zofia sheathes her blade and passes the scroll to Dogyal with a grin of her own, fearsome and fantastic. His heart skips as he unrolls it in breathless delight, revealing a map that he can hardly read to a place he’s never heard of. He sees mountains, rivers, and warnings galore about the dangers of pursuit.
In short, it’s perfect.
“No more small cons after this, cousin mine.” Çazma thumps him on the back, and he doesn’t even mind when the contact makes him stumble.
No more small cons, indeed.
The Research Journals of Sulsumet Ogchinei
I returned this afternoon from my excursion to the Western Mountains, where I am pleased to say I successfully collected my specimen: a Pearlescent Cave Crawler in utmost health, with all sixteen limbs happily in place. It appears to be approaching the final stage of its known life, which makes it ideal for my study. Should my research pan out as expected, I will, in approximately two weeks’ time, be the first human ever to bear witness to its remarkable metamorphosis into the Subterranean Click, thereby proving my theory that the two creatures are not cousins, but in fact the same creature in different states.
Ilim thinks I can’t do it, the git. He would be wrong for a great number of reasons, including but not limited to the following: 1.) his being a git, 2.) his limited knowledge of the field of metamorphoses, and 3.) his atrocious lack of imagination. If you are reading these journals now, Ilim, I can only assume it is because I have achieved such illustrious success that they have archived my personal writings and etched my name into the ceiling of the biology wing. Don’t hurt your neck straining to get a better look!
For now, I plan to finish my intake form and retire early. The creature is still recovering from its travels, and I am much the same. I imagine we will both sleep well tonight.
The Crawler seems to be taking well to the enclosure I designed. It is very fortunate that its natural habitat is so dark and damp–easier to imitate than the more extreme environment (see: noxious steam vents) that the Click tends to prefer. It will be interesting to see how it responds to this milder habitat post-metamorphosis. For now, it keeps to the hiding spaces. I’m sure it would prefer more holes to slink into, just as I would prefer it stay in plain sight for ease of study. But we all must compromise for the sake of research.
I have brought Rozh in to take down some illustrations of the Crawler. She has been incredibly helpful during this trying process; her illustrative skills far exceed my own, and her enthusiasm makes the work quite a bit less lonely. Not that I have any regrets about my dissertation–it is just nice to have a companion who has faith in the work and, dare I say, in me.
I find myself wishing I had also caught a Subterranean Click while in the Western Mountains. I know it would have been near impossible to transport home–the sound alone would have driven me to insanity, and one strike from its pounding apparatus could have easily broken the fingers of the handler (who would, let’s face it, most certainly be myself). But still, a detailed illustration of the creature, or better yet, a preserved body, would have been a worthy specimen to offer Aç Sulsum. Perhaps on my next excursion.
In other news, I fear the work may be rubbing off on me. I noticed by my lamplight a small patch of dry skin above my right elbow. And of course, now that I’ve seen it, it feels terribly itchy. I must have brushed it against something nasty in the caves. Just my luck.
I am becoming somewhat concerned about the state of the Crawler’s health. It has refused all of the food I have provided since its arrival, despite the fact that I have kept well in line with its observed diet in the wild. Its exoskeleton is losing some of its lustre, and the crickets continue to succeed in their conquest of my study.
I thought perhaps this fast could be indicative of its oncoming metamorphosis, but after further research, I’m finding that hypothesis to be inconsistent with other case studies. In fact, many of the other similar metamorphosing organisms tend to eat in excess before their process begins– the Southern Night Tyzen is even known to cannibalize its young for nutrients. I will try rearranging its habitat, or else offering it fatter crickets, and perhaps a slug or two. I’m sure no one would mind me liberating a few of those from the garden.
In personal news, the rash still itches miserably. I think it might even be spreading. I’ll have to go down to the hospital wing and see what they have for ointments. It would be foolish to let this irritation get in the way of my work.
I am surrounded on three sides by trouble: on my left, the withering Crawler; on my right, that contrary bastard Ilim; and dead ahead, the ever-multiplying crickets. My fourth side is comprised of a stone wall, on which I have considered bashing my head multiple times throughout the day. I think I must be coming down with some sort of fever. I passed out mid-afternoon with my head on my notes, and woke up having sweated right through them. It took ages to scrub the ink off of my face, and there’s still a spot on my cheek where the word “fissure” is vaguely visible.
Rozh was the one to point it out, because of course she would come to visit when I feel less than a mile from the City of the Dead. I asked her if anyone else has taken ill recently, but it appears I am the only one. The sole upside to this situation is that most of the other librarians appear to be avoiding me for the sake of their health, which gives me the time needed to dedicate my attention to the Crawler.
I wish I had more uplifting news about the creature. It appears to be becoming sluggish, as anyone would after four days without eating. Its color continues to dull as well, either indicating sickness, or its transformation into the significantly less pearlescent Subterranean Click. I am trying to remain hopeful.
Unwell today. Fever is high, and my limbs ache enough that writing is a chore. Notes at a pause. The creature has still not eaten.
I fear something may be deeply wrong with me. Throughout the past few days, my health has continued to decline, and I struggle to work without becoming distracted by the pain. There is a throbbing in my very bones that keeps me up throughout the night, and my eyes ache to look at anything for too long. I cannot bring myself to eat.
Rozh is worried about me. She says I have been working myself into the ground, and I ought to go back to the hospital wing to seek further treatment. But I do not have the time to turn away from my studies, and the ointment they provided me did nothing to help the rash in the first place. Perhaps I would have sought help two days ago, had I the energy to stand, but I fear it is no longer possible.
It’s my skin.
I am filled with dread to write the words down; I hardly dare to think them without terror scratching its claws into my heart. But I fear if I do not record my thoughts now, I may never have another chance. It sounds mad, but I am overcome by this terrible premonitory feeling: it tells me I will soon lose my lucidity, and myself. I do not know where this sickness has come from, but it seems as though it has seeped into my very mind, rotting holes through all reasonable thought.
The rash on my arm is spreading, the skin rippled in raw irritation. It is tight and loose all at once, like a stubborn layer of decay that clings past its endpoint. I have stared at it for hours, touching it tenderly and then furiously. It spreads faster than I can document, and my head is too fogged with fever to determine the true passage of time.
My work is suffering for it. How could it not? And the creature suffers as well. It has taken on a sickly grey tone, and stays confined to one corner of the enclosure. I fear it will not survive to metamorphosis. I fear neither of us will.
As I write these words, I cannot help but wonder if it would be wiser to simply burn them. Burn the journals, burn the research, burn my very body. Scorch my name from the records and pass into oblivion in peace, before I can be denied entry to the Underworld. For how could I be let in, knowing now what I am to become?
Today, the skin upon my arm grew thin and dry as old paper. Beneath it, I saw something impossible. In my terror I scratched at it wildly, as if I could tear the image from existence. The skin caught beneath my nail and peeled up, molting from my body. Beneath it: green. Not the pus of infection, but the verdant evergreen of the ka-Khastan deepwood. Its loveliness stunned me into silence before I was sick upon my desk.
I have seen my death. It is velvet to the touch.
Never have I heard of a case like this before. Though we do not discuss it in polite society, scholars know and agree that both of our species are sexually compatible. The resulting offspring can take the form of man or monster; their future is as the flip of a coin.
My father was no demon. My mother was no shalledra. And yet, I turn. An unprecedented horror.
Shalledrology is not my area of study–I have little interest in their butchery and grandiosity. So I am caught in a difficult place, for I sit in a library full of records and artifacts and experts, and I can go to none of them for help without looking suspicious. I hardly dare to leave my room in such a state. How long before the rest of my skin falls from me? Before my eyes shatter into deadly, spectacular color? I have already felt an itch in my scalp, and awoken to clumps of hair on my pillow.
This afternoon, Ilim knocked at my door with Rozh close behind. They had brought me dinner, and I shouted at them to leave me in peace, and cease disturbing my work. It was agony, to turn away kind company in this great hour of loneliness. But when Ilim told me to “Come out, heal, and admit to your failures like a man,” I thought to snap his neck between my hands.
We goad each other often, but never have I imagined so viscerally what it would be like to break the life from him. And Rozh, sweet Rozh–I could hear her hurt through the door. I do not deserve her. But I cannot let her in. She cannot see what I am to become.
I will bar the door. When night comes, I will slip through the halls and search for similar cases for as long as I can stand it. I will find an answer. I will bar the door.
“On the road we heard the story of the Lady Meral, who woke up one day a shalledra, with her skin shed all around her like a snake. In the song written about her, she insisted the village kill her to spare themselves from her monstrosity. Her neck was sliced through, her body cut into twelve pieces, salted, and buried throughout the forest with trees blocking the path the pieces would take to bring themselves together once more. The lyrics to this bizarre local legend…”
Seven hours of research, with my life as potential collateral, and this was all that I was able to find. A snippet of a song from the three hundred year old logs of a Collector. I think perhaps it would have been kinder to have found nothing at all, but this life is proving less and less kind by the moment. We boast of protecting the greatest stronghold of information in all of Berena, and yet there is not a single scroll that could save me.
Besides, I am in a fortress of Preservationists. I will be no Yael, no Melailah. I will not have my skin made into some grotesque tapestry, all of my dearest work forgotten. It is an agony that this thing which now ruins me would be my greatest contribution to Aç Sulsum. If I were truly Sulsumet, I would offer myself freely as Lady Meral did, let them observe my metamorphosis, and when it came time, welcome the dissection. It would be the noble thing to do.
What a coward I am.
An additional, meaningless note: the creature died this morning, in a small heap in the corner of its pen. The crickets have taken to devouring it.
Much of my old shell is shedding from me, now. My scalp is cold and without protection. I can feel the thrumming in my eyes, and I know their change will come soon. I write now only to steel my nerves, for tonight I will flee Aç Sulsum, my home.
I do not know how I will survive, or where I will go. Perhaps back to the Western Mountains, where I could continue my research alone. I have this fantasy where I finally bear witness to the Crawler’s metamorphosis into the Click, and I write my dissertation alone in the wilderness, and when I send it back to the library, they are so moved that they allow me to come back whole. An impossibility, but a comfort in these final hours of my humanity.
Night is falling. Whatever gods watch over scholars, please keep your eyes upon me. I cannot make this exit alone.
Let me say first that the sky is lovely here, a most charming blue with thin gasps of cloud throughout, outlined by the elegance of the Western Mountains. I find myself thinking what a pity it is that I did not take Rozh with me during my exit from Aç Sulsum, for she is the only person I know with the skill to illustrate the beauty of this place. How foolish I was then, to be so afraid. Even now, thumbing through my old notes, I cannot help but laugh at my own melodrama, and my shame.
This world is an unspeakably beautiful place. If you are reading these notes, I urge you to look up and admire it for yourself. You will not find me here, if you are looking. You are not ready. But do not worry, I am a scholar, with an eye for shared greatness. And when I see that it is time, I will be there, and you will learn of the wonders of my metamorphosis.
For that is what this was–a metamorphosis, divinely chosen. I have exited my weaker form and come into a body of such devastating beauty that I weep to look upon it. The strength within my grasp is nothing less than a prayer. I will not dwell beneath the mountains, crawling among the noxious pockets of gas, for I have held the hands of gods, and they have smiled to know me.
You will know me, too. When you’re ready.
Look up, dear stranger. Shed the trembling from your skin, molt away the doubts. The sky is lovely here.
Adventures in Diplomacy: The Very Sexy and Entirely True Story of Princess Gamzhey Yükbasar
“But I don’t want to do diplomacy, Father. It’s duller than religion!”
Across the room, a servant fumbles an entire bowl of strawberries and cream, sending it crashing to the ground. Princess Gamzhey of the Royal Yükbasar (Blessed and Powerful, Long May Their Reign Protect The Kingdom) scowls, snapping her fingers for more as her father looks on in abject horror at the blasphemy she has let loose in the drawing room.
“Gamzhey, my treasure,” he says in a strained voice, “this event is incredibly important for ka-Khasta. Having a celebrated member of the royal family there–”
“Father, please, I’m tenth in line,” states Gamzhey with a roll of her eyes, popping a sugar star into her mouth. She looks over at the servants frantically trying to scrub the cream out of the carpet and sighs heavily. “Are you bringing more strawberries or no?”
“Yükbasar is Yükbasar,” her father continues, “and Ol-Penh–”
“Is a boring, terrible country that just so happens to be expanding their library the same weekend Marah is having her birthday party.” Gamzhey leans back in her cushioned chair, pouting a well-practiced pout. She’s pretty sure the servant who dropped the strawberries is crying. “It’s the event of the season. I’ll never forgive you if you make me miss it over some musty books.”
In truth, Gamzhey doesn’t particularly care about Marah or her stupid party, no matter how anticipated it’s been by the nobility. She’s never much gotten along with the girl, and the guest list isn’t all that impressive. But a night of drinking bubbly delights and feasting on small, decorative cakes certainly sounds a lot better than a two weeks’ ride by carriage to a country famous for its weird religion and weirder rock formations. She eyes her father, pressing her tongue into her soft palate as the sugar dissolves, waiting for him to present her with a worthy bargain. It doesn’t take long.
“Should you attend the event,” he says slowly, rubbing his temples, “you would be presenting Ol-Penh with a marvelous statue to place in their library. A symbol of enduring peace between our great nations. We would have to make sure you had a new gown for the occasion.”
“Well, I’d be there for more than a day, wouldn’t I?” Gamzhey reaches up to play with the jewels that dangle off her hairpiece, examining a ruby with a bored expression. “If I decided to go, that is.”
Across the table, her father lets out a soft, despairing sound. Not much of a protest, all things considered.
“And a new tiara,” she adds.
“Gamzhey–” He looks to Gamzhey with pleading eyes, but she doesn’t budge. A new servant silently approaches, holding out a fresh bowl of strawberries and cream with a murmured apology. She levels her father’s protest with a challenging look and reaches into the bowl, plucking out a berry. He takes a sharp breath through his teeth, and smiles tightly. “My treasure, of course we can get you a tiara.”
Gamzhey beams back at him. Maybe she’s suited to diplomacy, after all.
Despite the size and heft of the sapphire that sits atop her new tiara, Gamzhey’s prediction about the awfulness of the journey to Ol-Penh is entirely correct. It rains for the first three days, keeping her mostly confined to the carriage where she is bored stiff. The only bit of excitement comes when they’re pursued by a group of bandits who yell something about “taxation being the real thievery” before her guards step in to defend her. It’s all very valiant and charming, and when she notices that one of the bandits is scratching up the side of her carriage, she snatches a sword and skewers the man herself. However, that night, when one of the guards is lecturing her about safety, as though she doesn’t regularly have upwards of six knives strapped to her ample thigh, she notices that her new dress has been stained with the carriage vandal’s blood. Rightfully, she is outraged, and takes it out on the guard with some unkind comments about his mother.
Things only gets worse when they enter the country itself. Yes, the land is beautiful, but when she insists on stopping for a portrait beside one of the crystals embedded in the hillside, she gets told how “We’re already running behind, Princess, and none of us are artists”, which is the worst excuse she’s ever heard. Her patience has been demoted from rarity to myth by the time they enter the Ol-Penher Border Stop, where they are greeted by an evil previously unknown to the princess: bureaucrats.
“This,” Gamzhey hisses, slamming her palms onto the counter, “is the greatest injustice my royal blood has ever known!”
The bureaucrat looks at her with nervous, shifty eyes that indicate weakness of spirit, and keeps holding out that godsforsaken stack of papers they had the gall to demand she fill out. All around them, the other bureaucrats are making the same uncomfortable face, muttering to each other in Ol-Penher and being generally useless. “Miss Gamzhey…”
“Princess,” she snaps, pointing her pen at them with a threatening flourish. “Princess Gamzhey of the Royal Yükbasar (Blessed and Powerful, Long May Their Reign Protect The Kingdom), Tenth in Line for the Throne. That’s my name. Try again, and I will consider a world where I do not put this pen through my own eye and bleed all over your desk.”
“P-Princess Gamzhey, of the Royal…Yuk…bisar?”
Gamzhey rubs her temples. “No, actually, no. Spare me the sound of you gargling my language like pond scum. Though I hope you can at least understand why I refuse to fill it out a hundred times.”
The bureaucrat holds out the paperwork once more with an expression Gamzhey has come to know as ‘helpless desperation’. “You have to fill out the entry forms. We mean no offense, it’s simply customary for all visitors to Ol-Penh–”
Gamzhey is in the middle of taking in the quantity of breath necessary to scream her rage to the heavens when she notices a stranger approaching and loses the ability to form words altogether.
The stranger is tall enough that Gamzhey has to tilt her head to get an eyeful of that honest, chiseled face. Her head is shaved, and her body is visibly muscular beneath what the Ol-Penher seem to consider armor. She walks up with conviction, looking at Gamzhey in a way that makes her grab the edge of the desk to steady herself.
“Excuse me,” the stranger begins, speaking impeccable ka-Khastan, “I believe there must be some sort of misunderstanding.” She offers Gamzhey a low bow that, by her best estimate, puts her nearly at eye-level with Gamzhey’s heaving bosom. She straightens up a little, just in case she miscalculated. “Princess Gamzhey of the Royal Yükbasar, bright star of our formidable ka-Khastan allies. I am Lap Chai, one of the captains of the Ol-Penher City Guard. I have been assigned as your escort for this evening. I hope there is no trouble?”
“Captain Lap Chai,” the bureaucrat squeaks, abruptly yanking Gamzhey from a half-formed fantasy that involves the captain and a bathtub full of whipped cream, “I was simply explaining that it is procedure for all visitors to Ol-Penh to fill out the due paperwork.”
“You do a service to your profession,” nods Lap Chai, sending Gamzhey tumbling into the pit of despair, “but the princess has had a trying journey”–oh, never mind, no pit necessary–“and must prepare for tonight’s ceremony. On my honor, I will personally assist her in filling out the paperwork when she arrives at her lodgings. If the princess finds that acceptable, of course.”
“You can assist me in filling out whatever you’d like,” Gamzhey drawls, batting her eyelashes as she leans on the desk. Behind her, one of her guards loudly clears their throat, reminding Gamzhey of how completely unhelpful they were while she was being accosted by bureaucracy. She turns to face them with a scathing look. “Once we arrive at our lodgings, I insist you leave us be. I have diplomacy to do.”
“Leave?” the guard splutters. “Princess, we were tasked with–”
“Getting me safely to Ol-Penh. I’m in Ol-Penh now, aren’t I?” She cocks an eyebrow at them, taking Lap Chai’s arm in a show of just how safe she is. To her delight, the captain does not protest. “And I have the Captain here assisting me on her honor and I will not have you troubling me during the ceremony.”
The guard looks from Lap Chai to Gamzhey, and promptly recognizes this as a battle not worth fighting. He sighs heavily, bowing. “We’ll send a messenger when it’s time to return to Babagaz.”
As far as Gamzhey can tell, the library’s unveiling goes off without a hitch. Honestly, she’s mostly lost as to what’s going on despite the quick crash course Lap Chai gives her on the basics of Ol-Penher, which is doubly complex as it is comprised both of spoken word and gesture. But that doesn’t at all hinder her enjoyment of the event. How could it, when it means Lap Chai has to lean in and quietly translate into her ear?
When it comes time for Gamzhey to present the gift from the Yükbasar, she finds her spirits substantially lifted. She clears her throat and relaxes her shoulders, smiling brightly as she uses the meagre bit of Ol-Penher she retained to thank the people for having her there to celebrate. The crowd responds with inspired applause, and Gamzhey curtsies deeply, pleased to be getting some good mileage out of her new gown as she graciously accepts the praise. Better yet, Lap Chai never takes her eyes off of her.
As they exit the square where the presentation took place, a thought strikes Gamzhey like a goblet to the skull: Lap Chai said she would be the escort for tonight’s activities! Where does that leave them now that the unveiling is over? She looks up at the serious face of the captain, sworn to protect the Ol-Penher city of What’s-Its-Name, dedicated and passionate and true, and decides that the only option is to take matters into her own hands.
So she does. More specifically, she takes Lap Chai by her generous bicep with a delicate whimper of despair. “Captain!” she cries, “I simply cannot bear being left in this city without your company. You have been so kind to me in this unfamiliar place, and I still have so much to learn about…about your magnificent country!”
The captain hesitates, resting her hand softly over Gamzhey’s as her well-shaped brow furrows in concern. “I have also enjoyed your company, Princess. But I have charge of the sector which houses the library.”
Gamzhey, who has never had much interest in libraries but has been known to spot an opportunity a mile off, finds herself suddenly overcome with a deep desire to learn. She turns to face Lap Chai directly, pressing her palms to the captain’s chest with a longing, forlorn sort of look. “Yes, the library…” She sighs softly, turning her cheek to give Lap Chai full view of her better side. “I’ve wanted so badly to learn about its many wonders. If only you could lend me your expertise! I’m only here so briefly, and it would be such a gift to learn together and continue to…to celebrate the lasting peace between our great nations!”
Much to Gamzhey’s surprise, when she looks back to meet Lap Chai’s eye, she’s pretty sure there’s a noble tear or two sparkling there. The captain, apparently moved enough to reconsider what constitutes as her duties for a few days, rests her hands upon Gamzhey’s hips with a serious nod. “You are entirely correct, Princess. Forgive me. It would only be right to stay with you. For–for the sake of diplomacy.”
Well, Gamzhey thinks, if that’s what you want to call it.
The next few days are a dreamy tourism montage. Gamzhey attends several of the city’s cultural events, including a performance by a rather provocative fire dancer Lap Chai claims to know personally. She samples all of the best Ol-Penher desserts, positively shrieking in delight at the mountains of pink meringue and fizzing berry dots, and considers the trade agreements that would have to be implemented for her to get these treats readily available back home. At the city’s outdoor market, she admires all manner of shimmering stones and carved pens and seasilk gloves. She is even gifted a shell necklace by a coastal merchant who was apparently moved by her dedication to Ol-Penher culture.
“What was that he just called me?” she asks Lap Chai, admiring the necklace in a hand mirror as it gets fastened on.
“An ambassador,” the captain says softly, her fingers brushing over the back of Gamzhey’s neck, prompting a shiver that goes straight down her spine.
But despite the hours they spend talking, and the companionable silence between them as they attend performances, Gamzhey cannot help but feel as though there is a sort of wall between them. At first she drops subtle hints of her attraction, figuring that would be enough for one of the famously promiscuous Ol-Penher to notice, but Lap Chai seems not to pick up on any of it. On top of that, they’re approached several times by people signing the word Gamzhey comes to think means “party”, only for Lap Chai to turn them down. At first, she assumes the captain is just being picky about what parties to attend, but after the third rejection, Gamzhey finds herself stung.
“Is there something wrong, Captain?” she asks, eating a piece of spun sugar in the shape of a dove.
“Of course not, Princess,” Lap Chai replies, blinking. “Why would there be?”
“It seems as though you do not feel comfortable taking me out to any of the late night parties we’ve been invited to.” Gamzhey narrows her eyes slightly, biting the head off the sugar dove with a fearsome crunch.
“Parties…?” The Captain frowns, and Gamzhey makes the sign with an obvious look that causes Lap Chai to start. “Oh! No, Princess, no. I would be happy to accompany you anywhere you wish. I just didn’t expect that…well…no offense meant, Princess, but the ka-Khastans are known to have more restrictive views on…on physical intimacy. I didn’t think you would want to attend this sort of thing.”
Now this takes Gamzhey by surprise. “What? I love parties!”
“You see, we had a whole, a whole training on it,” says Lap Chai with a look of distress. “On how we should be cautious not to offend your sensibilities with our progressive views on love and the body. We are quite open minded here, and–”
“Are you suggesting that I’m not open minded?”
“No! Not at all–”
“Then take me to the party,” she snaps, tilting her chin up to meet Lap Chai’s eye. The captain looks a bit pink around the nose, nearly shy. And though Gamzhey cannot possibly imagine why anyone would react this way to a party, she’s certainly pleased when she gets her way.
That evening, surrounded by a lightly-intoxicated and certainly giddy crowd, Gamzhey reflects on how strongly Lap Chai was overreacting. Sure, people are dressed a bit more provocatively, and seem to be quite comfortable kissing and touching regardless of privacy or gender or number of partners. But that’s just a bit of light debauchery, no different than a quality ka-Khastan gala in the late hours. She wanders the house with Lap Chai close behind, making little introductions and enjoying the sounds of laughter, the smell of the summer air. “You know,” she says to the captain as she opens up a new door, “this is all quite tame, Captain. I really don’t know why you were so–”
Behind the door she’s just opened, there appears to be a bit of an…event. A different kind of party, so to speak. Gamzhey blinks rapidly, adjusting to a roomful of quite bare human bodies engaging in some quite enthusiastic arrangements. She stands still, stunned, taking note of some techniques that, frankly, she did not know were possible. “Well,” she clears her throat, “right.”
“Princess,” Lap Chai murmurs, averting her eyes from the spectacle to look down at Gamzhey with concern, “this is what I meant–”
But before she can finish her sentence, Gamzhey has taken her arm, dragging her past several occupied rooms until she finds one that’s empty. Perhaps her ka-Khastan sensibilities make her keen on privacy, but that doesn’t mean she’s a complete prude. Behind her, Lap Chai seems to be attempting to apologize, but Gamzhey hardly hears it. She shuts the doors of the parlor, and shoves Lap Chai down into a chaise longue, reveling in the little “oof!” of surprise that comes out of her mouth.
“Captain,” she says calmly, lifting her skirts to better straddle the wide-eyed woman beneath her, “your consent?”
To her credit, Lap Chai only allows a beat of stunned silence to pass before she pulls Gamzhey into a deep kiss. The princess reaches into her dress, liberating one of her hidden knives, and cuts straight down the ties that hold her bodice together, allowing two of her favourite features to spill out.
Cultural exchange, Gamzhey thinks as she tosses her tiara across the room, is a truly beautiful thing.
Regardless of what the original itinerary was, Gamzhey loses track of time quite quickly after that. The affair leaves her mind feeling like so many feathers floating around, keeps her body bouncing on a perpetual high of her own indulgence. Eventually, she is approached by one of her ka-Khastan guards, claiming the time has come for her to return to Babagaz. An atrocity in its own right.
Had Lap Chai not been there, Gamzhey would have unleashed a whole slew of previously prepared vitriol, but her lover has a sensitive heart, so all she says is, “Fine, you rotten, miserable man. Ruin my life. See how my father feels when he hears how you’ve wronged me!” Her outrage earns her two more nights with Lap Chai, but that’s hardly enough to keep her satisfied. There are still so many kisses to be had, so many stories to be shared. And so Gamzhey decides to strike up some sort of proposal.
“You’ll come back to ka-Khasta with me, won’t you?” she asks, stretching out over the silk sheets.
“You know I can’t, Princess,” Lap Chai says, kissing her with a regretful smile. “The library needs me.”
“Why?” She looks up at the ceiling, frowning at the floral decorations carved into it. “Ol-Penh is renowned for its low crime rate, particularly in the capital. Besides, your justice system is so heinously bureaucratic that you could disappear for a month and return to find the same papers being pushed across the same desk you left them on.”
Lap Chai laughs at that, shaking her head. “You know, I didn’t think you were listening when I told you about my job.”
“Surprise, surprise. I pay attention. But that’s not the point–what matters is that you can leave, even just for a couple weeks’ visit, and it won’t be any trouble at all!”
“Gamzhey,” Lap Chai says, and the sound of her name being spoken aloud without any honorific surprises Gamzhey into silence. “I will miss you, deeply and dearly, but my purpose is to serve the library, to protect all those who seek access to our systems of public education. I do not know how I could live with myself knowing I abandoned my cause of learning to seek other pleasures. No matter how wonderful they might be.”
Gamzhey, unused to having to truly fight to get her way, feels something strange churning in her belly. At first she assumes it’s indignation, or perhaps some good old-fashioned wrath, but it doesn’t sting quite the same. She bites her lip, looking at Lap Chai. That honest face, betraying both her regret and her firmness on the matter. And in one awful moment, Gamzhey understands that what she’s feeling is…respect.
It’s all frightfully honorable, isn’t it?
Gamzhey goes quiet, flopping back onto the bed. There has to be some sort of compromise. If she could persuade her father to bring her a desert kitten all the way from the Southlands, she can bring Lap Chai to ka-Khasta. If she could throw laxatives into her dreadful cousin’s wine on her wedding day without being found out, she can navigate wrestling with a touch of honor. If she could get herself out of no less than four marriage proposals using only her scathing vocabulary, she can find the right words to make this affair last.
“But your greatest service to the library won’t come from simply guarding it.” The words are out before she’s even thought them through completely, and yet she knows in her heart that they are the right way to go. “It comes from contributing. Sharing.” She sits up, a heap of curls flopping over her shoulder as she looks Lap Chai in the face. “What if you came to Aç Sulsum?”
Lap Chai looks skeptical. “Would that even be possible? From what I’ve heard, Aç Sulsum is a…a vault, Gamzhey. The librarians don’t even let your own common people in to learn.”
Ah. That is true. “That’s not true at all!” cries Gamzhey. “Yes, the librarians are a bit…stingy with their knowledge. But public education has always been an issue close to my heart!” It hasn’t. “And I…I have been considering working with the librarians for a while now. As a passion project!”
“Well,” Lap Chai begins cautiously, lifting herself up onto her elbows. Gamzhey can already see the gears turning, can picture so clearly how things could work in her favor. Given her previous track record, it would be foolish to imagine a world where she doesn’t get what she wants. “I could bring it up with the Ol-Penher librarians. Even just sending someone in to learn would be…well, it would be an invaluable experience. A true show of cultural exchange, and camaraderie.”
“And I would host you, of course,” Gamzhey says, grinning and wiggling closer to her captain, honorable and absurd.
“Of course,” laughs Lap Chai, reaching to brush her hair back from her face. “I’ll talk to my team. If it all works out and the paperwork clears, maybe I could get to you in a month or two.”
“Perfect.” As Gamzhey leans in for a kiss, she’s already crunching the numbers, measuring out her time and resources. She can pull it off, she thinks. How hard can systemic reform actually be?
As it turns out, systemic reform is a right bitch. But so is Gamzhey Yükbasar.
Her return to the Kingdom of ka-Khasta is marked by a sudden and relentless series of meetings with aristocrats, ambassadors, librarians, and anyone else she can bully into taking tea with her. To her superiors, she exercises her manners until her calves are sore from curtsying; to her lessers, she dabbles in behavior that some might call ‘tyrannical’. Night after night, she writes letters and decrees, missing several exciting parties to prepare public speeches for the common folk on the glorious right of education. She blackmails two separate aristocrats, and dangles one unfortunate noble off the side of a turret until he agrees to back her appeals to the library with substantial financial support. All the while, she exchanges letters with Captain Lap Chai, on a wide variety of topics ranging from tourism economies to the many exciting uses of silk rope.
The whole thing is terribly romantic.
Eventually, after a meeting set at the feet of her grandmother, the Queen, she is given leave to host something of a summit with the Curator of Aç Sulsum and the nobles who rule the surrounding lands. She lays down her research on the economic benefits of opening the library to visitors, the amount she would be willing to invest (with the help of the aristocracy, of course) in developing its surrounding lands, and, most importantly, the benefits of educating the lower classes.
“Public education,” Gamzhey says, smiling beatifically upon her gathered guests, “has always been a passion of mine. Everyone knows that, and might I take this opportunity to remind you that denying it would be treason, the punishment for which is death.”
The signing of her proposal takes nine hours, but that’s mostly because Gamzhey makes everyone sit for a portrait to commemorate this historic day.
In the days leading up to Aç Sulsum’s grand opening to the public, Gamzhey’s father is beside himself, bewildered by his daughter’s sudden interest in the library. “Additional funding for the training of educators?” he asks, staring wide-eyed at her plans, unable to comprehend how she secured the resources required for such a task. “In order to…promote tourism? Is that even safe?”
“We haven’t seen a shalledra in years, Father,” she replies, fixing her hair in the mirror. The sun is going down, and Lap Chai should be here any time now. “And no one is foolish enough to attack ka-Khasta, least of all target Aç Sulsum.”
“This is…” He laughs, shaking his head in wonder. “This is marvelous, treasure. Between this reform and your reputation in Ol-Penh… Well, you’re certainly becoming more of an ambassador than a socialite, aren’t you?”
“Is that so surprising?” From outside, Gamzhey hears the call of trumpets to announce a visitor to the castle. Her heart jumps, and she reaches to adjust her tiara with a brilliant smile. “I’ve always been passionate about diplomacy. Everyone knows that!”
The Unquiet Road
The copper lantern creaks and sways as the bodyman’s cart ka-chnks over a bump in the road, sending patterns of light flickering across the trees. This far into the ka-Khastan Greatwood, the taiga blocks out all moonlight, turning the lantern from grim symbol into necessary tool. Tanen hugs his blanket around himself, wishing that the world didn’t look so sinister from here. Everything is spooking him: the inhuman twist of winding branches, the sharp glint of a bird’s watchful eye, the not-so-far howl of the wolves. He swallows back his fear, looking down at the only source of comfort he has left: the body of his late grandmother, shrouded in soft purple and covered with dried flowers.
He could have left the task to the bodyman alone. It’s what most people tend to do, and in theory it would have been much easier to say his farewells and trust that she would be safely carried to the City of the Dead. In theory it would be good for him to get back to his life in the village, to grieve alongside a supportive community. In theory, no one would have blamed him for staying home.
But life always has a way of complicating itself for Tanen. And home is not so simple a thing, anymore.
He saw how they all had looked at him when he boarded the bodyman’s cart. He’d noticed the palpable relief on the villagers’ faces, the eyes averted in shame or judgment. As he paid the toll of the Carrier, he swore he felt his own soul unstick from his body, just a little bit, not enough to take the breath from him, but enough for his fingers to skim the edges of the Underworld.
Even if the villagers had been kinder, there was never a chance that he would let Grandmother Ogulnaz make this journey alone. Something as small as death could not separate them so easily, not after twenty years by her side. Besides, should the cart be apprehended by robbers or a rogue shalledra or servants of the warlords, her body’s final travels would be interrupted, forcing her soul to trek through the Underworld without any help. Wise as Grandmother Ogulnaz is (was? is.), Tanen would be a poor excuse for a grandson if he allowed even the slightest possibility of her meeting that fate.
Not that he has any of the skills necessary to protect her should it come to the worst. But he has known love to be its own sort of talisman before. Perhaps it could be enough.
At the front of the cart the bodyman begins to hum, his voice a low rumble. He picked up this habit a couple days back, after Tanen first took out his guitar and broke the silence by singing his grandmother’s favourite songs. (Music, he has heard, can reach between the worlds.) At first, the bodyman looked back in surprise, startled by the too-high, too-sweet tenor that came from the boy’s mouth. It made Tanen’s face go hot, made his gut roil in anxiety, but he did not stop, and the bodyman asked no questions.
The next day, the humming began. The bodyman even requested a song or two.
Now, Tanen is too tired to sing. He closes his eyes, trying to get comfortable despite the pressure bearing down on his chest. It was obvious from the moment he left the village that he’d bound it too tight, but it had helped him to bind down his grief. It felt like a symbol at the time.
He shifts, grimacing. A lot of good his symbolism does now, when he’s stuck in the woods with a stranger and can’t so much as wiggle a finger in between the layers to loosen them. His foot nudges against the soft purple bundle that is his grandmother, and for a moment he swears he hears her voice climb up to tease from the Underworld.
My stubborn boy, she laughs, pinching his cheek and tutting, How many times must I say this? If you wear your clothing properly, you hardly need to wrap yourself so tight. I guarantee you’ll resent those lumps of yours a whole lot more if they start hurting you on top of everything else.
Above, the canopy yields for just a moment, and the moons gaze down upon the cart and its strange cargo: the bodyman, the boy, the bundle. How odd to see Grandmother Ogulnaz bound now as well: swaddled like a babe, packed carefully as a bundle of wheat. The salt and the flowers and the bodyman’s heady oils keep back the smell, as does the winter.
She looks like an offering, Tanen thinks, and he is surprised to find the thought comforting, even as his tears come once more.
He closes his eyes then, wrapping himself up in the blanket. Offers himself, alongside her, to whatever gods watch over the sleepless.
It is nearly dawn when they come upon the stranger. Tanen is awoken by the sudden slowing of the cart, the soothing growl of the bodyman to his horses. He sits up, willing himself alert through his bleariness, and his eyes lock on a strange and human shape. It stands at the edge of the forest, waving them down.
Tanen’s heart stops as his mind plays over the stories of the road he has heard so many times before. Bandits slitting throats and stealing the little valuables a traveler might carry. Weeping children luring in some unsuspecting fool and carrying them off to the shalledrim warlords. Bodychangers. Demons. Hungry, ancient gods.
“Why are we slowing down?” Tanen asks in a small voice, but the bodyman does not reply. The boy reaches for the shroud, resting his hand on the place he knows to be his grandmother’s foot.
The man who stands at the side of the road has a face that does nothing to ease Tanen’s fears. It is pale, gaunt, with a look of friendly weariness beneath what looks to be a blackened eye. He carries a hefty bag, and wears thick traveling robes in a style that Tanen has never seen before. But the bodyman is unconcerned as he slows to a stop.
“Good Carrier, I am so sorry to interrupt your journey,” the man says, looking between Tanen and the bodyman with a bow of his head. Up close, Tanen thinks, he is not quite so frightening. “I am Sulsumet Ekram, Collector. I fear that I am in need of assistance in my return home.”
“My cart has only one destination, Sulsumet,” the bodyman responds, “and it isn’t your library.”
Library? Tanen frowns. He has heard tales of a library before, a place where knowledge vaster than all the village records is stacked in many rooms. He heard it burned down, years and years ago. He thought it was a legend.
“Of course,” Ekram nods, adjusting the bag on his shoulder. “I ask simply that you bring me to the City. I can secure transport to Aç Sulsum from there.”
“What do you have to offer? Another body is heavy for my horses.”
“No money, I’m afraid,” Ekram begins, and his smile is at once grim and ripe with pleasure. “But I have just gathered an assortment of tales you might find interesting. If it would not disturb the peace of your sacred burden, I would gladly share them.”
“That is not my choice.” The bodyman looks back to Tanen, and the boy’s stomach churns as he realizes the final word belongs with him. Selfishly, he wants to turn the stranger down, to grieve in peace. But he is not speaking for himself. He glances down at his grandmother, thinking of her loud laughter, the many dinners she hosted, her friendly jostling of the neighbours packed around her table. The hospitality that sheltered him.
He swallows, nodding curtly. “My grandmother is fond of stories.”
“Then I will tell them to her for as long as you wish.” Sulsumet Ekram bows, a sweeping gesture made strange by his spindly limbs. He steps into the carriage with all the grace of a spider at the silk, tucking his bag to the side so it does not interfere with Grandmother Ogulnaz’s rest. He looks down at her, tapping his eyelids with his fingers, a gesture of peace for the long journey to the City of the Dead, and looks up to meet Tanen’s eyes with a sympathetic smile. “What are your names?”
“My grandmother is Ogulnaz, and I am Tanen.” The cart lurches slightly as the horses begin to move. He thinks the sun will be rising soon.
“Tanen?” The librarian’s eyebrows jump in surprise at the sound of a masculine name, and Tanen clenches his jaw, looking away. Ekram clears his throat, and there is an unexpected softness to his voice when he next speaks. “…You very nearly share a name with one of the earliest librarians on record. Did you know that?”
The boy shakes his head, keeping his gaze locked on the side of the road, letting his silence hang heavy enough to push down any further conversation. Ekram seems to take the hint, and when Tanen next dares to glance at the man, he is curled gently beside his bag, seeking any small bit of sleep before morning comes in full.
The addition of Sulsumet Ekram to the cart makes the journey much more lively. Tanen wouldn’t necessarily describe the librarian as ‘boisterous’, but the tales he tells fill an empty space he did not realize was there before. As Ekram tells a story of a man whose beard grew long enough to be wrapped thrice around his head, the bodyman even laughs aloud.
“I hardly believed it until I met him myself,” Ekram says with a playful grin, “but it was certainly real. I touched it with my own hands, and saw the look of dismay on his wife’s face when he announced he intended to continue growing it until his death.”
Tanen smiles a little himself, adjusting Grandmother Olgunaz’s flowers and dripping more oil upon her shroud. He thinks of the day she caught him rubbing charcoal on his cheeks, trying to catch his own reflection in the nearby lake.
You know, she said, wiping away the tears and the charcoal, when your grandfather was alive, I hated his beard. Absolutely loathed it! He claimed it made him look charming, but it itched so fiercely when we kissed that I threatened to shave him in his sleep. Let me tell you Tanen, whichever girl you settle down with will be lucky to have a man whose kisses don’t scratch!
“–swore he had lost a few birds in there by the look of the twigs, of course!”
Another guffaw from the bodyman brings Tanen back to himself. Beneath the copper lantern, the bodyman touches his eyelids in apology to the woman who is supposed to be traveling in peace. But this is the kind of peace Grandmother Olgunaz would like, Tanen thinks. Laughter heard all the way down to the Underworld.
When they break for the evening meal, Tanen pulls out small stones carved to look like bread loaves and tucks them into the shroud. He feels guilty as he does this, providing her soul such simple sustenance when she so loved to eat in life. When they reach the City and she settles down with her ancestors, she will eat better.
The meal of the living is equally simple: Carrier’s bread, baked with bitter spices, cut only by the flavors of hard cheese. Nothing so fancy that it could lure the dead back up into their bodies in their envy. Tanen takes a bite of the bread, glancing over to the bodyman, who sleeps now in his chair, resting before the journey through the night.
“Is this your first trip to the City?” Ekram asks, picking at his own bread with bony fingers. The bruise on his cheek is fading to a sickly yellow, the small gash weaving itself shut.
Tanen nods. According to his grandmother, his parents’ bodies were irretrievable after their passing. When this fact gave him nightmares as a child, Grandmother Ogulnaz would tell stories of their cunning to reassure him they had made it safely to the City.
“It is truly a wonder of this world,” the librarian says, smiling fondly at some memory. “And it’s good, I think, to visit the place at least once before you end up moving in for good. There is a Sulsumet corner in the city, did you know? Though many librarians will elect to be buried in Aç Sulsum’s crypt. They want to see if they can use their knowledge to best the Underworld.” He laughs, shaking his head and yet seeming to relish the idea. Tanen thinks he might be a little mad.
The boy finishes the last of his cheese, quieting as he tries to imagine what kind of person would willingly traipse into the Underworld. What kind of person a librarian would be. He swallows. “You said there was a librarian with my name?”
“Oh!” Ekram looks pleased, if not a bit surprised that Tanen brought it back up. “Yes, a name similar to yours–Tan. Ravan Tan. He lived nearly a thousand years ago now, before the first library had even been established. It was his family who set down the first documents of the library, did you know?” It’s a strange quirk of Ekram’s, his ‘did you know?’s, his constant curiosity, his want to share. “He was quite the astronomer. Of course, we lost nearly all his of original works in the first Burning. But the work of the Wandering Literates was too significant to disappear with the papers.”
“The first burning?”
“Mm.” The librarian’s face changes now, bitter, tired. “The second happened long ago, now, compared to our small lives. Nearly four hundred years ago. We’ve been recovering ever since.” Tanen frowns. It’s hard to imagine how they couldn’t have fixed everything up after four hundred years. Ekram seems to read his mind, and laughs quietly. “Time is different in Aç Sulsum, young Tanen. When the artifacts date back a millenium, you see the work of your own lifetime to be quite small. Insignificant, if you don’t work fast.”
He opens up his bag then, pulling out several sheafs of paper wrapped in leather. “It’s why I take such pride in my work, even if it does not outwardly seem as exciting as what most Collectors pursue.” Tanen leans in, peering at the papers, and the little knowledge he has of the written word makes it clear that many of these pages are town records, similar to those of his own village. “When I can, I find the stories that accompany the records. The quiet things. Even after this farmer is gone, the story of his sizable pumpkin goes on and on in the library. I find it comforting, in its own way.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” Tanen asks, inching closer to get a better look. “Between the warlords and the… well, the other humans, I guess?”
“Oh, it is,” Ekram nods, his mouth twisting in a wry smile. “But we all must die, one way or another. I would prefer to go doing what I enjoy.”
The simplicity of the statement strikes Tanen like the ring of a bell. From the outside, his own life has been such a small and quiet thing. So much more has happened within his own head, within the confines of self. He wonders, suddenly, if everyone lives like this.
The cart goes around a sharp corner, and Tanen reaches down to steady his grandmother. As his hand lays upon her shroud, he feels in full how much he wants to save of her. How many small and quiet moments, how many perfect days that his mind has become the sole keeper of.
He does not realize he is crying until Ekram gently takes his arm. He murmurs an apology, wiping his eyes and looking back to the records. But what he sees instead is a blank piece of paper, and Ekram, looking at him intently as he clutches his charcoal.
“Would you tell me her story, Tanen?” Ekram’s voice is as serious as Tanen has heard it, his expression as genuine as it’s ever been.
Tanen’s heart clenches as though it is trying to compress into stone fit to be swallowed by the dead. His grief rises like bread within him, calling up so many things he thought would be confined to the grave. It startles him to hear the conviction with which his voice breaks through the forest, to feel his mouth move without any stiffness in his jaw. “My Grandmother Ogulnaz was born between two warlord camps. Her parents were part of my village’s founders, and she was involved in its politics from her youth. She was–she is an incredibly smart woman.”
The words pour from him like a flood, stories shaken from him like pinecones in a windstorm: the young man who would become his grandfather, the choosing of leaders, the season of the sour crop. The bodyman awakens, and they return to the road, and Tanen does not stop talking. He closes his eyes when he cannot find a detail, and he feels her spirit rise up to touch his and pass along what matters. He sings her favourite songs, recounts her best recipes. He cries until it hurts, and then he laughs at all the things she said to him, to the neighbors, to the world.
And Sulsumet Ekram puts it all to paper, never once asking Tanen to pause or repeat. They stop the work only when he is too tired to keep going, and Tanen sleeps peacefully for the first time since his grandmother got sick. When the sun rises, they rise with it, and begin once more. The telling of each story further drains some great wound within him, and the recording of it tells him that the words are not lost when spoken aloud. Finally the well runs dry, and there is nothing left.
How odd, Tanen thinks, that there can be an end to his knowledge of a person without finding an end to the depth of his love.
Ekram looks over the work, heavy rings of exhaustion below his eyes and a look of blissful satisfaction on his face. “Can you write your name, Tanen?”
“What?” Tanen blinks, unsure where this question has come from. “I mean, I can, but why?”
“If you validate your grandmother’s story with your signature, it will add even more value to her records in coming years. I thought you might like to contribute your hand to the library.” He smiles gently, offering the paper and charcoal. Tanen takes them, feeling his heart flutter as he holds his grandmother’s entire life in his hands, as spoken by him. But with a steady hand, he signs:
Tanen, her grandson.
He stares down at the words, nodding to himself. Perhaps he has not yet lived his life in full, but this he knows about himself: regardless of where he began in the village, despite what those who did not know him always chose to assume, he has always been Tanen, her grandson. And hundreds of years from now, assuming the library does not burn again, whoever picks up this document will know him as such. His most honest life, honored again in death.
“Here we are, now,” comes the voice of the bodyman, gruff and tender and familiar. And just like that, the City of the Dead reaches up from the mountains, unfurling before their eyes with eerie elegance. Tanen stares in wonder, thumb stroking the paper in his hand, and feels the breath leave him to look upon it. The largest city he has ever seen, blinking with the soft orange of Carriers’ lights, and so very quiet.
For a while, they are silent in the cart. The bodyman, the bundle, the boy. The librarian. They are humbled, made pensive by the place where all must come home.
It is Ekram who speaks first; the low tones of his voice barely intrude. “What will we do once you reach the City, young Tanen?”
“Once I entomb my grandmother?” He has been considering this for weeks now. The answer comes with an ease he did not anticipate. “I think I’ll dig graves. Live quietly.”
“I…don’t know.” It suddenly occurs to Tanen that the rest of his life could be quite a long time. “For now.” Whatever it was he lost with his grandmother, he is not dead alongside her.
And yet. Without Grandmother Ogulnaz by his side, he is not so sure what village would take him in. The world feels more dangerous than it once did; perhaps it would be best to live out his days somewhere private enough that no one will ask questions. The thought hurts as it comes to mind, and Tanen looks at his feet.
Ekram pauses, a crease in his brow. He takes Grandmother Ogulnaz’s records, gently aligning them and wrapping them in leather, and then takes out another piece of paper, writing quickly upon it. “Should you tire of assisting the dead, I would have you know…” He trails off, searching for the words, then sighs heavily, looking at Tanen with intense sincerity. “In my library, many things are…different. You might find that we are more accepting than your average village.”
Tanen looks up at him skeptically, hardly daring to hope even as he feels his heart leap. In all the lives he has imagined, never has there truly been one where he can live without some degree of secrecy.
“Brush up on your literacy,” says Ekram, passing Tanen the paper before he can refuse it, “then come find me. If I am gone collecting, my signature on this will validate my word. Will you consider it?”
It would be so easy to turn this down. It would be so simple to bury himself and be done with it. But life has always had a way of complicating things for Tanen. He nods, looking up to meet Ekram’s eye. “…I will consider. Thank you.”
And though he does not know what comes next, he is sure of this.
Carrier’s carts are passing them now. Some lanterns are lit, signifying a journey in progress, and others are darkened, allowing the bodymen to return to the land of the living in full. They nod to each other in passing, and the mausoleums rise up into the sky like the fingers of gods, outstretched in greeting, or goodbye.
Things Lost, Friends Found
When the boy’s parents tell him that they’re going on an adventure today, there is no doubt in his mind that they’re heading to Greatwood Park. He’s been begging them to get tickets since before summer even began, and spent most of his summer suffering as he watched the neighbourhood kids go with their families–some of them twice! They returned from the park with stories that sounded too good to be true: jungle gyms carved into trees, the terrifying drop on ‘Shannonai’s Fury’, shaved ice in a souvenir mug the size of their heads. Now he can finally see it for himself.
He spends all morning stretching, just like he has to do before kickball because of that one time he pulled a muscle and thought he was going to die and his parents had to be called into school to pick him up. It was an embarrassing day, but a valuable lesson for him to carry forth to the water park. Once he’s limbered up he clambers all over the couch, practicing grappling and falling, until his mother has to beg him to leave the furniture in one piece. Well-aware that she is in charge of whether or not he gets to take home a souvenir mug, he relents, and reminds her that she is the best mom in the entire world, just for good measure.
On the way out the door he remembers to grab his best climbing shoes; for the entire train ride he wiggles his toes in them with excitement. He leans his head against the window, fantasizing about being set free to roam the park while his parents lounge with their friends and drink cedar beer, talking about boring adult things while he climbs to the very top of the world. In his heart, he knows that this will truly be the best day of his life.
Which is why he can hardly contain his wail of despair as they approach the entrance to Aç Sulsum. More specifically, the entrance to its public museum, where he is definitely not allowed to climb on anything.
“The library?” he whines. “We’ve already been here like a million times this year!”
“We paid for a season pass, my love,” his mother says, ruffling his hair as she takes a pamphlet highlighting the new exhibits. “And you had fun last time, didn’t you?”
“I guess,” he begins, “but–”
“Look Lara!” his father exclaims, cutting the boy off and stomping on his dreams, “they have a whole series of artifacts from the south! Glassworks, it looks like.”
“Ooh, does it cost extra?”
The boy groans loudly, dragging his feet as they make their way through the line. It’s not like the library is the worst place in the world; he has had a good time whenever they’ve visited in the past, enough so that his parents bought the stupid season pass. But summer’s nearly over, and this was probably his last chance to go to Greatwood Park, and when his teachers ask what everyone did this summer, he’ll be the only one who can’t say he went.
Feeling a cloud descend around him, the boy looks up at the museum’s statue of Princess Gamzhey, her tiara inlaid with gemstones and her arms held wide open in welcome. His parents say he’s very clever for being interested in the same adult things they are, but lately he thinks maybe that’s part of an elaborate plot for them to do whatever they like while he gets dragged along.
Stupid parents. Stupid princess. Stupid library.
The lobby is plastered with signs about the collections of new artifacts that have been brought in from the sister libraries in Padjenne and Ol-Penh, but the boy doesn’t read any of them, instead electing to glare at his climbing shoes and make a show of being miserable. A group of giggling children take pictures at the interactive Chainbreakers exhibit, posing with wooden weapons while an adult dressed as a shalledra pretends to run away in terror. Their wig is crooked, and he can see the tag on their costume.
Stupid shalledrim. Stupid wig.
“Alllright,” the boy’s father says, crouching in front of him with a sigh, “what’s going on?”
“I wanted to go to Greatwood Park,” the boy mumbles, crossing his arms and looking at the floor. “I asked you before summer even started, and you said you’d see. But you didn’t see at all.”
His father’s eyes widen in surprise, and then his face falls. “Ah, buddy…I’m sorry.” The boy knows what’s coming next: “It just wasn’t in the budget this year.”
“I hate the stupid budget.”
“You and me both, pal,” his father laughs. The boy feels a little betrayed that he seems to think this is a joke. “But you know, I’ve heard from some of the other parents that Greatwood Park isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Long lines, expensive food, crappy games. Do you really want to go to that?”
“Yeah,” the boy scowls, “better than the stupid library.”
His father rubs his temples, looking up at the boy’s mother and doing that thing where they have this whole pantomime conversation they think he can’t understand. Maybe it worked when he was a baby and didn’t know anything, but he’s nearly nine now, and he gets what they’re saying. Mostly. At least he gets that he doesn’t like it.
He manages to hold his scowl through the whole conversation, and when his father looks back at him, the man simply shakes his head, standing up. “Well, we’re here now. So it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to let yourself have fun, or if you’d prefer to sulk on a bench while your mother and I go and have a nice time.” The boy plops down on the bench, crossing his arms. After giving him a long look, his father sighs and shrugs. “Fine. If that’s how you want today to go, that’s your choice. You stay right here, and when you get tired of being angry, come and find us.”
As his father walks over to join his mother, the boy resolves to never have a good time again. That will show them.
Unfortunately, after about ten minutes, being angry gets pretty old. But he doesn’t want to go over and give his parents the satisfaction of seeing he feels better, so he finds himself stuck on the boring bench. He looks up, watching all the people exploring the different exhibits, and that’s when the girl catches his eye.
He guesses she’s about his age, maybe a year or two older, with long braids and a critical look that’s reflected on the glass display case she stares into. The way she stands reminds him of a grown up, and she is leaned in close to the display, probably reading something. While other kids run around and yell, she is perfectly still and quiet, as if she’s a statue on display as well.
In an instant the reflection of her eyes on the case moves, fixing on him. The boy jumps, looking down with embarrassment, his heart banging in his chest as if she had leapt out at him and shouted. When he finds the courage to look back up, her attention is back on the display, but her bottom eyelids are scrunched up in amusement now, and a smile plays at the edge of her lips.
He squirms on the bench, looking over to see his parents immersed in some scroll on display. His heart clenches, and he feels himself get angry all over again at them for having fun without him. This time, when he looks back at the girl, she glances at him over her shoulder. He smiles shyly, and she nods for him to come over. Without missing a beat, he hops off the bench, pushing his way through the crowd.
But once they’re side by side, she doesn’t even acknowledge him, instead just staring at the item in the case: a small, jeweled knife. The boy shuffles his feet, looking from the knife to the girl, and even though she has not spoken to him, he can’t help but feel like she’s waiting for something. When he can’t bear the silence anymore he blurts out, “What are you doing?”
“Looking.” She enunciates the syllables like a teacher, tilting her head slightly to one side.
He frowns. “Looking at what?”
“Well, yeah. But why?”
“I think it might be mine.” She taps her lips, pursing them in contemplation.
If she didn’t look so serious, he might have guessed she was making fun of him. He doesn’t really think someone her age has any business with such a sharp knife, but he isn’t about to admit that and look like a loser. He peeks in at the recovery date on the display. “But it’s really–” Quickly he does the math, wanting to show her he knows how. “Five hundred and fifty-four years old! And it’s belonged to the museum for ages. There’s no way it could be yours.”
“Quick to make assumptions, aren’t you?” She tilts her head in the other direction, regarding the knife for another moment. He sees her fingers moving, as if she’s trying to remember how to hold it in her hand. And even though he knows it’s impossible, and even though she’s a little weird, he would rather make a friend than be bored on a bench all day. So he plays along with the game.
“When do you think you lost it?” he hazards, lighting up when he catches the pleased look on her face.
“Probably…” She suddenly turns to him with hands on her hips and a glint in her eye: “AHA, it was when I was travelling up to Khebeg with a group of bandits. They had raided the town I was staying in, you see, and though initially I joined their troupe for revenge I soon found their company much more to my tastes than that of the town they’d torn down. The troupe’s leader elected to take me in; to prove myself worthy of that choice, I liberated the knife from a merchant on my very first raid. You should have seen the way he blubbered as he handed it over to me!” The boy stares at her in wonder, and for a moment the rest of the room seems to disappear as he’s pulled into her story. Her words are compelling, but it is something about her energy that catches him, something he doesn’t really have the words for. “T’was a lovely piece of craftsmanship indeed. But roaming with bandits is double-edged business, and sometimes you end up the one who’s been robbed.” She turns back to the knife, nodding slowly. “It was stolen by the most treacherous of my companions: Khlaars the Foul-Breathed!”
“Can you get it back?” the boy asks eagerly, straightening up. This is the kind of story that should be played in a place like Greatwood Park–a bandit revenge story, high in the trees! But she’s a good enough storyteller that he thinks it just might work here, as well.
“I could, but Khlaars the Foul-Breathed is not to be toyed with. If he has indeed survived for the last–what was it, five hundred and fifty four years?” The boy nods, surprised she remembered when she was so quick to tease before. “Then he has only had time for his treachery to grow. We would have to use our resources wisely.” She squints, looking all around the room with the same face the boy’s mother makes when she works on a crossword puzzle. The boy quickly joins her, allowing a plan to materialize before his eyes.
“We would have to disguise ourselves!” he says with certainty, pointing to the funeral costume Princess Gamzhey famously wore to her sister’s wedding. “We could use the scraps of fabric from the dress to blend into the shadows.”
“Marvelous.” The girl nods, tying her pigtails into a knot at the back of her neck. The boy looks at her curiously; in response, she raises an eyebrow. “What? I don’t want my luscious locks ending up in someone’s fist. Get too uppity about your aesthetics and you might end up a bit piebald. Terrible way to start the day. Now come!” She grabs his hand, and he feels something spark in his palm like a tiny bonfire. “We have much to do if we’re to defeat Klaars and get my knife back.”
As they run through the museum, the plan builds and builds: baskets to hide in, ancient oil to set traps ablaze, hairpins to poke the noses of unyielding cronies. They dodge around the legs of adults and hide from librarians who shout at them to slow down around the exhibits. The boy sees the playplace tucked into a corner of the museum, where kids jump and yell and climb all over the giant wooden structures. He almost suggests they go over there to fight Khlaars the Foul-Breathed, but the girl has just started another story about the flammability of resin, and that’s a whole lot more interesting than the line for the slide.
“These little gilded eggs were collectibles back in the day, but I think they’d serve well as distractions if we lobbed them at just the right time,” she announces, circling the glass with a wolfish grin. “Just hideous, aren’t they? Like a demon’s infected tonsil. And that third one is a fake, for sure. Amazing no one’s picked that up yet.”
The boy laughs at that, imagining the eggs popping and crunching as he hurls them at the bandit. As he’s winding his arm up to show her how he’d throw them, he notices something out of the corner of his eye–something that sparkles and catches in the light. “Whoa!” It’s his turn to grab the girl’s hand this time, and he leads her over to the strange object.
When they make it through the crowds he sees a sculpture that looks like frozen fire, like sunlight pulled into candy, red and orange tendrils curling together and grasping up at the ceiling. With the spotlights shining down on it, the yellow streaks seem to move within, bringing the glass to life. He eyes the pointy edges of the sculpture, imagining all the uses for fighting Khlaars, but when he turns to face the girl, something is different.
Her face is the same, of course–outwardly she looks exactly like she did back in the main hall. And yet the boy feels like he is standing beside a new person entirely. Even the air around them feels different, still and dry as though they’re the ones preserved inside the display cases.
The boy swallows, leaning forward to read the name of the artifact on the plaque. “Ach… Achar…”
“Acharrioni glasswork,” the girl says, without any hesitation, pronouncing the Rs with a fluttering, birdlike trill. Her voice is full of fondness, and something else the boy can’t identify. Loneliness? Welcome? “On loan from the library in Padjenne.”
Suddenly, the bandit game doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did before. The boy looks to his friend, and he realizes that there is another story inside of the sculpture, a story that is perhaps too big for words. The light of the glasswork reflects in her eyes, the colors sparkling and dancing like so many stars. “…Was this yours, too?”
“Mm,” she hums, a piece of hair falling free from her braided knot. She doesn’t move to fix it. “For a time. In a way.”
“When do you think you lost it…?” he asks once more, this time with hesitation. Strangely, it seems like a very personal sort of thing to ask.
“I haven’t. Not completely, anyway.” A grin returns to her face, the same sort of look she first beckoned him with, the one that pushes up at her eyes and teases the entire room. “I’d say it’s on loan, for now.”
After another breath she turns to face the boy, and for a moment she is not quite herself anymore. Rather, she is herself, but a million other things too: she is holding a knife, and lighting resin fires, and juggling gilded eggs. She is weaving stories like a spider, and peering at strangers like a hawk, and howling at the moon. And the boy cannot explain it, but he feels very young indeed. He wants to ask her something, but he cannot remember what it is.
From far away he hears a sound, the crackling of the loudspeaker. The noise draws him out of his head, and he blinks rapidly, feeling suddenly like he’s just woken up. The room is brighter, sharper, and he hears the voice more clearly now:
“Alon, please report to the front desk. Your parents are looking for you. Alon, please report to the front desk.”
The boy’s eyes widen as he remembers the bench and his father’s firm request for him to stay right there. His stomach drops, and he turns to the girl. “I need to go. My parents–”
“Are very worried, I imagine,” she finishes for him, clasping her hands behind her back.
“…Yeah.” He nods, smiling sheepishly. “It was, um, it was nice playing with you!”
“The privilege was mine, little hero,” she replies with a graceful nod of her head. Before he can feel silly, he gives her a hug, feeling the same spark through his whole body that he felt when their hands first touched. He doesn’t need to look at her to know she is smiling.
“Bye!” he says quickly, and he runs off, feeling her delight glowing behind him, reflected in the flicker and twist of the sculpture. A librarian shouts for him to slow down, but he doesn’t, figuring he’s already in trouble anyway. Besides, it feels good for his feet to match the rhythm of his heart, which thumps and dances with the energy of a memory forming steady in his mind.
She was a good storyteller, he thinks. Maybe even a real one.
Listener and the Godslaves
Listener sits at the mountain’s peak, watching to see if the world has ended. This has been their duty, their way, since the first warning shook the villagers from their beds those many months ago. It had sounded like the deep boom of impact, like the pounding fist of a colossus. It reverberated across the land like death’s own drum, and the humans of the Safehouse beneath the mountain were sure that their luck had finally come to an end.
And yet the end never came.
In the days after, the earth groaned like an old man, and for weeks the skies wailed as though they had returned to furious infancy. The ferocity of the storms kept the villagers trapped in their home beneath the mountain, but they were accustomed to a hiding life, and the mountain always provided for them. When Listener at last dared to emerge, they saw that the skies were just beginning to settle, and the trees still stood mostly upright on a world that appeared mostly whole. Their strangest finding was the bird bones upon the ground, hundreds of them, as though a whole flock had fallen from the sky.
All things considered, it could have been worse. Listener does not know this, of course. Why should they? Their mountain is on the eastern side of the continent, away from the land that yielded to light and then became sea, churning and steaming and swallowing itself again and again. They are far south of the volcanoes, which have only just begun to consider cooling their raucous symphony. All across the land that will be called Berena, the land slides and the earth quakes, trying to make sense of the heart that has been ripped from it.
But it is quiet in the Safehouse. Quiet enough for Listener to sit and enjoy their tea on the mountaintop, watching the dark curdling clouds. The skies have been unpredictable since the Boom, and though the conditions are extreme, Listener cannot say they are surprised. The gods of the outer world are careless, and cruel. It is expected that catastrophe should come under their rule. It is why the Safehouse stays hidden beneath the mountain.
It is why Listener thinks some endings might be a kindness.
It is late afternoon when the humans emerge from the forest. They move in the way of the hunted, in a tight and whimpering pack. Many still wear their decorative, glittering chains, although it does not appear that anyone is around to tighten them. Listener counts eighteen in total, with only two capable hunters, and one looks to be tiring fast. The others do not know how to help. They huddle together, and build feeble shelters, and wait.
Such is the way of the godslaves.
Listener goes into the Safehouse and tells the village what they have seen. No, they say, the world has not ended yet, but there are eighteen godslaves at the foot of the mountain. The humans of the Safehouse are afraid. They think it is a trap set by the gods, to call them out into the open.
They are angry that we left them, says Ember Eyes.
We have evaded them for five generations, murmurs Fishtail.
The Boom was a warning.
They seek retribution.
We cannot let the godslaves in if we hope to survive.
Listener looks to Leader, who agrees that it is wise to be cautious. The gods cannot be trusted, and the Boom stinks of their doing, for who else can shake the earth into submission? So the doors to the Safehouse stay closed, and Listener resumes their watch.
The view which was once peaceful is now pathetic. One of the hunters is brought down in a fight with a wild boar. A shelter collapses in the middle of a storm, leaving its inhabitants soaked and shivering. The days pass, and soon the godslaves number seventeen, then fourteen, then twelve. Listener fidgets with the sparrow skull that hangs on a cord around their neck, and feels heaviness in their belly, like eating too fast after the starving times.
Some of the remaining godslaves struggle with their chains, trying to remove them and soothe the raw skin beneath. Others leave them, whether in resignation or devotion Listener cannot tell. One morning, the rainfall returns with neither warning nor apology, and one of the godslaves lets out the cry of a furious, wounded animal. At first, the others try to soothe their companion, but soon they give up and join in, hand in hand, screaming their rage and sorrow into the uncaring sky.
Atop the mountain, Listener weeps quietly into their hands.
No one is coming for them, Listener tells the village. They have been left to starve. And they are starving.
The humans of the Safehouse are hesitant. Leader says nothing, adding another log to the fire and weighing the options. Listener swallows. They do not want to be responsible for the fall of the Safehouse. But they cannot sit by and watch the godslaves turn to bird bones on the ground. Not when they still have a chance to help, not when it has been so long since any gods crossed their path.
Even if the gods are not coming, it doesn’t change the fact that they are godslaves. The words come from Ember Eyes, who speaks them with great pain. They are helpless. They cannot learn.
Around the fire, all think of the night Ember Eyes arrived at their door with frostbitten wrists from where her god had frozen her chains to her skin during her escape. None of them speak of it. There are some hurts that must settle quietly in the heart before they can move safely to the tongue.
We are all of us descendants of the godslaves, Fishtail says gently. Our ancestors learned, and were reborn in the Safehouse. Just as many of us have been reborn in the Safehouse. Little Song, whose tongue was cut out by the last god he ever served, places his hand on Fishtail’s leg in agreement. Why should they be denied the same opportunity?
There are too many of them, Ember Eyes says quietly. And perhaps this is true. But Listener knows the words are spoken to hold the place of a different fear.
There are twenty-four humans in the Safehouse. Leader determines that the decision must be unanimous, for allowing this many new people in with even one villager holding bitterness in their heart would be the camp’s undoing. The welcome must be whole, or it is no welcome at all. So the humans of the Safehouse sit around the fire, and they speak long into the night.
It is cruel to abandon them in cold. It would make us no better than their masters.
And if another god finds them, they will search the area for more humans. We cannot leave them out so close to the Safehouse.
Should we let them in, it adds many mouths to feed.
The mountain can sustain us. And the mouths come with more hands to work. Perhaps it would create more opportunities for the camp.
What if they still love their gods? What then?
The conversation burns through many fires, and opens many wounds the village had thought soothed by their quiet life in the mountain. When tempers rise, they step back. They make tea, and they sing, and they braid each other’s hair, which they grow so long. By morning all are in agreement, except for Ember Eyes, who weeps and shakes her head.
Listener, whose heart has long belonged to Ember Eyes, aches to see the pain they have brought upon her, and the village. They cannot blame her for her reaction–the godslaves force her to remember where she came from, to look upon the world she would rather forget. But remembrance, Listener thinks, is what has allowed them to survive and build the Safehouse. How do they voice this kindly?
It is an impossible choice, says Ember Eyes bitterly.
But it is a choice, replies Leader, whose title was earned by his thoughtful words and steady heart. What a blessing, to have a choice.
The fire crackles, spitting gentle sparks up towards Leader’s face. His brow is creased in focus, his hands clasped in thought. The village goes quiet, listening to what they know to be the final appeal to Ember Eyes. There was a time when we had no say in what we were to become. The gods bred us as work animals, made to follow orders and keep our heads down. But we are no longer under the thumb of the gods, and it is our responsibility to decide what kind of animal we wish to be.
Leader looks up, a storytelling smile on his face, and opens his right hand. Perhaps we should be like the ants, who work together to sustain their colonies, who wander into even the direst of circumstances to retrieve their dead. It is true that some individuals are lost underfoot, but the colony survives most anything.
Or perhaps it would be wise to imitate the bobcats. Leader opens his left hand, guiding the villagers’ eyes across their choices. Solitary, protective of only those they consider their own. Few who challenge them live to do it again.
Leader nods to himself, then looks up at Ember Eyes. Both of these methods have their merits. But we must decide which is right for us, as humans. What kind of animal do we wish to be?
For a long time, Ember Eyes says nothing. At last, she lifts her head with a shuddering breath, and looks around at the family which holds her and strokes her hair. She catches Listener’s eye, and they look away with a full and wanting feeling in their chest. If they could see past the churning clouds above, they would see the sun that has just begun to rise.
Alright, she says. We let them in.
Listener sits at the mountain’s peak, watching as Leader and Fishtail walk down to meet the godslaves. Their arms are heavy with baskets of food that will sustain the weary travelers on their walk up to the Safehouse. Their hearts are strong, prepared to share the load of the godslaves’ suffering. Inside the mountain, the villagers are sharpening the tools that will break their chains, building the cots that will soothe their aching backs. Come tomorrow, they will sit around the fire, sharing what they know and planning for the future.
This is the birth of a library.
The books will come later, as will the catalogs and the Collectors and the towering walls, built and burned time and time again. But today is where it begins, for when one person decides that knowledge is valuable enough to pass down to another, a library enters its infancy.
Of course, Listener has no way of knowing this. They will be dust upon dust by the time the walls rise. But they feel something, like the settling of the earth, or the sigh of the sea, or the end of a world, or the warmth of Ember Eyes sharing their cot, her words a balm for their aching thoughts.
Some endings can be a kindness, Listener thinks. And the storm yields, at last, to sun.