Checking out at the Library

The Book was bound in black leather, gold, and iron. The leather and gold formed the cover. The iron came in the form of a chain, with links each as thick around as a man's thumb, and a lock that would have taken a carnival strongman to manipulate. The keyhole suggested that its mate might double as a walking stick, given its obvious size. Which was why Poor Temmy was so surprised when he found The Book open and unbound as he brought his cleaning cart into the Necromancer's Wing of the Geinodes Club on his evening rounds.

The Necromancer's Wing was the last stop, in every sense. Poor Temmy had only to get in and out, knock the wads of obvious dust off of certain very well-marked bookshelves, and he could head home for the night.  The hunched-over cleaningsman always told himself that he shouldn't save it until the end -- maybe do the Thaumaturge's Wing last, which was well-lit and full of wonderful clockwork creations and made no suggestion that its dark places would swallow him whole of their own volition. But that fruity little dhampyr was the only one who was ever around late, and Poor Temmy did not hold with that, no sir.

Of course, he didn't hold much with being consumed by dark nothingness, either, so the Necromancer's Wing usually got only the a series of increasingly erratic of wipe-downs before his hand shook so badly he could no longer hold a duster, and he fled in a near-panic from the place. Every night. It never got better.

Tonight, though, the dark was different. Yes, it was filled with the patina of rot and with shadows that bent after you when you passed, but tonight even the shadows were on good behavior. The Book was on its customary stand, which Poor Temmy was Not To Touch, but whenever he scuttled past it, nothing cold and insubstantial wisped after him. Elsewhere in the Wing, the night held onto every one of its terrors, but near The Book, the dark was just... empty. Empty of light, and of everything else that Poor Temmy had ever imagined it contained.  All those terrors that might have been hiding in the gloom... they simply weren't there.

Poor Temmy lingered.

The Book was... "beautiful" was the wrong word... enthralling. Its pages were each trimmed in gold filigree, and the writing inside was crisp and firm, as if its author were possessed of some absolute clarity. Poor Temmy had never been absolute about anything in his life -- a sin to which he faithfully confessed every sevenday, more from a vague sense of unease than actual fear of the Lord -- and though he had no idea what the strange lettering might say, the straight lines and perfect arches looked as if they'd been planned by an architect.  They made him feel awed, as if looking at a mighty cathedral. They were even easy on the eyes: rather than a harsh black on white as he'd seen elsewhere in the libraries of the Club, these words were a dark brown, on pages almost sepia in coloration. They looked thick, too, those pages, satisfying. They weren't paper, he thought, but something more... human. Poor Temmy imagined that turning one of those pages would feel like an accomplishment.

When he found that he was right, he was not sure what baffled him more: how the almost sensuous crinkle of the page made his spine shudder in delight, or the fact that he'd dared touch The Book at all.

What did not seem in the least odd to him was that the next page was perfectly readable to him. It also seemed quite natural, when he flipped back to the previous page he'd just found to be incomprehensible, that he should be able to understand it with ease.

That is not dead which can eternal lie...

It bothered him for a moment, as his fingers lovingly caressed the pages, when the words began to slide off of The Book and onto his flesh.  It hurt, the way that they tore his skin open to allow fresh blood to seep out to trace those straight lines and perfect arches.  It hurt, but oh, how he wanted them.  They deserved fresh blood, not the dried stuff that had caked those pages.  As he watched them carve themselves onto his flesh, fleeing the bindings of The Book for human skin far more supple than dead leather, he could also feel the words burning themselves indelibly into his mind.

... and with strange aeons even death may die.

His posture straightened.  His thoughts expanded.  His sense of being Poor Temmy, the orphaned boy who'd grown up in the streets of Industry and taken every beating that had been his lot with pathetic pleas of "I'm sorry, I'm sorry"... it seemed very distant.  Distant, insignificant... hard to understand.  The world was so much more than just a flimsy, meaty shell moving about on a rock that fled the inevitable doom of the universe through space and time.

It had order.  It had meaning.  It had the words.

Blood-runes welling all across its body, the thing that had been Poor Temmy approached a glass display case containing several scrolls, vials, and a ceremonial dagger.  For a moment, a cursed language appeared faintly on the glass, which then burst outward from the case in suicidal horror.  The thing reached for the dagger, and methodically cut the scraps of clothing away from its body, revealing the runes to the world.  Gathering clumps of hair in its blood-slicked fist, it cut them away down to the scalp, so that no word should remain hidden from the world.

It turned the dagger over in its hand.  For now, blood smeared only its hilt.  The words... they were not meant to be kept to itself.  They were meant to be shared.

It would share them with everyone.

Blade readied, it strode out of the Necromancer's Wing, to begin.

A short time later, after the first screams began, an unseen hand possessed of absolute clarity commenced tracing straight lines and perfect arches onto the empty pages of The Book, in a wet, red ink.

Chapter Six

The bath brings me closer to God than anything today yet has, and that definitely includes doing His will.

The Geinodes Club is a place of learning, and of money. The intersection of these two forces birthed a labrynthine tangle of rooms of all sizes, sealed beneath the earth like an emperor’s catacomb--fitting, considering the place was carved out of an ancient sewer system. The rooms range from closet-sized to cavernous, and each one is a library. Books line every available vertical surface, excepting the seventh walls, which instead display maps of every corner of the globe. Most of the libraries are open to any member, with long study tables and comfortable, high-backed leather chairs. They smell of pipe-smoke and old paper.

The hallways connecting one room to the next are lined with lacquered cherry bookshelves, each one bearing an inscription or small brass plate denoting the patron to whom it belongs. I’ve got a few of them squirreled about the place, in fact, mostly filled with musty spellbooks I’ve sworn to master, just as soon as I have a year or two not occupied by the charitable donation of puncture wounds.

If a single patron owns every shelf in the room, however, he is allowed to declare it a private collection, and admit only those he wills. I’ve not bothered to purchase the secret of how the shelves are allocated, so I’ve no idea how one would go about obtaining a library all his own, but I know there are internecine wars of almost bladed hostility in order to secure prime spots or junctions. Lord Culnor is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant of the Club’s tacticians, because he owns not fewer than twenty private libraries, including a suite of ten that are all found right next to one another. It’s called the Thaumaturge’s Wing, and it’s where I’m having the finest bath of my life.

The tub is a septagonal construct of brass and copper, decorated with pinpricks that form intricate swirls of ivy and fey creatures. When Tanner led me into the library--the books here are all protected from the steam by thick plates of glass across the shelves--he went first to an orb embedded on the top of the tub, next to the set of stairs leading into the thing. He’s not a big man, and he had to reach to shoulder height in order to run his hand over it. As he waved his hairy paw across its surface, a mist inside the orb swirled to life, and a warm red-orange glow began to emanate from beneath the basin. The same color of light spilled out from the many pinpricks in the side of the tub, turning the leafy pattern into a fall-colored panorama of yellows, oranges, and reds.

“How hot d’ye want it, lad?” he’d asked, bowler hat cocked quizzically.

“Hot,” I answered. “I’ve got a lot of bug to scrape off of me.”

He spun the color up to more of a red, and then walked along a six-inch-wide copper pipe that disappeared into the wall. He pulled down on an enormous, leather-wrapped wooden lever sticking out from between volumes thirty-nine and forty of Edrammij’s Concise History of the Glorious Tyrenian Empire, which set a cascading series of brass gears to turning along the surface of the wall, beneath the bottom of the bookshelf. They terminated with a valve attached to the copper pipe, with teeth that fitted neatly into the last of the gears. As it squeaked open, a roar of gushing water nearly as loud as the gyro-rotors on the Falkoj poured from the tub as it began to fill. I had peeked over the edge, and seen the water rushing in with enough speed to knock over a rhinoceros.

Tanner had grinned, showing slightly-pointed canines, and waggled his bushy red eyebrows. “M’lord’s got a whole ‘nother library through there,” he shouted over the noise, “just so he could have enough room to put his Water Pumping And Heating Engine!”

Now, all is blissfully silent, but for the occasional trill of droplets as I lift an arm out to snag a grape, or one of those little pastries with the mint leaf and smear of melted chocolate on top. The water is scented of lavender, and it has done an admirable job of rinsing the soot and grime from me. Some kind of built-in filtration system has shunted the dirty water away and replaced it with new, and has kept the temperature to near-scalding. My ruddy skin tempts me to use the control orb to lower it just slightly, but the mostly-empty bottle of wine that had been full of a smooth, spicy red when Tanner brought with my dinner isn’t making me want to rush into anything.

Well, God, this is an unexpected little delight. I guess I’ll keep serving You a little longer, after all.

God and I share a little laugh at this jest. He hadn’t bothered to ask my permission to start me down this road; I sincerely doubt I get to just tell Him to bugger off when I’m tired of it. Right now, though, He’s taking good care of His servant.

Sure, I’ve got a care or two. The thing with Corwinne still tastes sour, for one. And there’s the matter of Fat Lonnie. And I owe Culnor a secret.

But mostly, right now, my main care is whether or not I should ask for a second bottle of this stuff.

Tanner comes back in, bringing an exotic smell of smoke and honey with him. “Hookah?” he asks, and then catches my slow smile. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.”

He busies himself for a bit attaching the metal pot to several nozzles in the tub, and then hands me the pipe end. “M’lord likes a bit of pipe in the bath every now and again, so he added a proper circulator and heating element to the bath. Just ring if you need anything else.”

I take a tentative puff. The honeyed scent fills my mouth and nostrils, and I feel a tickle at the base of my skull as it starts to work. This isn’t really my sort of thing, more as a practical matter than anything else: when you spend as much time getting attacked as I do, keeping your wits about you is strongly advised. I tell Tanner as much.

He laughs. “I’m doubtin’ you’ll face too many who’re trying to punch holes in ye here, Fellthorn. M’lord, maybe, if he doesn’t like your tale, but he’ll not be letting anybody else do his dirty work for him.”

My brow wrinkles. “Yes... he seemed a bit tense. Want to tell me what’s been going on? I’ve only been gone a few months.”

He shows me his teeth again. “I could... how’s a fifty quidder for that?”

I snort smoke and roll my eyes. “You’re full of shit, lycanth. Ten, and I’m only offering that because I’ve been drinking your lord’s wine.”

“Now lad,” he begins again, eyes full of hurt, “ye mean to suggest that I’d not play you fair? I am wounded, I swear by me mum. Do I need to call old Shelnoc in here to adjudicate?”

“Leave the Historian out of this. Your kind, play fair? Pull the other one.”

He prickles, and I fancy I can see hackles rise. “Didn’t think ye had such a problem with lycanths, church man.”

I wave him away and put on a reedy, high-pitched voice to match his accent. “I meant Eirans, ye vicious little leprechaun. ‘Tis known t’all that ye’r descended from the Fair Ones. Stolen away any babies lately?”

He guffaws. “Only from the church, lad, and only because I was right starvin’.” He meets my gray eyes with his yellow. “Fifteen.”

“Done. How’s this: though the Count will swear up and down that he’s not had a draught of the red stuff since before you were a little green twinkle in your old man’s eye, it happens that there’s a certain whore he visits upon once per year on a night of great personal significance to him. She lets him have a pint or so, then sends him on his way.”

I can tell by the twinkle in his own eye I’ve struck gold. “A she? Now, that is an interestin’ little tidbit. Not his usual sort. What’s the name of the lady?”

“Fiver.”

He doesn’t blink. “Done.”

“Ulina Maefoun.”

He frowns. “Sounds Frankish.”

“Bayounian, actually.” I grin, waiting for the next question.

“Where does she haunt?”

“Five more.”

“Curse ye, I’ll find that one myself for yer prices.” He nearly spits and then just glares. “And ye had the nerve to suggest that I might not play ye fair.”

“Ten for the rest.” I show my own teeth. “The date... and why. You know you want it.”

“Fine! And fie on yer whole church, too.”

“Eleventh day of Midwinter. Often as not one of the coldest days of the year. Sun’s low in the sky when you can see it at all... even the whores aren’t out wandering the streets much. Nights are long, the kind of long not everybody makes it through. Especially not little old men with debts to the Captains, in this case. Debts that the Captains didn’t know he’d used to set up a little insurance policy against ‘accidental’ death...”

“His death-day!” Tanner exclaims, gleefully. “Oh, lad. Ye’ve made a happy man out of me. Man keeps his secrets tighter than a nun’s knickers, but I’ll have the whole place festooned in black ribbons and balloonery, just you wait!” He rubs his hands together, even; I didn’t know people really did that. “Aye,” he nods. “I’m a happy man. Even owing you fifteen quid ‘o secret tales to tell.”

“And a tale about your lord,” I remind him. “How about it?” I settle down into the water as Tanner shakes his head.

“He’s been in a foul mood, yer not wrong about that. For months now, it’s gone on. I thought at first it was the latest Lady Culnor, but the Count, he sussed it out straightaway.” Tanner adds a lisp to his lilt. “ ‘Dead things, young son, you mark my words.’ That’s what he said. Told me he could smell it on m’lord. I didn’t smell nothing funny, and I said as much, but if that little fairy wasn’t right all along I’ll shave my back.”

“This story is depressing. Less about back hair, wolf-man.”

“I braid it,” he grins, teeth bared. Before I have time to object, or throw up in the back of my mouth, he carries on. “It’s yer old man.”

Suddenly, the water is too hot, I’m too full of sweets, and my head is too fuzzy for the room. “Damn it.”

We both make the sign of the star, reflexively.

I sigh, and put the hookah down. “I think I knew that already, but thanks for the confirmation.” I shake my head. “But why would that get old Culnor all depressed? He and my father were old adventuring buddies. ‘Get out, see the world, meet new and interesting people, kill them, and take their things!’ I’ve got a place down by the docks where I keep the junk of the poor saps who greeted dear old dad and the Thaumaturge when they stepped down off the airship. Boxes of it. Culnor got rich, and dad got...” I sigh again. “... obsessed.”

Tanner nods. “Yer pa, he was an intense one, at least by the time I came on the scene. Scary, sometimes. But that’s just the thing. M’lord’s found something. Something about all those trips Mernick made, even after m’lord stopped going with him.”

I wince. “I remember those days. Your boss was none too popular in the Fellthorn home. My dad always said it was his wife--the first one--who finally caught him by the-- well, you can imagine. Dad didn’t like it.”

Tanner shrugs apologetically. “M’lord had a few choice names of his own for yer pa. It wasn’t a happy time. Two old bears shouldn’t feud like that.” His face contracts shrewdly. “I think m’lord thinks so, too, now. He thinks he never should have left yer pa to go it alone.”

“Why? Does he need more money to pay off wife six?”

“Fer love of yer old man, boy,” spits Tanner. “He feels guilty. I’ve heard him say so. Says no one should have to die like that.”

I share in Culnor’s feelings for a moment, and then something Tanner said catches in my mind. “Wait--don’t you mean, ‘should have had to die like that?’ ”

“Ye should know better than to question an Eiran on the wagging of our tongues, lad. We’ve the gift of truth-telling, don’t you know?”

I shoot to my feet. Since I’d been crouched up on an interior stair at the tub’s edge, all of a sudden a lot more of me is getting gooseflesh than I’m used to.

“I... I’ve got to... pants,” I finish, more decisively than I started. “Pants, please.”

Tanner’s grin is all canines. “Still think it wasn’t worth fifty quid?” He chuckles. “How about a towel, first?”

I take the proffered cloth and tie it around my waist, and then attempt to make a graceful exit from the tub. There’s not really any way to do it without exposing Tanner to the sign of the star all over again, but after another long grin--a different sort of grin than his partner would be giving me, I realize, and thank God for small favors--he turns and busies himself at a table by the door. I scramble out of the tub and start for the hallway--then stop, as Tanner holds up something on a coat hanger.

“Er... a leather jacket?”

“Not pants, I realize,” he offers, “nor the proper regalia of a priest, but the Count was sewing up a fit, and you’ll insult us if you don’t at least try it on.”

There’s more than a jacket; there’s a red silk undershirt with a high, banded collar like the one I’m used to. My sash has been cleaned, which as far as I’m concerned is another act of God, considering what had been on it not an hour before. I balk for a second at the long skirt that he hands me next, but he does finally hand over a set of matching black pants with it, and points out that the skirt has been done up in the style of a cassock, but has slits all the way up either leg.

“Hell of a lot better in a fight than that dress you usually wear,” he says, and I’m hard-pressed to disagree once I’ve got it all on. Plus, I note in the mirror as I button the black leather jacket up and push my middle and ring finger through the loops on the ends of the sleeve that keep a diamond-shaped strip of leather tight against the back of my hand, I look awesome. If any a priest were ever going to kick someone’s ass, it would be this guy.

“Boots, leather jacket, collar... I’ll forgive you the skirt,” I say. “You guys did good.”

Tanner just grins.

“Now,” I grit my teeth, “let’s find that boss of yours. I suspect he’s got good reason to feel guilty.”

I’m all fired up to confront Culnor, but like most of my plans, this one doesn't bear much resemblance to what actually happens.

Tanner drops me off at yet another library of Culnor's, this one filled with books whose titles were eerily familiar. The Quest for Rix'th V'asha had been a favorite of mine as a kid, back when I still wanted to be just like its author and protagonist. Culnor looked pretty dashing in it, too, as I recalled, but when I was eight, I had eyes only for the real hero of the book. It looked like whoever had assembled this library had been channeling my eight-year-old self.

We'd had one nearly identical in my house, growing up, albeit much less ornate. "Ornate" wasn't a word used in conjunction with the Fellthorn home, unless heavily prefaced with words like "almost" or "unpretentiously" (my personal favorite). Dad's idea of an investment had been new engines for the Kailee. Why buy a nicer library--or a nicer house in a good neighborhood--when he wasn't going to actually be in it for any longer than it took to refit his airship? He never let the place get run-down--that would hardly be proper--but I can't say I'd have minded living in a part of town where I didn't get beaten up once a week by the other kids on our block for not quite living up to my father's appetite for fisticuffs. I preferred my adventures to come in book form. Some people just aren't cut out to be heroes.

Caught up in reverie, the steam I've built up to let Culnor have it evaporates. Before I know it, there's a glass of whiskey in my hand--from the husky smell, a glass of a vintage a good sight pricier than any I'll be permitted to approach any time soon without a respectfully averted gaze, and possibly making the sign of the Star. One whiff and my buzz from earlier is back in force: a long, easygoing high that uncurls my toes and makes me sigh despite myself.

Culnor clinks my glass. "To adventures," he cheers.

"Adventures," I echo. "A nice way of saying 'good times involving buckets of blood, lots of it your own'."

"Little stomach for the war front? Prefer to do your bloodletting back here in Noldon?" A savage grin. "I hear you're winning your little contest with Darkleaf."

I groan. "Not my contest. You should know me better."

"Don't be so bashful, boy; I do know you, and your judgment. Are you telling me they weren't righteous kills?"

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I feel its tip scrape the inside of his skull. Warmth gushes down over my hands...

I look down at my drink for a moment, and then drain it in one go. "That's not what I said." Truth, but...

Culnor perhaps catches my mood, or perhaps is simply impatient. "Nothing's black and white in war, m'boy. And you've the fresh memories to prove it, don't you? Three months ago, you promised me a secret. I assume you're here to honor that promise?"

I reach into my sash, and draw out the scenograph. It depicts an eerily-crisp image: Corwinne, her thick leather gloves tarnished by spatters of a dark liquid, holding up a scroll as wide as a man’s forearm is long. The parchment is thick, and the scroll is wrapped around a pair of human femurs. She’s showing it to the lens, and the strange script seems to writhe and twist when at the corner of your eye, as if it were loath to be contained in such a way. The original text hadn’t been so fussy, but words like these have a mind of their own, and a scenograph is no way to treat them. I hand it over without looking at it. Culnor smiles.

“Ahh, a classic. Your father always preferred these to photograms, and I have to agree: you can’t beat them for detail.” He doodles the paperlike sheet of silver with his fingers, and I know he is manipulating the image, zooming in and looking at it from all sides. Scenographs capture not only the image in front of the lens, but all around the device, to a radius of maybe five or six yards. You can see the front and back of objects, observe tiny details, look at nearly anything you want. You just can’t see the camera, its operator, or anything in the distance. Corwinne could explain why--something about thaumic resonance, no doubt--but she’s more studious about this sort of thing than I am. If it has a lever, I’m useless; give me a musty tome and I’ll work a spell that’ll peel the paint off the walls. This scroll, though...

Culnor’s eyes twinkle. “You’ve done a stellar job capturing the scene--the focus is perfect--and Miss Corwinne looks simply ravishing, unfurling the scroll with an archivist’s care. Did you know that your ladyfriend wasn’t wearing any underwear?”

“How can you... you dirty old sod, give me that!” I make a lunge for my partner’s decency, but Culnor is way ahead of me.

“Now, now, I think I’ve earned this graph, as well as the tale behind it.” His grin pulls his drooping mustaches wide apart.

“Curious choice of words. You’re the second who I've found lusting after it tonight.”

“Perhaps you should say the third. She’s a lovely creature.” He cuts off my protest with a wave of his hand. “I’ve heard it all before, lad. Comrades-in-arms you may be, but you’re still allowed to be a man.” He sighs, manipulating the scenograph once again. “Marvellous quality, as I said. I do miss the color of a photogram, though.”

“The equipment’s a bit bulky,” I reply, trying to unfurrow my brows. “And besides, the scroll wasn’t in color, anyway.”

“You’d be amazed what you can tell from a little bit of color,” he chides. “If you can gauge the ambient light and the material, the yellowing gives you an idea of how old it is. The pigment of the script can tell you what it was written in. No, there’s a lot to be gleaned from a spot of color.”

“As for the pigment,” I say, “no mystery there. Brownish, even on the leather. I didn’t need the Count’s nose to tell me it was blood. I’d wager you the worth of the tale I’m about to tell that it was human, just like the skin it was scrawled on.”

“Then... not the Crawling Ones?” Lord Culnor’s face has lost all its good humor, and a good deal of its color.

“No. They’ve no use for skin; it means nothing to them. You need something meaningful to bind words like that.” I sigh. “But Those Below aren’t covered in insect chitin.”

We both make the sign of the star.

Culnor recovers his composure quickly. “As you say; I'll dispose of this graph properly, lest we find these words escaping it." He sighs. "Such a find, and on the war front. I imagine it was dearly-bought. If it’s what I think it is, it could cast doubt on who the real enemy out there has been all along. Can’t have made you very popular with the brass. Generals and commandants don’t care for shades of gray.”

I nod. “Yes, Leftenant Commander Holvelak had some starkly black-and-white views on topics ranging from elves to God to pyrotoxin. And he paid dearly for them.” I settle down in my chair, and raise my glass for Culnor to refill it.

“As for the war... that was in color.”