by Tim Pratt
Once upon a time there was a woman who fell in love with a book –
No, no. I won’t begin that way.
Just because this is a story with fairies in it doesn’t make it a fairy tale.
Emily Yuan, anesthetized by the day’s events, drifted into her apartment, volitionless as a cloud. Her housemate Cece sat on the couch and, without looking up from the glowing tablet in her hands, said, “How was work, Em?”
Emily lowered herself into one of the hyper-ergonomic office chairs Cece had looted from her failed start-up – it was the furniture in the room besides the couch – and swiveled herself half a degree one way, then the other. “Oh. Well. A sweet old lady tried to steal about 50 classical music CDs by stuffing them in her coat. A drunk guy vomited in the periodicals section. Some kids defaced a bunch of vampire romance books with black magic markers – I can’t fault their critical acumen, but I disapprove of their methods – and when we ran out of toilet paper in the men’s room, instead of telling someone, one of our patrons just ripped pages out of that new biography of Arthur Conan Doyle and used those instead.”
Cece grunted. “So a fairly typical day then.”
“Except for how it ended,” she said. “I got fired.”
Now Cece looked up, eyes wide under her spiky blue hair, which she’d dyed as soon as the last venture capitalist pulled out of her company. No more meetings, no more boring hair. “What?”
“Budget cuts. They’re shutting down one of the other city library branches and combining staff, and… ” She shrugged. “Last in, first out. Technically it’s a layoff, and if things improve, I’ll be first on their list to get rehired, yadda yadda. But for now… I’ve got one master’s degree in history and another in library science. You think I could get a job stocking shelves at Trader Joe’s?”
“That’s something to think about tomorrow. Tonight, we get drunk.”
Emily snorted. “That’s your answer to everything. Something to celebrate? Get drunk. Something to mourn? Get drunk.”
“I’m a programmer,” Cece said. “I like it when one process serves multiple functions.”
Emily followed Cece into the kitchen – a beautiful, spacious room in their otherwise cramped duplex, like a refugee from a different house entirely – where Cece started mixing up vodka gimlets. Emily eased herself onto one of the stools arrayed around the kitchen island, moving as carefully as if her bones were made of glass. She hadn’t loved being a librarian at a small city branch, but it had been a place to start her career, and now she wasn’t even that far along. She had enough savings to last maybe a month – rent alone was brutal, even though the East Bay was cheaper than living in San Francisco.
Emily shook her head. Cece was right: worry tomorrow. Get distracted tonight. “But getting fired isn’t even the most memorable thing that happened to me tonight,” she said, smiling at the memory.
“Oh yeah?” Cece sipped from a glass, winced, and added more vodka. “What could top that?”
“I was waiting for the train after work,” Emily began.
Emily sat on a round stone bench on the train platform, staring at the late afternoon light slanting down from the high windows, feeling as cold and adrift as an ice floe, a cardboard carton of her personal effects resting on her knees. The platform was wholly empty – she’d arrived just in time to miss a train, and it was still well before rush hour – or so she thought, until she heard someone humming.
At the far end of the station, an auburn-haired woman in a shimmering blue gown sat on the edge of the platform, her feet dangling into the pit like a kid wetting her feet in a swimming pool. Except if her feet were still there when a train came in, there was a good chance they’d get ripped off. Emily couldn’t figure out how she’d missed the woman before – she was hardly unremarkable. She was clearly drunk or high or tripping or something, though. Emily sighed, rose, and walked over, still holding all her workly possessions.
“Ma’am,” she said. “Are you all right?”
The woman stopped humming and turned her face up to Emily as slowly as a flower turning toward the sun. Her features were smooth and unlined, but there was something about the set of her jaw and the depth of her pale eyes that made Emily suspect the woman was older than she looked. “I am,” she said, with the exaggerated dignity of the very drunk, “utterly famished. Life has no meaning.” The woman had some sort of accent, but it was hard to place – someone who’d grown up speaking French and learned English in London, maybe.
Emily frowned, then sat down beside her, crossing her own legs, keeping well away from the edge. The woman smelled pleasantly of vanilla and lemon, and Emily wondered what kind of cocktails included those flavors.
The sign above the platform said they had seven minutes before the next train. Seven minutes to keep this woman from becoming literally as well as figuratively legless. “Ah.” Emily rummaged in her box. “I have… a cereal bar. Almonds and chocolate chips.”
The woman wrinkled her nose and wiggled her toes. Her feet were bare, her nails painted in iridescent colors, no shoes in sight.
“Okay then… ” Emily dug a little deeper, pushing aside a tiny potted cactus and a desk calendar featuring a different feminist quote for every day. “Half a bag of pretzels?”
The woman shifted her weight, leaning forward so far Emily was afraid she’d topple into the tracks.
“Okay!” Emily said. “I have chocolate.”
Now the woman turned her head, just a fraction, in Emily’s direction. “Good chocolate?”
“Artisanal, organic, locally made. My one luxury indulgence.” At least it was, when I had a paycheck. She rummaged, then held out the unopened, foil-wrapped bar.
“You offer this freely?” the woman said.
Emily shrugged. “You’re hungry. I’ve got food. Sure.”
The woman took the chocolate bar, then drew her legs up out of the pit and scooted back until she was entirely beyond the yellow “don’t stand here” strip. Emily moved with her, unwrapping a cereal bar, and they ate together in companionable silence for a moment, the woman nibbling at the chocolate bar daintily, not at all like a starving drunk. “Mmm,” she said. “The milk chocolate of human kindness. Delicious.” She licked her fingers, then handed the bar back to Emily. She’d eaten barely half a square. “My train is coming. Until next time.” She rose, and didn’t seem drunk at all now – more like a poised charity-organizing socialite.
Emily glanced at the display above the platform, which claimed it would be seven more minutes for the train. How was that possible? It had been seven minutes at least five minutes ago. Must be running late. “I think I’m on the same one, but –”
“Not this train, dear,” the woman said, smiling down at Emily benevolently. “Not just now.”
A train arrived. There was no hooting howl of horns, no roar of approaching wind, none of the signs that usually accompanied an arriving train. But this train was unlike the snub-nosed dirty silver ones Emily was accustomed to seeing enter the station: it was a jeweled oblong just a single car long, so intricately decorated it appeared hand-made, with elaborate scrollwork covering every surface and windows of stained glass in a dozen colors.
Emily gaped as the woman approached the train and the doors slid open, moved by an astonishingly complex array of exposed gears and levers and pistons. Emily glimpsed the interior – all dark leather and glittering crystal chandeliers and even bookshelves – and then the doors closed behind the woman, and the train pulled away, as silently as it had arrived.
“What do you mean by ‘figuratively legless’?” Cecily said.
Emily frowned. “You know. Legless. Really drunk. It’s British slang.”
“Anglophile,” Cece said. “You read too much.”
“I can’t believe my slangy cultural appropriation is the thing about that story you find worthy of comment.”
“I do have a follow-up,” Cece said, draining her second glass.
“A jeweled train? Really?”
Emily shrugged. “Like if Faberge had designed steampunk trains instead of eggs, yeah.”
Cece hmmmed. “I haven’t heard about any hardcore steampunk maker cosplayers who’ve gone morlock and started using the train tunnels, but I guess it’s not impossible. Maybe the train is a lightweight shell covered in costume jewelry, pedal-driven, I’ve seen that sort of thing at conventions… ”
“Geek,” Emily said. “It was weird as hell, that’s for sure.” She tapped her glass. “I’m running behind. And I’m the one with a reason to get wasted here. At least if I’m drunk I’ll have a good reason for feeling as disconnected from reality as I do.”
“We are sisters in unemployment and inebriation,” Cece said, and poured her another.
Emily slopped around the house the next morning while Cece slept in, drinking all the coffee she could brew and popping ibuprofen like breath mints. She considered opening her laptop to start looking for jobs, or at least start the paperwork for unemployment benefits, but shuddered at the thought. She’d let herself live in denial for another day.
Someone knocked sharply at the door. Emily pulled the belt of her robe tighter and went to the door, wondering whether it would be a wandering proselytizer, someone trying to run a scam, or a delivery of something she’d ordered off the internet at midnight last week before realizing she’d have to live off her savings.
A bored-looking man in an old-fashioned-looking gray uniform held out a rectangle of paper. “Telegram.”
Emily blinked. “Telegram? Where’s your horse and buggy?”
“I walked.” He thrust the paper toward her.
“Are you… a really inventive process server or something? Am I getting sued?”
He sighed. “No, ma’am. Please take the telegram. I have to confirm that I delivered it to you personally.”
Emily took the paper, and the man turned and walked away from the house without another word. She unfolded the paper, and it was indeed a telegram, just like she’d seen in countless old and historical movies. It said
MET AT TRAIN STATION YESTERDAY STOP HAVE EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY AT PRIVATE LIBRARY STOP MEET BERKELEY ROSE GARDEN TWILIGHT
The paper smelled of vanilla and lemons.
“See, but that’s weird,” Cece said.
“Yes. Getting a telegram from a woman I’ve met once, who didn’t know my name, or that I was unemployed –”
“You were carrying a box with all your stuff in it, and your name is written on the side of the box in Sharpie,” Cece said. “I don’t know how she knew you were a librarian, but maybe you let something slip and you don’t remember. That part’s not so weird. It’s the telegram smelling like the woman did, vanilla and lemon. Even if people still used telegrams, the point is that they’re sent remotely, they shouldn’t smell like the person who wrote them.”
“So it’s a fake telegram, which we knew, because there are no real telegrams anymore.”
“Point,” Cece said. “Are you going to the meeting?”
“Of course. It’s too bizarre not to. I’m taking pepper spray though. And I’m also taking you.”
“I’ll get the sniper rifle.”
Emily snorted. “Like you’ve ever even held a gun.”
“True. But I’ve got that potato cannon I made last year, and that’ll break a fucker’s head at a pretty good range.”
The Berkeley Rose Garden in August was fairly flowery, and Emily went through the gate and in among the blossoms in red and yellow and dusky pink, making her way down the terraced steps to the bottom, where a creek ran in a concrete bed, trickle spanned by a wooden bridge. The woman from the train station waited there, dressed in a gown of sea-green, sitting on the bridge, feet dangling down.
Emily joined her on the bridge, one hand in her purse gripping the canister of pepper spray, glancing around at the gathering shadows. This wasn’t a particularly dangerous place, even after dark, but the whole thing was so odd that Emily was on the lookout for figures lurking in the bushes. Fortunately she had her own lurker in the form of Cece, posted on one of the paths that wound among the trees on the southeast edge of the park, armed with a collection of PVC pipes and aerosol canisters capable of launching a projectile a couple hundred yards at brutal speeds. Emily had her doubts about the weapon’s accuracy, but if things got dangerous a rain of exploding potatoes would serve as a distraction if nothing else.
“Hello again,” Emily said. “I got your message.”
“Demonstrably.” The woman watched the water trickle along the concrete creek bed.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you send a telegram?”
“That is the way one sends important messages, is it not?”
Maybe in 1890, Emily thought, but before she could comment, the woman spoke again. “Are you interested in the job?”
“I was trained as a reference librarian.” Emily leaned on the railing, looking at the wooden fence separating a private house from the garden. “I’ve been working in public libraries, hoping for a job to open up in one of the colleges or universities, but… ” She shrugged. “No luck yet. So I’m open to other possibilities. You said it’s a private library?”
“Indeed. A fine collection, which includes many exceedingly rare books, owned by a certain group that prefers anonymity. The portion of the collection you’d be managing is extensive but in some disarray, in desperate need of proper curation, open only to researchers with the right qualifications. There is a small circulating collection as well, available to certain patrons of the… organization… but that’s operated separately, and you wouldn’t be expected to deal much with the public. I’m part of… oh, let’s say the board… and I have discretion when it comes to hiring.”
“I’d want to take a look at the collection –” Emily began.
“And so you will. If you take the job.”
Emily frowned. “Is it a legal or medical library? Those aren’t my areas of expertise –”
“Oh, no. It’s a more a… general collection, though some subject areas are represented better than others. There are probably many thousands of volumes. To be honest, we’re not even sure what’s in there, but it’s certainly all very old. Part of your job would involve doing a proper inventory and making any necessary arrangements for preservation.”
“It sounds interesting,” Emily said slowly. “But… why hire me?”
“You did me a kindness. I believe in rewarding those. And you’re qualified. It’s not as though I’d offer you the job if your only training were as a cocktail waitress – though in that case I might have found you a tavern to manage, or some similar opportunity.”
“That train… ”
“The regular trains don’t go where I need to go,” she said. “Will you take the job?”
“I… I mean, I have other questions –”
“Yes, I’m sure – but do you have any other offers? You can always quit later if you find the work isn’t to your liking, but I need an answer now.”
Emily took a breath, then exhaled. The alternative was unemployment, sending out dozens of resumes, temping. So, really, there was no alternative. “I’ll take it.”
“Good.” The woman rose smoothly to her feet and offered Emily her hand. “You may call me Mellifera.”
They shook – Mellifera’s hand felt delicate and oddly warm, like grasping a live hummingbird – and then the woman smiled.
“Would you like the see the library now? Your friend can come, if you like.”
Emily cleared her throat. “That’s… very nice, thank you.”
“Meet me at the tunnel after you talk to your friend.” Mellifera started up the steps, heedless of the hem of her gown dragging in the leaves and dirt.
Emily started up a separate pathway, and Cece emerged to meet her halfway. “What happened?”
“I got a job,” Emily said. “Want to come with me to see the office?” She didn’t mention that Mellifera had somehow known Cece was hiding in the trees.
“So it could still be a crazy murder cult plot thing,” Cece said.
“That’s good. I like a little suspense.”
“Where’s the spud gun?” Emily said.
Cece made a face. “I swear it looked fine when I checked it this afternoon, but now it’s all… It’s like the potatoes I loaded into the gun all sprouted, the barrels are totally choked with roots and tendrils and even potato flowers. I tried to pull the spuds out and the pipes all got cracked, it’s ruined. I stuck it in a trash can. You’ll have to rely on my extensive knowledge of Krav Maga to defend you.”
“You only took three classes.”
“Well, sure. That’s how long it took to seduce the instructor. Duh.” She linked arms with Emily. “Let’s go on a field trip.”
They left the rose garden and headed down a steeply-sloping path, past the tennis courts, to the mouth of a tunnel that ran beneath the roadway, linking the rose garden to Codornices Park across the street. Mellifera was there, in the shadows of the tunnel’s opening. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Cece,” she said. “Shall we?”
Emily was sure she hadn’t mentioned Cece’s name to the woman, but that hardly rated on the strangeness scale. Maybe Mellifera had just done a background check on Emily before offering her the job.
“Why are we going through the tunnel?” Cece said. “There’s nothing over there but a playground and hills and trees. Even if you’re parked on the other side of the street, it seems like the long way around.”
“It’s a shortcut, I assure you,” Mellifera said, and set off into the tunnel. As night was falling, and there were no lights in the short tunnel, she vanished totally from sight.
Emily and Cece exchanged a glance, Emily shrugged, and they walked in.
And kept walking. For far longer than they should have. “I don’t remember this tunnel being so long,” Cece said. “It’s just the width of Euclid Avenue, what, like, fifty feet?”
“Mellifera?” Emily said, wondering if they were walking into some kind of horrible cosplay murder cult ritual.
“Nearly there, dear,” came the reassuring voice from ahead, and indeed, a second later light appeared at the end of the tunnel, as if a curtain had been pulled aside. They stepped out, blinking, and Cece gasped while Emily stared around, dumbfounded. She’d been through that tunnel many times. There should have been a basketball court on the right, and a grassy hillside on the left, and a playground straight ahead.
Instead they stood on a wooden dock, the lights of San Francisco glittering across the water.
“Where… where are… ”
“This is Treasure Island,” Cece said. “How the fuck did we get to Treasure Island?” She whirled, and Emily turned with her. There was no tunnel behind them. They’d somehow traveled ten miles – more than half that distance taken up by the waters of San Francisco Bay – in minutes. They hadn’t even been walking in the right direction to get here. Somehow that was the most disconcerting part.
“Come along.” Mellifera walked along a pier, still barefoot. A boat waited at the end, bobbing in the water, and it had clearly been created with the same design aesthetic as the mysterious train: it looked like a ferry crossed with a wedding cake and strung all over with lights.
“Are we getting on that boat?” Cece said.
“You’re usually the adventurous one,” Emily said.
“Yes, but I’m not so adventurous that I don’t freak out about being teleported.”
“I guess it’s possible we were drugged and stuffed in a car and driven here.” Emily glanced at her phone to see what time it was.
“Except, no, no lost time.”
“Why are you not losing your shit?” Cece pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, then looked at the boat again, then shook her head, blue bangs swaying.
“I always have a delayed reaction to crises.” Emily’s own voice sounded distant in her head. “I’m a great person to have in a house fire or a car crash, because I’m very calm right afterward, and only break down later.”
“It’s just a boat!” Mellifera called. “Come on.”
“I – I don’t know if I can… ” Cece began to shiver.
“Oh, dear.” Mellifera hurried back to them. “I didn’t think, my apologies.” She reached out and grasped Cece’s hand, and Emily’s housemate stopped shaking.
“I… huh. I feel better,” Cece said, gazing at the woman with wide eyes.
Mellifera dropped her hand. “I’m so pleased to hear it. Coming?”
“I guess so.” Cece and Emily followed her down the pier. “Em, have we been brainwashed? Mind controlled? Mesmerized?”
“I don’t feel hypnotized. And this all still seems very strange. Just… not brain-meltingly strange.”
Cece nodded. “I guess that’s right. I was about to hyperventilate there, and now it just seems… not normal, but nothing to worry about.”
They boarded the ferry, following Mellifera up a set of stairs – which appeared to be made of silver lace, though that was obviously impossible, so Emily stopped thinking about it – to the upper deck, where delicate wooden chairs were scattered around small tables. One table was set with wine glasses and an unlabeled bottle of pale wine. Mellifera sat and poured herself a glass.
Emily and Cece sat across from her. “Is that for sharing?” Cece said.
Mellifera laughed, her voice musical. “I wouldn’t recommend this vintage. The hangover can last for decades.”
Cece frowned, then shrugged and leaned back. “So when do we leave?”
Mellifera raised one eyebrow. “We’re halfway there, dear.”
Emily half-rose and looked over the railing. The lights of Treasure Island were twinkling behind them – though there was no wake behind the boat, or any other sign of passage. The lights of the city gleamed off to the left, and they were headed… “Where are we going?” There was nothing ahead but a drift of fog, gradually engulfing the ferry.
“The library is on an island.”
“I’m pretty sure the Alcatraz Prison library has been closed for a while,” Cece said.
“Did they close that place?” Mellifera said, glancing around vaguely. “Good. So much human misery there. It polluted the waters.”
A moment later the ferry bumped and rocked gently, and Mellifera tossed back the remainder of the glass and rose. “We’re here.” The whole ride had taken less than ten minutes, and Emily hadn’t felt any sensation of movement until they docked.
They went back down the same stairs, and out onto the lower deck. The ferry rested against a wooden dock festooned with glowing lights, but when they stepped off, the lights rose up and fluttered away. “Fireflies?” Emily said. “In California?”
“Ah. Those are… functionally similar to fireflies, anyway,” Mellifera said. “And California? You might as well say that, for convenience. As close to there as anywhere, at least.”
“This should definitely seem weirder,” Cece said, and Emily just nodded as they gazed at the spectacle before them. The rocky island wasn’t very large – not even as big as Alcatraz – and it was taken up almost entirely by a single huge building that might have been at home in the ancient world, all stone columns and broad steps topped by a great marble dome. Mellifera didn’t give them much time to gape in slack-jawed wonder, just sauntered down the dock toward the twisting path of steps that led from the water to the library, as they hurried to follow.
“The air here… ” Emily said.
“Warmer,” Cece agreed. “Smells better. Night-blooming jasmine.”
When they reached the bottom of the broad stone steps before the building, they saw that nearly every inch of the structure – columns, walls, even the risers of the steps themselves – was festooned with frescoes that seemed weighted heavily toward the bunches-of-grapes and scantily-clad-nymphs schools of art. The double doors looked like tarnished bronze, and were similarly decorated. Mellifera tugged on a handle, and the enormous door swung open silently and easily. She beckoned them inside.
Sunlight streamed down from multiple skylights in the high ceiling, despite the fact that, from the outside, the building was topped by a solid dome – and the other fact that the sun had gone
down some time before. The light illuminated a marble-floored library, filled with tall freestanding shelves, the odd potted plant, columns wound with living vines, and, in the center, a vast circular counter, with half a dozen people – librarians? – behind it, chatting with patrons.
“That woman has antlers.” Cece grabbed Emily’s arm. “And that guy… he looks like a giant egg, wearing a waistcoat.”
“We’re all curious to find out what Mr. Ovo will hatch into,” Mellifera said, gliding around behind them and placing calming hands on their shoulders. “But it could be centuries yet before he does. This is the circulating portion of the library, where members are allowed to browse freely and check out books. The rare book room will be your domain, Emily. It’s this way.” She herded them away from the circulation desk and toward a far corner of the building. Every person they passed was somehow inhuman, with variations ranging from the subtle – pointed ears and cat- or goatlike pupils – to the extreme – a figure made entirely of birch-white sticks arranged in roughly human form, flipping through volumes on a shelf with deft little twig-fingered hands.
They rounded a shelf and encountered a conversation area, with eight or ten armchairs drawn into a loose circle, occupied by people arguing good-naturedly. Emily recognized a book club when she saw one, and Cece was the one who pointed out:
“Mmm?” Mellifera said. “Oh, no, not really. They’re fictives. Characters. Something about this part of the library gives them external life. See, the girl is Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, and that fellow in the tuxedo is AJ Raffles, the gentleman thief from Hornung’s stories.”
Emily stopped and stared. The little girl was a Tenniel illustration brought to life and living color. The squat, middle-aged man, chewing the end of a cigar – was that the Continental Op? And that woman with the hazel hair and green eyes, whom Emily might have described as “elfin” if she wasn’t in a place full of what seemed to be actual elves – could she be Jane Eyre?
Mellifera clucked her tongue. “I know, it seems tempting to talk to them, but they don’t know anything that’s not in their books – they’re quite limited in that way. But you’ll have your chance to chat, of course, once you’re settled in. You’ll hardly be chained to your desk.” She turned and fixed her gaze on Cece. “I’m afraid you aren’t permitted through the next doors. The rare book area is restricted – authorized patrons and employees only.” She waved her hand vaguely. “Feel free to browse. Nothing in this area should be particularly dangerous.”
Cece took Emily’s hand. “You’ll be all right?”
Emily squeezed her friend’s fingers and put on a smile. “I’ll manage.”
Cece nodded uncertainly, then wandered off toward the stacks. Emily envied her. She wanted a few minutes to browse in this strange place, too, but Mellifera was waiting.
They passed through an unmarked door in the back wall of the library, and then down a spiral staircase made of at least a dozen different kinds of exotic wood. Mellifera led her along a short
corridor and then down a long, gently curving staircase of smooth, gray stone, through an arched open doorway, and then down another flight of stairs that seemed made of yellowing ivory. The door at the bottom was of wood so old it was blackened. Mellifera fished an oversized brass key from somewhere – it wasn’t like her gown had pockets – fitted it into the keyhole, twisted, and tugged the door open. She removed the key and handed it to Emily. “That’s yours. Put it in your pocket. It will nestle among the other keys on your ring.”
That didn’t seem strange at all. Mellifera’s touch had made the impossible seem reasonable; and that fact seemed reasonable too. Emily dutifully put the huge key in her pocket, and followed Mellifera into her new domain.
The rare book room seemed to be located in the upper floor of a huge, circular tower, with walls made of blocks of gray stone. The windows were tall and pointily arched – the sort of windows Rapunzel would have dangled her long hair down from, but glassed-in – letting in lots of light, which made Emily wince immediately. Sunlight wasn’t good for books.
Not that there were all that many books in evidence. There were perhaps a dozen long shelves – also made, improbably, of gray stone – bearing volumes of varying heights and thicknesses, with mostly unmarked spines in assorted colors of cloth and leather. There were fewer books here than you’d find at a branch library in a not-very-prosperous city, and it made Emily think of prison libraries. There were long stone tables, and chairs (those were wooden, at least), none of them occupied. The only other person in the room sat perched on a stool behind a counter of stone, peering down at a vast ledger and occasionally scratching with a quill. A ragged tapestry, huge but terribly worn (it might have been depicting a unicorn battling a lion, though it was hard to tell), hung on the wall behind her.
“Emily, this is Faylinn. She’ll be your assistant librarian.”
The woman behind the counter looked up from her ledger. She appeared older than Mellifera, with dark black hair pulled back severely, a pointed chin, and an expression that suggested perpetual disappointment. She looked slightly less human than Mellifera, though it was hard for Emily to figure out precisely why until she realized Faylinn’s eyes were the color of ball bearings, like shiny steel, without pupil or iris or white. Her gaze gave away absolutely nothing at all.
Faylinn slid from her stool and walked around the counter. She wore a white blouse with pearl buttons, a severe black skirt, and no shoes; her toenails were unpainted. Faylinn took Emily’s offered hand, and her fingers felt like bundles of dry twigs. “Welcome to the rare book room.” Her voice was surprisingly mellifluous, though she spoke barely above a whisper. “I look forward to working with you.”
“Me too,” Emily said. “I’m not sure when my first day is… ”
Mellifera shrugged. “Start tomorrow, if you like.”
“I… that would be fine.”
“Tomorrow, then,” Faylinn whispered, and glanced at Mellifera. “I was just in the middle of something… ”
“Please, don’t let us keep you.” Mellifera made a shooing motion, then took Emily’s arm and led her toward the stacks.
“Some of our volumes. I can’t vouch for how well they’re organized –”
“Hey, I take offense at that.” A pretty, petite young woman with bouncy blonde curls appeared from around one of shelves, pushing a battered metal book cart that held exactly one volume, the cover black cloth embossed with characters in a script Emily didn’t recognize. The newcomer took the book in hand – she wore white gloves – and carefully slid it into place on one of the shelves, then rubbed her hands together briskly. She grinned at Emily. “Hi. You must be the new boss. I’m Bernadine. You can call me Bernie. I help out around here, keep the shelves tidy.”
Mellifera gave Bernie a look of frosty disdain. “Yes. She’s been with us for ages. Very reliable.”
Bernie winked. “Nice to have another human around here.”
“I’m sure you two will have lots to talk about,” Mellifera said.
“Tooth decay and utility bills and so forth. Don’t you have work to do elsewhere, Bernadine?”
“Do I ever. The circulating library’s always a wreck, not like this place.” Bernie’s cheerfulness was not at all dented by Mellifera’s impolite manner. “See you around, new boss.” She pushed her cart around a shelf and out of sight.
“She seems nice,” Emily said.
“Hmm?” Mellifera said. “I suppose she does. Well, you’ve seen the place. This collection isn’t used terribly often, only by serious researchers. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the contents of the collection, of course, and if you wish to implement any changes in policy or procedure, that’s what you’re here for. You have complete authority over the rare book collection, within reason. Faylinn knows more than I do about the details. Use her as a resource.”
Emily nodded, then moved to one of the windows. Just blue sky and fuzzy clouds. She leaned forward a little – the window had a sill deep enough to use as a windowseat – and looked down, but there was no ground in sight, only more floating clouds in what seemed to be endless blue depths. Though Emily wasn’t fond of heights, and sometimes got nervous just climbing a ladder, the vista didn’t disturb her at all.
Mellifera cleared her throat. “Ready to leave? You must be tired.”
Emily felt anything but tired, but she nodded. She started to say goodbye to Faylinn, but the woman – or whatever – was staring so hard at her ledger Emily hated to interrupt. Though she did wonder what, exactly, the woman was doing.
Mellifera opened the door and ushered Emily out to the top of the filigreed ivory steps.
Emily frowned. “But… wasn’t this door at the bottom of the stairs?”
Mellifera nodded. “Faylinn doesn’t like climbing up stairs, so the stairs only go down, whether you’re coming or going. You can change that if you like, now that you’re in charge.”
“No, that’s… ” Emily leaned against the wall, shaking her head. “A few minutes ago, this wouldn’t have seemed strange, but now…”
“I have a certain… calming influence… I can exert on mortals, but if you’re going to work here, you should see things with a clear eye. I judged you’d acclimated sufficiently, so I withdrew my influence. Was I wrong?”
“No. I’m all right. It’s just a lot to take in. This whole library, and… and fairies? Or – is that the wrong thing to say?”
Mellifera gave a small smile. “I am not offended. Mortals call us all sorts of things. Most of us take no notice. But, to be safe, you could call us the Folk. Or anything else, really, so long as it’s complimentary. We like compliments, sincere or not. I should ask again, now that your mind is… more clear: do you want the position?”
Emily was nodding before she finished the last sentence. “Of course!”
“Good. Then your good deed to me has been repaid in kind.”
“Please, I gave you a chocolate bar, and you’re letting me into this amazing –”
“I did not say your good deed had been repaid to the same degree,” Mellifera said. “My kind view debts differently than your kind, I think. As for the position – you are in charge of rare books, so you may of course make your own hours, but Faylinn begins early and stays late, and you may wish to… keep an eye on her, at least during the initial transition. She has grown used to running things in her own way, and may require time to adjust to her new circumstances.”
“Wait, she was the head librarian before?” That made sense; someone had to run the place, after all. “She got demoted because of me?” Worry stabbed at Emily. She was going to have to deal with office politics, even in a fairy library? “I didn’t mean to take anyone’s job –”
“You’re better suited for the position than she is,” Mellifera said briskly. “Faylinn is extremely knowledgeable, and you should draw on that knowledge, but she has… less salutary qualities as well. You’ll see. Be sure to peek behind the tapestry.”
Emily frowned, remembering the huge, ugly thing hanging behind the counter. “What’s behind the tapestry?”
“You’ll. See.” Another smile, fractionally less warm. “I think we’re finished.”
“Ah,” Emily said. “Now that my mind’s more clear, as you say, it occurs to me that I should have asked about salary, and benefits, and how exactly my commute is going to work, and whether or not a work day here will last twenty years in the mortal world… ”
That night, I listened to our captor Faylinn grind her teeth and murmur curses that fizzled away to harmlessness against the protections draped around the new mortal. Someone with so much hate must, I thought, have the capacity in her somewhere for love – or else the hate itself was love, long curdled and gone rancid.
“So you don’t get paid in fairy dust?” Cece sat deep in one corner of the couch, a pillow hugged to her chest.
Emily put her nose in a glass of wine, inhaled deeply, and shook her head. “No. I get a check every two weeks, though it’s issued through some subsidiary company Mellifera owns. Pays exactly what my old job paid, to the penny. Which is funny, since I never told them what my old job paid.”
Cece snorted. “They can bend space-time. I’m sure sneaking a look at your pay stubs is pretty trivial. Benefits?”
“They’re paying for private insurance as part of my benefits package.”
“Because none of the other employees at the library need insurance,” Cece said.
Emily shrugged. “I guess.”
“Because they’re fairies,” Cece said.
“Yes, I got that. I don’t think they like being called that, though. Or maybe they don’t care, but it’s not entirely accurate. You know I like to be accurate.”
“You are still not weirded out by this? Even without Mellifera mind-control?”
Emily put down her glass on the coffee table. “Of course I’m weirded out! If you hadn’t been there and seen the things I did, I would assume I was having some kind of horrible neurological event. It’s possible I still am, and I’m just hallucinating your corroboration. But I hope not. Because I really need the job. Even if I’m not sure exactly what I’m supposed to do. I got the sense Mellifera has some kind of hidden agenda, that she wants to use me for some reason… ”
“That’s bosses for you,” Cece said. She squeezed the pillow tighter. “Let me know if there are any openings in their IT department, would you?”
Emily didn’t have to go to the tunnel in Codornices Park to get to work the next morning. Mellifera had explained that there were many routes she could take to reach the ferry, the nearest being a crumbling set of steps on the edge of a park just a few blocks from her house. The steps, in the past, had always dead-ended in a stand of trees and a pile of garbage, but now that Emily was gainfully employed by the Folk, new pathways revealed themselves to her. She went hesitantly up the chipped concrete stairs, and when she reached the top, found herself at the end of the dock on Treasure Island again, the jeweled ferry waiting. There was no one else on board – including crew, as far as she could tell – but it pulled away smoothly once she was settled in.
She wondered if there were any pathways that led from her house to, say, Golden Gate Park, or Santa Cruz, or the airport. It would make a nice change from long drives and bus rides.
This time Emily tried hard to notice when the world changed, and she ceased to be in San Francisco Bay, without success; the ferry sailed into a fog bank and out again, and there was the island. She went up the stairs and into the lobby, which was less crowded now, the only other person a bored-looking girl behind the front desk, with floppy white bunny ears protruding from her leaf-green hair. Emily took a deep breath, walked over, and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Emily, the new librarian for the rare book room.”
“I’m Peaseblossom.” One of her long white ears twitched. “No relation.”
“It’s kind of a silly question, but… what do people do for lunch breaks around here?”
Peaseblossom looked at her blankly for a moment, then giggled. “Oh. For food? You should probably bring your own from home. Or just go out into the world for a bite and come back. If anyone offers to share their lunch with you here… I wouldn’t take it.”
Vague memories of fairy stories stirred in Emily’s mind – the phrase “neither eat nor drink there” floated through, annoyingly without attribution – and she nodded. To eat fairy food was to become trapped in fairyland, right? Just like Persephone and the pomegranate seeds, stuck in Hell for half the year. Not that spending eternity in a magical library sounded so bad, really…
Emily thanked Peaseblossom and went in search of the door to her new domain. The fictives were sitting in a circle of chairs, arguing in low voices, and Emily resisted the urge to introduce herself to the one she thought might be Jane Eyre. Bernie appeared briefly at the end of one row of shelves, pushing a cart laden high with books, but she didn’t notice Emily and soon vanished from sight.
I’ll have to start getting here earlier, Emily thought.
The stairs to the rare book room still led down, and the door at the bottom opened easily when she unlocked it, even though the big brass key had shrunk to no bigger than an ordinary housekey on her ring.
Faylinn sat at the counter on her stool, her position not changed at all from the day before. Emily wondered if she’d ever left, or if she slept sitting there. Or if she slept at all. The fairy librarian looked up at Emily, grunted, and looked back down. “You don’t really need to come,” she said, still in her sweet whisper. “Mellifera doesn’t spend much time here. She wouldn’t check up on you. I don’t think she cares if you try to do the job or not. You could just draw your salary and… stay home and read your penny dreadfuls and eat boiled sweets, or whatever it is you people like to do.”
Emily put her purse down on the counter in front of Faylinn and offered her best smile. “What I like is doing useful, interesting, challenging work in a library. I hope you don’t mind having me here. I understand you used to do my job?”
Faylinn’s scratching pen paused for a moment, then continued. “I expect I will continue to do my job, actually. You just have my old title. I’m not sure what you’ll do. But please yourself. I’ve been assured your appointment to this position is merely for the duration of your lifetime, so in fifty or sixty years at most, things will be back to normal.”
“How old are you?” Emily said, choosing to ignore the dig.
“A very rude question. My people abhor rudeness.”
“Really?” Emily said. “Because you haven’t been especially polite to me.”
The pen paused again, and Faylinn sighed. “Perhaps we should start again. Welcome to work, ma’am. We have no patrons scheduled for today. It should be very quiet. There’s tea if you’d like some.”
“I think I’ll pass,” Emily said, wondering if Faylinn had just tried to poison or entrap her. “What are you working on, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“A translation.” She tapped a slim volume open on the counter. “This is in the old language known as wormtongue. I am translating it into Farsi.”
“What’s the book about?”
“It is an almanac, of sorts, describing a world that no longer exists, focused on seasons which have no cognates in your world.”
“Why translate it into Farsi?”
“Because,” Faylinn said patiently, “it has never been translated into that language before.”
“How many languages do you know?”
“All of them.” Faylinn winced and shook her head. “No, I apologize, that was imprecise. All languages that have a written form, I mean.”
Faylinn shrugged, almost imperceptibly. “I am a librarian.”
That put me in my place. Emily walked around the counter toward the tapestry, remembering what Mellifera had said. She reached out for a corner of the cloth –
And Faylinn was there, her hand gripping Emily’s as tightly as a raptor’s talon around a mouse. “That tapestry is very delicate.”
Emily looked at her inhuman eyes, forcing herself not to flinch. “Then perhaps you’d like to move it aside yourself? I’m interested in seeing what’s behind it.”
Faylinn pursed her lips, then let go of Emily’s arm. She took one corner of the tapestry and, with infinite slowness and bad grace, lifted it up from the floor.
Emily gasped. The wall behind the tapestry wasn’t a wall at all. It was a gate of black metal, the bars wound tightly with vines that appeared to grow up straight from the stone floor.
Visible behind the gate there were shelves. Scores of shelves, rows of them extending into the distance as far as she could see, all stretching up to a distant ceiling, sixteen or eighteen feet high, absolutely crammed with volumes. “What are all those books?”
Faylinn let the tapestry drop. “The very rare volumes.”
“How many are there? Thousands?”
A shrug. “They have not been catalogued fully, to my knowledge.”
Emily grinned. “Well, then. Now I know how I’m going to fill my days.”
“What? You don’t propose to… to disturb them?”
Emily frowned. “Disturb? I wouldn’t put it that way. But a resource like this, not even catalogued? What a project!”
“But… they’re rare,” Faylinn said. “Many are one-of-a-kind! Precious and irreplaceable and –”
Emily’s grin returned, even wider. “Remarkable. Even more reason. I can’t wait to get started.”
“Those books need to be protected,” Faylinn said. “Not… mucked about with.” She sniffed. “Not that it matters. The gate is locked, and the key has been lost for ages. There’s no way in.”
“What do you mean?” Emily lifted up the tapestry again, ignoring Faylinn’s squawk, and discovered a plate with a keyhole, like you’d see on an old prison door. She tried to rattle the gate, and it didn’t so much as shiver. She might as well have rattled a marble column. “Your people can make it so I can get from Berkeley to Treasure Island in just a few steps. You mean you can’t get past a gate?”
“It’s an iron gate.” Faylinn’s voice dripped contemptuous patience. “Our magics don’t work on iron. It’s supposed to be impregnable – that’s the whole point. Those volumes are valuable. We can’t have anyone looking at them. I’ve never even touched them. The gate has been locked since my predecessor’s time.”
“What’s the point of having a library where no one’s allowed to look at the books?” Emily tugged on the gate again in frustration, but it was so solid it didn’t even rattle. How long would it take to file through the bars?
“The point is to preserve and protect those books. You can’t risk letting people look at them! They’re far too important.”
Emily shook her head. “I can see we have… different philosophies. I think the point of a library is to help people access the information they need. Obviously if the books are fragile, you limit access, but there are ways around that, too – you can scan the pages and OCR the text to make it searchable, or in a pinch just take digital snapshots of each page and… ” She trailed off. Faylinn’s eyes were always blank, but her whole expression was blank now. “Like… making a copy that people can use without hurting the original. The way you’re doing with that almanac.”
“Madness,” Faylinn said, shaking her head. “Lunacy. Insanity.”
“If you’re done writing your thesaurus, help me get this tapestry down. I want to take a look at this gate. There must be a way to open it.”
“There’s no way to get it open,” Emily said, sitting in her tiny backyard with Cece, watching the last of the evening light fade around them. “If there are hinges, they’re very well hidden. Basically it’s the door of a prison cell, overgrown with vines as hard as rock, and it’s between me and so many books! I know you’ve got access to scary welding equipment, and maybe a blowtorch would do it, but I’m really reluctant to do anything that will strike sparks around those books. Maybe you could file through it, but wouldn’t that take forever?”
“Iron’s softer than steel, so it’s possible, but yeah, it’d be a bitch of a job. I bet that Faylinn has the key anyway,” Cece leaned back in a plastic Adirondack chair with her eyes closed. “She just doesn’t want you to have it.”
“It’s possible,” Emily said. “She’s really used to having that place as her private office, but that’s not how I do things. She’s stuck with me for the next forty or fifty years, like she says, so she’ll just have to deal with it. I’m just not sure what to do yet. I know she’ll try to sabotage me if she can, too.”
“Too bad you can’t just take a locksmith over to the island,” Cece said. “Or, hell, even some of the hipsters I know who pick locks for a hobby. I guess you probably want to limit exposing random people to fairyland, though, huh?”
“Bringing in a locksmith would be difficult,” Emily said slowly. “But maybe… ”
I saw her before she saw me, but only by a few days.
There are tiny holes in the tapestry, you see, allowing us to peer through – at least, those of us who bother looking. I saw the new librarian as soon as she arrived, and was captivated by the black shimmer of her hair and the sometimes sharp edge of her tone and the amusement in her body language when she turned toward our captor and brushed away her objections.
Humans think the Folk, the Fae, the Good Neighbors, are magical and wondrous and strange; but in magical realms, it is humans who are the wonder. Impatient and ambitious and burning bright. Humans can be such passionate readers, with such consuming attention, because they know, deep inside, that there will never be time to read everything they want.
I wanted this new librarian to read me. I wanted to read her in return as best I could.
Emily had the idea of getting it done while Faylinn was gone, to avoid any conflict. She had a key, after all, and she was the boss, Mellifera assured her, so why couldn’t she go to the library the middle of the night? Cece agreed to keep her company, and they walked out together around midnight, heading for the stairs by the park. Emily had a moment’s fear that the passageway wouldn’t work for Cece, but apparently having been to fairyland once gave you a pass for future visits, because they both stepped out onto the dock, holding hands.
The ferry was waiting, and when they boarded, it pulled away. Emily exhaled. “Good. I was afraid it would sit here until morning, or refuse to move because you’re not authorized, or whatever.” The fog bank shimmered this time, rising up from the water and flashing with multicolored lights deep within, but the effect seemed entirely cosmetic; they passed through without any ill effects and docked at the library.
The dome seemed to glow with an inner moonlight, making the whole island silvery and somehow unreal – or even more unreal than usual. The doors in front were locked, and for a moment Emily frowned, clutching her key. There was no keyhole that she could see. She reached out again, holding the key in her hand, and tugged the handle – and this time, the door swung open.
“Keyless entry,” Cece said. “Fancy.”
The lobby was dim and silent, and no impossible sunlight streamed down. Instead a handful of greenish, globular lights hovered high up near the ceiling,. Emily got the strangest impression the lights were sleeping, bobbing like dozing fish in a bowl. The two of them walked, their footsteps echoing in the stillness, to the part of the library where the fictives gathered… but there was no one there.
“Crap,” Emily said. “That’s a small flaw in my plan.”
“What are you doing here?” a voice said from behind them, and Emily jumped as Cece whirled.
Bernie leaned against one of the shelves, wearing flannel pajamas, munching on an apple.
“Uh,” Emily said. “I was going to try to get a little work done. What are you doing here?”
Bernie shrugged. “The same. The jobs never ends. Every day I get the shelves in order and every day they get messed up again. There are Folk who are mischievous, like, at the cellular level, and I think they mix stuff up just to get on my nerves. Or because they think it’s funny. Putting The Faerie Queen in the self-help section, or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in true crime, stuff like that.”
“Where are the, what do you call them, the characters?” Cece said.
“The fictives?” Bernie shrugged.” They go back to their books to sleep at night, mostly. They’re usually only out for a few hours at a time. Pick up one of their books when they’re in physical form sometime, it’s so weird – imagine reading Alice in Wonderland when Alice isn’t in the book. It’s, like, a story about a stressed-out rabbit and some bitchy flowers.” She yawned “Anyway, work awaits. Take care.” She shuffled off into the stacks.
Emily sighed. “Guess I’ll try tomorrow. Want to see my domain, since we’re here?”
“I thought I was forbidden to enter?”
“They tell me I’m in charge, so let’s consider that policy officially changed. If anyone asks you can be my information technology consultant.”
“Works for me. Let me take a look at this gate, too. Maybe I’ll get inspired.”
Emily stepped into the dimness of the rare book room. “It’s dark in here too. I don’t understand how sunshine works in this place. Maybe Faylinn has a timetable.” Moonlight, of a sort, shimmered in through the windows, and a few of the volumes on the shelves glowed with their own faint luminescence, so it wasn’t totally black. Emily led Cece behind the counter and helped her take down one side of the tapestry, letting it dangle on the floor.
Cece wore several silver rings, and she rapped them against the iron bars with her fingers, making a dull clanking sound. “That’s a metal gate all right.” She fished in her pocket for her keyring, then held it up to shoe Emily a miniature flashlight dangling from the ring: an ultra-bright blue LED. She shone the light into the dark shelves beyond the gate.
Someone – or something – ran through the beam of light, vanishing behind a shelf. “Did you see that?” Cece said, waving the light around wildly.
“Are there people living in there?” Emily said.
“Of course not.” Faylinn spoke from behind them, making Cece jump.
But Emily had wondered if her assistant might come shadowing in, so she turned with a professional smile and said, “Or, not people, but – the Folk? Your kind?”
“That,” she said with exaggerated dignity, “is what I meant when I said people. Though there aren’t any of your kind behind those bars, either.”
“I definitely saw someone,” Cece said.
“You should not be in here.” Faylinn crossed her arms over her chest.
“She’s a consultant,” Emily said. “And she’s right. There’s something behind this gate. Something alive.”
“Some of the rare books have unusual properties,” Faylinn said. “Even the books in our circulating library have peculiar qualities. Surely you know that.”
“Like the fictives,” Emily said. “Do you think they’re fictives, in there?”
“I would not care to speculate,” Faylinn said. “If I may ask, Miss Yuan, why are you here at this late hour?”
“You can go home, now, Faylinn.” Emily made her voice as absent and offhand as possible. “There’s really no need for you to work this late.”
Faylinn opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. She compressed her lips into a pinched flower and nodded once, sharply, then turned on her heel and walked with infinite slowness to the door and out of the room.
“Shine your light in there some more,” Emily said.
“You’re the boss,” Cece said. “Clearly.”
“He does not have an appointment,” Faylinn said the next morning, making a great show of looking in her ledger.
“This is Mr. Raffles.” Emily put her hand on the gentleman’s shoulders. He was middle-aged, smiling, affable, attired in an impeccable blazer that would have been at home in late Victorian London. “From the stories by E.W. Hornung. He’s a master thief.”
“Oh, no.” Raffles shook his head. “I’d call myself an amateur cracksman at best, I’m not one of the true professors.”
“I know who he is,” Faylinn said. “He is not an accredited researcher –”
“He’s a consultant,” Emily said. “Helping me out with a problem. Why don’t you take your lunch break, Faylinn?”
“I am not hungry,” she said stiffly.
“Suit yourself. Go ahead, Mr. Raffles.”
The gentleman dipped his head toward Faylinn in a nod and went past her. He deftly untacked the tapestry, folded it neatly, and set it on the counter. He stood for a moment gazing at the uncovered gate, his head cocked to one side, then nodded to himself and withdrew a slim embroidered case from a pocket. He spread his blazer on the floor, then knelt on it before the lock. He opened the case, selected a few small tools, and began to work, humming to himself tunelessly.
“I thought about what you said.” Emily leaned on the inside of the counter, beside Faylinn. “How iron gates were immune to magic. Pretty clever security technique. But then I thought, it’s really just an old lock, then, not enchanted. Formidable, sure, but for a person – or fictive – with the right qualifications –”
“Done,” Raffles said, rising. He put his hand on the gate and pushed. It swung inward an inch or so, then stopped, further movement arrested by the tangled vines that grew among the bars. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded straight razor. “You could cut through the vines with this, if you like, though I don’t know how long the edge will last –”
“No need.” Emily drew a pair of pruning shears from her pocket and snipped them open and closed. “I brought these from home. Just in case.”
Raffles smiled, put his razor away, and chatted amiably with Emily as she led him to the door. “Thanks for your help,” she said.
“Oh, it makes a nice change from playing cricket,” Raffles said, dropping her a wink before he departed.
Emily returned to the counter, ignoring Faylinn’s glare. “We still don’t have a key. How do you intend to secure the gate when we aren’t here?”
“Bike lock.” Emily opened her bag and withdrew a u-shaped lock. “Made of iron. Loop it around the gate and the fixed bars on the left, snap it shut, ta da. It’s not ideal, but it’ll do, at least until the actual key turns up, or I can bring in a locksmith to make one. Maybe if I blindfold him… ”
“Fine,” Faylinn said. “I can see you’ve thought of everything. May I please suggest some protocols for dealing with the books?”
“Of course,” Emily said. “I value your experience. And I mean that. I’ve dealt with delicate materials before, but from what you say… Some of these documents are a lot older than anything I’ve ever seen.” She smiled. “Come on. Aren’t you a little bit excited to see what’s in there?”
Faylinn’s pinched mouth loosened slightly. “I suppose… if we don’t let other people touch them… and we’re very careful… ”
“That’s better.” Emily knelt and began snipping at the vines with her shears.
Even though the spaces were separated only by an iron gate, the air in the vault seemed different – drier, cooler, scented with old paper and peculiar spices. The sounds of their footsteps were dampened, every noise muffled, as if Emily had cotton in her ears. She resisted the urge to stop and look at individual volumes, instead scanning the shelves, murmuring to herself. “Call it one hundred volumes per shelf, ten shelves per book case, and how many book cases… ” She shook her head. “Faylinn, there are tens of thousands of volumes here. And there’s no catalog at all?”
“My predecessor knew the location of every book in the library,” Faylinn said. “She was thousands of years old, and helped to build the library. But when she… departed… she took that knowledge with her. The circulating library, which contains many mortal books, is extensively documented, as are the volumes in our open section, but these… No. But we may be assured that they are in good order, arranged by whatever scheme my predecessor favored. No one has touched them since.”
“Did she die?” Emily said.
“It would be more accurate to say she was translated,” Faylinn said.
Emily frowned. “What does that mean?”
“Wow!” a cheerful voice boomed from behind them. “Finally got this place open, huh?”
“Bernie,” Emily said. “You probably shouldn’t be in here right now. We’re going to have to catalogue everything –”
“I can help!” she said. “I’m good at putting things in their place, it’s my whole –”
“Later,” Emily said. “I’ll be sure to let you know if we need you. Okay? We’re still trying to get a handle on what we have here.”
Bernie sighed. “Whatever you say. I’d love the chance to poke around in here –”
“Your oily mortal fingers would discolor the pages,” Faylinn said. “Go away.”
The shelver said, “Oh well,” and departed, pushing her cart.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Emily said.
“I don’t like her,” Faylinn said.
“Because she’s mortal?”
“That is not a point in her favor.”
“How did she get the job here?” Emily said, walking slowly down the center aisle, feeling comforted by the presence of so many books. “Did she help Mellifera, too?”
“I don’t know the details,” Faylinn said. “But it was something like that, yes. I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss –”
They rounded a corner and both stopped, staring.
There were three people on the floor between the shelves, curled up together like a nest of puppies, by all appearances sleeping peacefully. Faylinn cleared her throat, and one of them – her clothing was like naval garb from a Gilbert & Sullivan opera – sat up, rubbed her eyes, and blinked at them.
“I thought you said there weren’t any people living in here,” Emily said.
“Those aren’t people,” Faylinn said. “Those are books. Immodest, inappropriate books with no concern for their own dignity.”
The other two people – one a bark-skinned woman dressed in rags and moss, and one hairless and androgynous, wearing a sort of silvery toga – woke, grunted, and then scrambled away, vanishing deeper into the stacks. The first stood up, a trifle unsteadily, and said, “Oh, hello.” Her voice was light and musical, like Mellifera’s without the gravitas. Her eyes were large and dark, her skin the exact color of burnished copper, her lips full. Looking at her made Emily feel like she was standing on the shore of a vast and warm and pleasant ocean, eager to strip off all her clothes and plunge right in.
“Sorry,” the living book said, putting a hand to her brow. “I’m a bit tipsy, I think I overindulged in too much poetry last night… ”
She frowned. “Are you two from the Improbable Atlas section? You don’t look like Military Manuals, and I know everyone from Instructional Tragedies and Nihilistic Verse –”
“We aren’t books,” Faylinn said, in her rasping whisper. “We are librarians.”
“What a menacing tone you have!” the book said. “You might as well have said, ‘We aren’t rats, we are exterminators!’”
“You’re a book,” Emily said.
She squinted. “Are you human? How interesting!”
Something about the book’s tone made Emily suspicious – it was overly-dramatic, as if she knew very well Emily was human, and was just putting on an act. But perhaps that was just her natural tone. Maybe, Emily thought giddily, she’s a book of drama.
The book smiled slyly at Emily as if they were sharing a secret moment. “Call me Llyfr.”
Faylinn snorted, like that was a bad joke, but Emily didn’t get it. She held out her hand. “I’m Emily. I just took over as head librarian for rare books here.”
“And tore open the gates! How kind. Though I daresay there are more worlds within these shelves than outside. Does this mean people are going to try to read us? Not that I mind, I’m an open book, but some of us are terribly shy, or fancy themselves chock full of forbidden knowledge.”
Emily resisted the urge to lick her lips. “Are all the books here alive?”
“There’s alive and there’s alive,” Llyfr said. “If you mean prone to shifting from paper or parchment to flesh, then, oh, probably no more than two score, a fraction of a fraction of the whole collection. And most of us tend toward dormancy, awakening only on the anniversaries of forgotten battles or celestial marriages or the astronomical convergences of long-exploded stars. Only half a dozen of us choose to remain in the flesh more or less constantly, getting drunk on verse or arguing philosophy. I’d assumed the two of you were newly-awakened sleepers. Librarians, you say! I like librarians. They’re lovers of books, and who doesn’t love to be loved?”
“I think she’s going to have a nervous breakdown,” Cece murmured, pointedly not looking at Faylinn. The blank-eyed librarian was staring out one of the arched windows, her head jerking from side to side as if she were being harried by invisible bees.
“I don’t think she likes change,” Emily said. “And this is a lot of change.”
The other two living books had overcome their initial panic and were sitting at one of the long stone tables, reading books of modern poetry from the circulating collection and giggling to themselves. Llyfr was leaning on the counter, leafing through Faylinn’s ledger. “Your penmanship is beautiful!” she called, but Faylinn just hunched her shoulders and kept staring out the window.
Emily’s attention kept being drawn to Llyfr. It wasn’t just her magical nature; the other two books were just as magical, and they didn’t draw her eye. Emily had felt like this before, twice, instant moments of connection upon meeting a stranger: like their meeting somehow closed a circuit. One of those meetings had turned into a two-year relationship that came perilously close to a formal engagement; the other had been an ultimately-disastrous grad school affair.
What would this one be?
“Em? You with me here?”
Emily looked at Cece and blinked. “Yes! Yes. Come on. Take a look. Let me know what you think about my idea.” She led her roommate toward the vault.
While Cece was talking Emily through the options for the various sorts of scanners they might use on the collection, Llyfr came gliding past and put a hand on Emily’s elbow. It was the first time the living book had touched her, and Emily groaned inwardly at the little electric thrill that went through her. “Faylinn went over your head,” Llyfr murmured, and then strode off deeper into the stacks without further explanation.
“What does that –” Cece began, and then Mellifera was there, more-or-less appearing in a puff of smoke, without the formality of the smoke.
Mellifera’s gown was pale gold this time, and blue lights twinkled through her hair, scattered like stars in the night sky. “I see you looked behind the tapestry,” she said, and smiled. “My, some of these books haven’t been seen by the eyes of Folk or mortals in centuries. Faylinn called me – actually, she did a ritual of summoning, which is generally reserved only for emergencies of the sky-is-falling variety. She has some concerns –”
“She let a mortal into the vault!” Faylinn somehow managed to shout in a whisper, too, stalking forward. “They’re planning to do unspeakable things to the books! The entire collection is at risk!”
“Everything we’re planning is pretty speakable,” Cece said. “I helped organize a big digitization project a couple of years ago, so Emily brought me in as a consultant to talk about doing the same thing here.”
“Do you see?” Faylinn said. “Babbling! Nonsense! What does ‘digitzation’ even mean – running your filthy fingers all over the pages?”
Cece stared at her, stunned. Mellifera cocked her head, as if watching the amusing antics of household pets, a faint smile on her lips.
“What we have here,” Emily said after a moment, “is a lack of a common language.”
“I comprehend scores of languages,” Faylinn said frostily.
“When did you last go out into the mortal world?” Emily said.
Faylinn frowned. “Why would I go there? Bad enough we let their books into the circulating library. I was forced to spend time in London some years ago, to recover a text that had fallen into the hands of a mortal collector, but beyond that… ”
“Some years ago,” Emily said thoughtfully. “You mentioned penny dreadfuls and boiled sweets to me not long ago. Were you in Victorian London?”
“I believe she was the monarch at the time, yes,” Faylinn said. “Though she hadn’t been on the throne long… ”
“1840s, then, probably,” Emily said. “Or ’50s?”
Cece whistled. “So I guess it’s safe to say you haven’t heard of, oh, the internet, Faylinn? Or scanning, or optical character recognition, or… ” She shook her head. “Listen, I’ve got a device in the other room, called a laptop. You can think of it as a sort of… magic mirror. I rather doubt there’s wi-fi in here, but I can show you a few things anyway… ”
“If you still have concerns after Cece’s shown you what we’re talking about, we’ll talk it over,” Emily said, doing her best to pretend Mellifera wasn’t standing there, with the power to overrule anything and everything Emily might decide. “But I actually think you’ll like it. If what Cece has in mind works, almost no one will need to touch one of these books again – but anyone will be able to read them.”
“Ridiculous,” Faylinn said, but there was a note of uncertainty in her voice. “To copy out these volumes would take millennia, assuming we could find competent and trustworthy copyists –”
“Trust me,” Cece said. “I’ve got perfect copyists, and they don’t lie or steal. They don’t even take coffee breaks.” She led the mildly-protesting fairy librarian away.
“I suppose I’m paying for your roommate now, too?” Mellifera said.
Emily shrugged. “If money’s a problem, I can try to apply for some grants, but the paperwork could be a little tricky since this library doesn’t technically exist… ”
Mellifera chuckled. “You want to do what they did at the Bodleian library, then? Scan the old books and make digital copies available to researchers?”
Emily blinked. “I… wasn’t sure you’d know about that sort of thing. I mean, you did send me a telegram, so I assumed –”
“Faylinn is isolationist,” Mellifera said, sniffing. “While I am merely whimsically old-fashioned. Carry on, then. And thank you for opening up the vault. I understand Faylinn’s concerns – there are texts here from cultures that have been retroactively erased from reality, scrolls written by things you might as well call gods, and other items of incalculable value. But your idea will preserve them better, and more usefully.”
Emily frowned. “So… why didn’t you order Faylinn to scan the collection?”
Mellifera shook her head. “I serve on what you might call a foundation that endows the library, and I have a certain amount of influence when it comes to hiring and distributing funds, but to suggest to Faylinn that she should do her job differently… ” Mellifera shook her head. “Not within my purview. We have rules. But I’m very impressed, Emily. Barely here a week, and you’ve already done more than I’d hoped.” She started to turn away, then paused, reached out, and plucked a slim leather-bound volume from the shelf. “Ah, I remember this one. It belonged to me, in my youth. I don’t believe I intended to donate it. I think I’ll just take it home –”
“Ah.” Emily cleared her throat. “That’s, ah, part of the library, so… ” She trailed off when Mellifera arched an eyebrow at her, but then squared her shoulders and soldiered on. “We have rules, too.”
Mellifera chuckled. “Fair enough. A poet wrote these verses to me. I’ll check it out through the proper channels and read it again and bring it back safely. All right?”
“Ah, we don’t really check out books from the special collection… ”
“That’s generally true,” Mellifera said. “For good and sensible reasons. But there are exceptions made for some of us. You might ask someone more experienced about those exceptions –
Peaseblossom, say. She knows all there is to know about our checkout and tracking procedures. I assure you, I am, in every way, exceptional, and borrowing is permitted.” She held up the volume. “May I?”
Emily felt herself getting out of her depth, so she nodded. “Of course.”
Mellifera smiled indulgently and turned away.
“Wait,” Emily said. “I was wondering, about the living books…”
Mellifera paused. “Yes. Peculiar creatures. Not mortal, nor exactly Folk. Certain ancient texts sometimes transform themselves, and come to life. It’s no surprise there are a few of them here. Ask them to transform back into books for a while when you need to scan them. I’m sure most will oblige.”
“Are they, ah… prisoners? I mean, they’re books, part of the library, but they’re alive –”
“Oh, we’ll let them check themselves out if they want to go anywhere. If any of them ask to leave permanently, let me know, and we’ll make arrangements. But I doubt they’ll want to leave us forever. Living books love libraries the way fish love the sea.”
“Do you know one of the books, called Llyfr?” Emily said.
Mellifera laughed. “That just means ‘book’ in Welsh, dear. Most of them take names like that. Leabhar. Libro. Vivlio. They use their true names – their titles – only with intimate friends. Which is fine, as they’re generally written in languages that no one reads anymore.”
“Faylinn said she reads all written languages.”
Mellifera nodded. “She does. It’s a gift. She found a salmon, once, in a still pool, and the fish let her eat one of the enchanted hazelnuts that fell from a tree into the water. Ever since, no language is mysterious to her.”
“Wow,” Emily said. “And to think I spent all that time in graduate school when I could have just eaten some magic fish food.”
“Indeed,” Mellifera said. “Why, I doubt Faylinn had mastered more than seventy or eighty languages on her own before she found the pool. And the nuts did make her eyes turn into that rather dreadful dull-metal color, but nothing in this world comes free. I must go. I’ll see that Cece is paid appropriately for her consultancy, and that you have access to funds for whatever equipment you need.”
Faylinn and Cece sat together at one of the long tables, leaning over a laptop, murmuring together. While Emily busied herself shuffling items around on the counter and checking the upcoming appointments with researchers, she overheard Faylinn say, in worried tones, “But… can machines translate things now?”
“Only very, very badly,” Cece said. “Word-for-word translation. They don’t understand idiom at all, and as for poetry and nuance, forget it.”
Faylinn exhaled. “That’s a relief. Now. What is this inference net you were talking about?”
“Internet,” Cece said. “We’ll have to take a boat ride out to the mortal world to show you that, but I think you might like it. Parts of it, anyway. Other parts you’re totally going to hate, but even hating them can be fun.”
The scanning project was up and running by the next week. Power outlets had appeared one day, as spontaneously as mushrooms popping up after rain. As far as Cece could determine they weren’t actually connected to any sort of power grid, but they carried sufficient current to run the scanning equipment anyway.
Cece supervised and did troubleshooting on the machines. Most of the fairy employees at the library were uncomfortable with the idea of dealing with technology – except for Faylinn, who was a total convert to the wonders of digital archiving, and the internet in general – but many of the fictionals were willing to help out with the scanning, and so were the living books.
Bernie was extremely helpful too, keeping up a steady flow of volumes for scanning, compiling an inventory, and making sure all the volumes were carefully stored in their proper places after being digitized. “Wow,” she’d said, looking at the tables and their rows of scanners the first morning. “When this is done, none of the books will have to be moved out of place ever again!”
“Unless there’s some pressing need to look at the actual, physical object – which is necessary for some kinds of research – then, no. They’ll be able to look at scans of the pages instead. We’ll get terminals set up in the outer room for researchers, and the originals will be archived and preserved… Lots to do.”
“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard,” Bernie said.
“You’re easily impressed,” Emily said.
“Nah, I’m just a neat freak.” Bernie grinned. “I like it when things are put away where they belong. A place for everything and all that.”
“You ever think of becoming a librarian?” Emily said.
“Nah,” the shelver replied. “Too much responsibility.”
Emily got into the habit of taking her lunch on a secluded platform located somewhere under the dome – she assumed – accessible from a spiral staircase tucked away in one corner of the circulating library. The platform was made of marble, no more than thirty feet across, suspended in empty space, with only blackness below. The platform hung beneath a great, sun-filled skylight, and a full-sized oak tree somehow grew in a brown earthenware pot, shading a small bronze table and a wooden chair. The sound of a tinkling fountain, or a very small waterfall, was faintly audible, though there was no water in sight.
One day, when Emily went upstairs with her tuna fish sandwich and bottle of iced tea, there were two chairs at the table. She sat in one, frowning at the other for a moment, and then Llyfr came upstairs and sat across from her.
“Ah,” Emily said. She’d avoided the living book, more or less, unsure about the consequences of being so attracted to something that wasn’t even human, appearances aside. “Hi there.”
“What do you think of my outfit?” Llyfr gestured at her oddly formal blue uniform, with its gold buttons and oversized shoulders.
“Ah, it’s very… naval?”
“I was reading a lot of accounts of sea voyages for a while,” Llyfr said. “Well, ‘reading’ isn’t quite right, it’s more like ingesting, or inhabiting, the way I interact with texts.”
“I feel that way sometimes myself,” Emily said.
“Maybe this is better, though.” Llyfr’s whole body shimmered – the effect was exactly like looking at the ruffling pages of a book, a blur of white and the flickering suggestion of text. When the movement stopped, Llyfr’s chin was more square, her – his? – cheekbones less pronounced, and he wore a loose white linen shirt that clung enticingly to a broad chest and strong biceps. “Or this?” Another riffling, and when it settled, Llyfr had skin the color of new spring leaves and wore a gown that might as well have been made of clinging moss, and her face was feminine again, though more angular than before. Only her eyes were unchanged, and her amused smile.
Emily leaned back, breathless. She’d grown accustomed to wonders in her time at the library, but… . “That’s amazing.”
“I’m a living document, ever-changing. And like a poet said – I contain multitudes.” She reached across the table and touched Emily’s hand. “But, really, it’s just a question of changing my cover, like swapping out dust jackets. What’s inside stays the same. And… I like you, Emily. I’ve been watching you. You’re like the first flower popping out of the snow at the end of a long winter.”
Emily pulled her hand away. “I’ve read about fairies – the Folk – being attracted to the vitality of humans, it’s just –”
“Cece doesn’t do a thing for me,” Llyfr said. “She’s nice enough, but whatever I feel, I feel for you in particular. And anyway, I’m not a fairy. I’m a book. And you love books, don’t you?”
Emily’s mouth was dry, her heart thudding, but the question was simple enough, so she nodded.
“Well then.” Llyfr took Emily’s hand again. “You should check me out sometime. Take me home with you.”
“Ah – I don’t know if, that is –”
“You’re the head librarian. You can do whatever you want.”
“If… if you’re trying to escape, or… ”
Llyfyr snorted. “I’m not trapped here. Oh, when the gate was closed, that was a problem, but now, no one would stop us if we left, especially after you make digital copies of our texts. Ask Mellifera if you don’t believe me. My kind would rather live in a library than anywhere else, though. It’s an endless banquet. A feast. But I bet you have a lot of books at your house, too, don’t you?”
“So take me home. Read me all night. See what you think.” She winked. “I can be a real page-turner when I want to.”
Something clattered from the direction of the stairs, and Emily spun around, frowning. She walked over and looked down the spiral steps, but there was no one there.
When she turned back, she saw Llyfr had followed her, and was standing so close Emily could feel the warmth of her body. “What do you say?” she said.
“I… like reading new things,” Emily replied.
“Sure, you can check her – it – out,” Peaseblossom said. “You’re one of the section heads, so you’ve got an all-access library card, in the form of that key on your ring. Only a handful of those floating around – you’ve got one, and Faylinn, and Dockin, who’s my boss. Mellifera and the other board members of course. If you start selling rare volumes to human collectors, you’d get a visit from our head of security, Miss Ratchet, and her hounds, and you wouldn’t like that, but Mellifera wouldn’t have hired you if she thought you were the thieving type. Besides, it’s not like we can really lose the books anyway, so there’s no harm.”
Emily leaned on the counter. “What do you mean you can’t lose them? Do you have, what, tracking chips? GPS?”
Peaseblossom shook her head, long ears swaying. “Not exactly. There are no computers here – except the ones you brought in. We make do with magic. Look, here’s my ledger.” She opened a wide rectangular book bound in deep red leather, revealing a page with orderly rows and columns. Titles were neatly handwritten in one column, authors in the next, and status – on shelf, checked out, on hold, in transit – in the next, followed by a date of return. Peaseblossom put her finger on the page and swiped, like scrolling down on a smartphone or tablet computer, and the contents of the page moved, entries at the top disappearing upward, with new entries sliding into view at the bottom. “When a due date comes, if there hasn’t been a renewal, the book just comes back to us – poof! It shows up on Bernie’s cart for shelving.”
“Ha. We could have used that in the library where I used to work. Though we would have lost out on all those overdue fines.”
Peaseblossom frowned down at the ledger. “Huh, that’s odd. All the due dates are listed as today. Must be some kind of glitch. I’ll have to show it to Dockin when she comes in tomorrow.” Peaseblossom shook her head. “Anyway, there are ways to break the spell of return and keep a book forever, but it’s fairly specialized magic, and the head of security has bookhounds who can track even the most well-disguised volume, given time. So, sure – check out your book.” Peaseblossom smiled, and Emily noticed she had no canines, just blunt, square teeth. That was somehow more inhuman than the rabbit ears, which after all might have been part of a sophisticated Hallowe’en costume. “I’m surprised a book that old is in a language you can even read.”
Emily blushed despite her best efforts. “Ah, I, um… ”
Peaseblossom laughed. “Ah,” she said. “So you’re going to be speaking that kind of language. Have fun. I’ve been known to curl up in bed with a good book myself from time to time. Sometimes I even read in the bath.”
Emily waited until everyone else was gone – Cece, and the fictives, Bernie, and even Faylinn, who’d taken to leaving the library at night now to lurk in internet cafes, disguised as a human, peering through the magic mirror at the whole new world Cece had opened up for her. She was agitating for the library to get wi-fi, and Emily was sure they’d figure out some sort of magical/technical hybrid to get the job done soon.
“Llyfyr?” she called, stepping through the iron gate, still twisted with vines, which inexplicably hadn’t died when Emily cut them down. “Are you here? Cece said she’s going out tonight to visit a friend in San Francisco, and will probably sleep over there…” She trailed off as her voice echoed in the emptiness. Then she heard a gasp, and a grunt, and raced along one of the aisles toward the sound of disturbance.
She found Llyfyr on the floor, sprawled unnaturally in a pool of blood – no, it was ink, deep black, pouring from half a dozen wounds to Llyfyr’s torso and throat. Emily looked around wildly for the assailant, but apart from a single smudged inky footprint at the far end of the aisle, there was nothing. She knelt and put her arms around Llyfr, murmuring, cajoling, beginning to cry. Llyfr fluttered her eyes, gave a weak smile, and said, “Time to close the book.”
An instant later, there was no longer a woman in Emily’s arms, but a surprisingly slim book, bound in dove-gray leather, clutched in her hands. The title on the front was embossed gold in an alphabet Emily had never seen. She ran her finger down the front cover, frowning, then opened the book –
And Llyfr was in her arms again, laughing now, dressed in a shimmering nightgown of pale silk. “There,” she said. “You turned the page.” She stood up, looking distastefully at the ink on the floor. “It looks like I lost a fair bit of my epilogue there.”
“You’re alive!” Emily scrambled upright.
“I’m a book,” Llyfr said. “Being attacked isn’t nice – it’s painful – but it doesn’t kill me, anymore than tearing pages out of a book does. Tear out enough pages and it stops being a real book, but the damage wasn’t that bad – thanks to you.” She put a hand to her forehead. “It did make me weak, though. I had to close to protect myself. I don’t know how long it would have been before I could have opened myself up again.”
“Who did this to you?”
Llyfyr shook her head. “I don’t know. I was waiting for you. Someone attacked me from behind. But how many people could it be? Not very many people can come and go to this place as they please – even Cece and the fictives can’t enter without your permission, they’d just wander up and down the stairs forever, and never find the door. Leaving is easy, but getting in is hard.”
Emily nodded. “Mellifera can come whenever she likes. And Bernie. And Faylinn… ” She frowned. “I can’t imagine it’s Faylinn.”
“Perhaps I have a better imagination than you do, then,” Llyfr said. “She doesn’t approve of things like me. She thinks books should stay on the shelf. You know that.”
“I… Let me… ” Emily shook her head. “I think I’d better call a staff meeting.”
Llyfyr lifted an eyebrow. “You can do that?”
Emily nodded. “After Faylinn did a summoning to call Mellifera, I made her show me how. I figured it would be fairy magic, but it’s a power that just comes with the job – what we have instead of phone numbers and e-mail lists. You’re only supposed to use it in emergencies, but… someone tried to kill you. That counts.”
Emily dropped rose petals into a glass bowl of still water, and chanted certain words, and then hit the edge of the bowl with a spoon, sounding a clear, ringing note.
“Pretty,” Llyfr said, legs swinging as she sat on the counter.
Then the rare book room filled up. Mellifera appeared, sitting at the long table, and sighed. Bernie wandered around a shelf, blinking, her hands thrust deep in her pockets. Faylinn popped into existence on her stool, fingers poised before her as if typing on a keyboard.
Before any of them could protest or object, Emily said, “Someone tried to kill Llyfr. I found her stabbed, in a pool of her own ink.”
Faylinn bared her teeth. “Someone tried to hurt one of my books? Who? I will rend them.” The ferocity of her reaction made Emily reconsider her suspicions.
“Gosh,” Bernie said, wide-eyed.
“Hmm,” Mellifera said. “Do you have any suspects?”
Emily shook her head. “I’m not a detective – but I’ve been trained as a historian and a research librarian, which is maybe close. It’s late, and the rare book room was closed, so it had to be someone who can come and go as they please – which, I think, is limited to one of us, or the other board members, or the head of security, but they don’t come when I call, so I’m starting here.”
“No one can pull Miss Ratchet from her appointed rounds,” Mellifera said. “But she is above suspicion, I assure you.”
“It could have been an inside job,” Bernie said. “One of the other living books, right? They were locked in there a long time, they’ve probably got all kinds of history and factions and grudges and –”
“We’ll just ask the witnesses,” Emily said. “Llyfyr? Can you wake them up?”
“Sure,” she said, and hopped lightly down from the counter.
“Witnesses?” Faylinn said.
“The books,” Emily said. “Llyfyr was just telling me about them. It seems like lots of them are aware, and capable of taking on different forms.”
“All books are capable of consciousness, in theory,” Llyfr said. “You really should have a biblio-biologist on staff to teach you these things. It’s just that books have a really long gestation period. Most of us don’t start to wake up and take notice of the world around us until we’ve been in print a thousand years or so. But in this room, a thousand years is nothing – those are the youngsters. A lot of us don’t bother to take on other forms, because it’s pleasant enough to be a book on a shelf, but… ” She cleared her throat. “Books! Someone tried to tear me from cover to cover! Who can identify the attacker?”
The bookshelves on the aisle where Emily found Llyfr began to rattle. Volumes fell from the shelves – Faylinn squealed in dismay – but before any of them hit the floor, they transformed into figures. Minotaurs standing eight feet high. Diminutive creatures fluttering on wings of fog. Women made of flowing water. Things like walking pillars of flame. Living statues, showering plaster dust with each movement.
The living books shuffled or stepped or danced or glided forward until they crowded the entry to the vault, and as one, they raised their arms and pointed their fingers, or other relevant appendages.
All the books pointed straight at Bernie.
“Aw, hell,” she said, and took her ink-stained hands out of her pockets, and tried to run for the door.
Then she backed up slowly, and a pair of black hounds appeared, heads low, teeth bared, coming toward her. A woman stepped through the door, dressed in hunting leathers, her face covered by a mask of rough-spun cloth, blank except for torn eyeholes.
“Miss Ratchet,” Mellifera said. “See that Bernie is appropriately punished.”
Bernie howled in rage and dismay. “It’s not fair!” she shouted. “I was almost done.” She whirled, and pointed at Emily. “You! You were going to take that stupid book home, you get infinite renewals, who knew if you’d ever bring her back?”
Emily stepped back. “I don’t – Bernie, why did you do this?”
“I’m cursed.” Bernie clenched her inky fists. “Trapped here, in this stupid fucking library, until my task is done. That means I have to put every single book back in its proper place. All of them. It would be easier to count grains of sand on a beach. The books are never even all here, they get checked out, and new ones are added all the time! The books in that vault were always disarrayed because of those stupid living volumes, running up and down the aisles! When you finally opened the gate, I thought, this is it, I can do it, so I started planning. I stole Peaseblossom’s ledger and rewrote all the due dates, to bring all the books back on one day – today. I subdued the other living books, made them turn back into their original forms, and shelved them. I was finally going to finish, take out Llyfr later tonight and slide her right into place, but no, I overheard you talking at lunch, you decided you wanted to take her home. Tomorrow the books would get checked out again, everything would be a mess, I’d never finish.” She fell to her knees and clutched her head in her hands, getting Llyfr’s ink in her blonde hair. “One night. That’s all I needed. And I would have been free.”
“Bernie,” Emily said. “If you’re cursed, if you needed to do this… why didn’t you just ask us?”
Bernie lifted her head and stared at her blankly. Llyfr shrugged.”Sure. I would have turned back into a book and let you stick me on the shelf. You didn’t have to stab me.”
“I… I just never… ” The shelver trailed off.
“Our Bernadine has difficulty doing things nicely,” Mellifera said. “That’s why she’s here. She attempted to steal from me during one of my forays in the mortal world. She tried to stab me, too, though she was less successful that time.”
“It was 1937,” Bernie said bitterly. “I was living on the streets, and she comes swanning by, looking just like that, dripping jewels. What was I supposed to do?”
“I’m sure your sad plight inspired great sympathy in all the people you robbed and battered before you got to me,” Mellifera said. “At least I gave you a chance to redeem yourself. To work, and serve, earn your freedom.”
“It’s a joke,” Bernie said. “It’s like Sisyphus, rolling the stone up a hill forever. I wasn’t supposed to be able to finish the task. You wanted me to be stuck here forever.”
“True enough,” Mellifera said. “But then, you did try to stab me.” She glanced at the motionless Miss Ratchet. “Gabriella, if you don’t mind?”
“I don’t even like books,” Bernie said. “Reading is stupid.”
“There aren’t any books where you’re going,” Mellifera said.
“Gabriella knows a wonderful island, where you can’t do any harm. I think we might try that counting-grains-of-sand idea you had.”
The hounds growled, and Bernie walked out, head held low, hands clenching and unclenching. Miss Ratchett followed her. The door clicked shut with great finality.
“Quite a day,” Mellifera said. “And now I’ll need to hire a new shelver. Bother. Finding someone as motivated as Bernie will be difficult. If that’s all, Emily? Care to share a ride on the ferry, Faylinn?”
Mellifera and Faylinn departed, arm in arm, chatting like old friends.
“That was… not how I expected to spend this evening,” Emily said. “I want to feel sorry for Bernie, but… she stabbed you.”
“Oh, I’m over that.” Llyfr grinned. “The night is young.”
“True,” Emily said. “But I’m going to be busy for a while, putting them away.” She pointed to the vault, where several score living volumes had all transformed back into their original forms, and lay scattered haphazardly on the floor. “I don’t even have a proper inventory. Bernie was the one who knew where everything went.”
Llyfyr sighed. “I know where they go. I’ll help. But you’d better have a lot of good poetry at home. I’ll expect you to show me a better time than this tomorrow night.”
Cece crunched an apple and looked at the oak growing in the pot. “I can’t get over this,” she said. “Bernie, a thief and a killer. She was always so perky and helpful.”
“I know,” I said, leaning forward to take a deep drink from a book of classical French recipes. “I think Emily’s a bit shaken up, seeing me in a pool of my own ink like that. I wish I could think of a way to take her mind off it… “
Cece rolled her eyes. “Fine, I can take a hint. I’ve been meaning to visit some friends down in Santa Cruz, and I can do it this weekend. You guys can have the run of the apartment. Just don’t do any reading in my bed, all right?”
“And… be good to her, okay? Emily seems pretty tough, but I was her roommate during her last bad breakup, and she deserves better.”
“Every book has its ideal reader, Cece,” I said. “I can’t be sure, but… I think Emily might be mine. I won’t hurt her if I can help it.” I grinned. “I can’t promise she won’t get a papercut or two.”
“Excuse me,” Faylinn said, pulling up a third chair, which hadn’t been there a moment before, suggested she’d decided to join us on the spur of the moment – quite unlike her. “I don’t want to interrupt, but I’ve been wanting to talk to you, Llyfr, without Emily in earshot… “
Emily’s bedroom was crammed with floor-to-ceiling shelves, hundreds of volumes, and the floor was scattered with books, mostly poetry and verse drama, but the also the odd bit of science fiction and even some vintage erotica for inspiration; not that they’d needed any.
“What’s your name?” Emily murmured into Llyfr’s ear, wound against her in bed. “Really?”
“Mmm. You mean my title? It’s not in a language you would recognize. Not many people besides Faylinn would. But it could be translated as… something like ‘The Fairy Library.’” She nuzzled closer to Emily. “No wonder I like librarians.”
“I owe you,” Faylinn said some days later, standing way too close to Emily, and speaking in her soft whisper. “For coming here, and… changing things. I never knew change could be for the better. But all of this, the digitization, the scanning, introducing me to Cece, and the internet, spurring me to go outside again… ”
“It’s nothing,” Emily said. “Really, I’m just so happy to be here.” The room was teeming with researchers – some of them not even remotely human – who were eagerly clicking away on the laptops set up on the long tables, looking over the few scans that were already available, and casting avaricious glances at the vault.
“There’s so much to do here, it’s a life’s work –”
“The Folk take debts seriously,” Faylinn interrupted. Her breath smelled, not unpleasantly, of old paper. “That’s why you work here – and why Bernie is counting grains of sand on an island in some sea teeming with monsters, most likely. I was rude to you, and resisted the changes you brought, and I owe you a debt of apology. I talked to Llyfr, about what I could do to show my appreciation, and for the past few days, I’ve been working on this…” She thrust a sheaf of pages toward Emily. “I translated her for you.”
“You translated Llyfr?” Emily took the pages, blinking. “That’s… Faylinn, that’s amazing –”
The fairy librarian nodded once before scurrying off to the back, where Cece and the fictives were still busily scanning and archiving.
Emily looked around, and didn’t see Llyfr anywhere. Perhaps she was still a closed book somewhere – but Emily had no doubt she would open again soon. And Emily would continue opening up to her in return.
She peered at the first page in the small pile of papers, and read:
Once upon a time there was a woman who fell in love with a book –
No, no. I won’t begin that way.
Just because this is a story with fairies in it doesn’t make it a fairy tale.
Tim Pratt’s stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, and other nice places. He has won the Hugo Award for his short fiction, and he’s been a finalist for World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Stoker, Mythopoeic, and Nebula Awards. His latest collection is Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories. He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife, writer Heather Shaw, and their son. He blogs at timpratt.org,
and tweets as @timpratt.
Originally published in Antiquities and Tangibles (2012). Reprinted by permission of the author.