There was a single, unassuming wooden door at the back of the Librarium. It was small but looked solid and unlikely to be open. The rest of the rear was stone and brick, with tall thin windows that started high up the walls.
This was probably where the staff entered from in the mornings before the Librarium was open to the public.
It was late and dark with not many people around. The soldiers Rutga had saved Nic from had seemed happy to hand Nic over into a superior’s care, not even bothering to check the shack he had emerged from. The warning that there would be vomit inside probably informed that decision.
Rutga went to the door and put a key into the keyhole just below the brass handle.
“You have a key to the Librarium?” said Nic, surprised. Here was a man who was capable of all manner of subterfuge and espionage, but the idea that he had his own key to the Librarium was by far the most shocking thing Nic had observed from him.
Rutga looked over his shoulder at Nic, the smile on his lips barely visible. “No, lad. They don’t trust the likes of me with something that precious. What I have is a key to every lock, at least, every lock not specifically prepared for people like me.”
There was a soft click and Rutga opened the door. Nic looked from side to side, his body stiffening at the very idea of what he was about to do. It wasn’t like he hadn’t broken into a library before, but this wasn’t just any library. On top of which, there were things inside the Librarium which might not take kindly to intruders.
“Quickly, now,” said Rutga, holding the door open. “You don’t want to get caught out here.”
Nic didn’t want to get caught in there, either, but he pushed through his hesitation and entered the dark interior.
The smell of the Librarium was instantly familiar to him and helped calm his nerves. It was the reassuring scent of books and paper that had kept his company for most of his childhood, although there were some other scents mixed in with them.
The door closed and Rutga let out a heavy breath. “That was close.”
Nic didn’t move as he waited for his eyes to adjust. There was enough light coming in from the thin windows either side of the door to be able to make out black shapes, but no more than that.
Rutga pulled something out of his pocket which turned out to be a tinderbox. He lit a wick in the box’s corner and held the small flame aloft.
They were in a small room, an office with a desk, but with an unusually high ceiling. There was another door that presumably led into the Librarium.
Rutga moved towards a lantern on the desktop and lit it. The room immediately revealed itself, sparsely furnished and with shelves and cabinets brimming and overflowing. Much work was done here, Nic could tell.
Rutga blew out the flame and put the box back in his pocket. Then he took off his jacket, with its braids and ribbons, and turned it inside out. The reverse was the more mundane uniform of a Secret Service agent. He hung it off the back of the chair and sat down behind the desk.
“Phew. We can take a breather now. No one will bother us until morning.”
“You must have an extraordinary tailor,” said Nic.
“Yes,” said Rutga. “I have excellent taste in tradesmen despite my lowly background.” He grinned mischievously and looked around the room. “This is the senior clerk’s room. He’s responsible for the accounting and keeping the place running smoothly, fiscally-speaking. A good man. Hard-working.”
“You’ve been here before?” asked Nic.
“Sure, many times. I like it here, surrounded by books. I find it calming. And it’s a very handy place to hide in the city at night. No one thinks to come in here to look for anyone. It has something of a sacrosanct reputation that comes in very handy, I’ve found.”
It did feel like they were breaking some sacred oath by being here, but Nic had assumed only he revered the Librarium in such a fashion. Him and maybe a few librarians. Perhaps it was a more common effect than he had realised.
“You just come in here to hide?”
Rutga put his feet up on the desk, which made Nic uncomfortable.
“Hide, think, collect myself before whatever it is I need to do. Sometimes I even meet with people to get my instructions for some job or other. It’s a very versatile location. Why don’t you take a seat, there.” He pointed at the chair next to Nic. “We should have a little chat, you and I. About this and that, the meaning of life and so on and so forth. Don’t you think? A mutual exchange of information is what I propose.”
Nic sat down. Rutga was being jovial and handling the situation in a very casual manner, which Nic was sure was an act. He wanted to put Nic at ease so he would be more likely to answer questions, most probably. Which was fine. Nic was happy to tell him whatever he wanted to know as long as he got some answers in return.
“Do you mind telling me where you were going to take me?” asked Nic.
“My instructions came from the Ministry for Instruction, rather aptly.” Rutga smiled, amused at his own wordplay. “Your removal from the school was more or less a precaution. No one really thinks of you as a threat, as far as I can tell — I may not be the most well-informed person on such matters — but they do think of you as a bit of a nuisance. From the reports I’ve seen, you do seem to crop in the most odd places.”
“There are reports about me?” said Nic, his mind already looking for ways to access them, possibly using his ability.
“Certainly. Quite a large dossier, although I don’t know how much of it is factual and how much conjecture. I would have bet quite a lot on mostly the latter until tonight. Now, I’m not so sure.”
“Outside,” said Nic, “you said everyone was wrong about me apart from you.”
“Well,” said Rutga, “perhaps I’m flattering myself, but even though it did seem unbelievable, what they claim you’ve done, they also have this idea that your actions are likely being controlled by others. I didn’t believe that part.”
“That part may be the only thing that’s true,” said Nic, rather glumly. “I don’t know why so many people want to influence my actions, but I seem to have become a popular target. I don’t even know if my own feelings are real half the time.”
“No, my boy, don’t you believe it. Your father’s greatest quality was his ability to think for himself. Some would say it was also his greatest fault. I see so much of him in you, I can’t accept for one moment that you would succumb to domination by another, no matter how powerful they might be.”
Nic was a little thrown by this man’s faith in a mere boy’s fortitude under such extreme pressure. “I’m not sure why you would think that, but I don’t think you’re right. You can’t be. I’m constantly being forced to do things I don’t want to.”
“Ah, that isn’t what I meant,” said Rutga. “We all find ourselves having to make compromises and doing things we regret. The sign of a free will is when you realise that. The mark of the weak-willed is when they allow themselves to be convinced what they are doing is correct and decent.”
“What difference does that make if you still end up doing it?” said Nic.
“More than you can possibly know. But you will. In the meantime, it’s important for you to be able to carry on, I feel.”
“Carry on with what?” asked Nic.
“I can’t rightly say,” said Rutga. “With whatever it is that brought you here when you could have easily run back to safety. Why did you follow me?”
It was a fair question. When you escape from someone attempting to abduct you, the normal reaction would be to get as far away from them as possible.
“I… I wanted to know who it was you were working for. I mean, really working for. But I’m still not sure. You say you work for the Ministry, but then you should be taking me to Minister Carmine right now. And you seemed to be in league with the people from Gweur, but you wouldn’t hand me over to them.”
“Yes, I can see why you would be confused,” said Rutga. “There are some parts I don’t understand myself. But of this I’m sure — you are part of this for good reason. Your decisions will affect the outcome and, I think, for the good of all of Ranvar.”
Nic wasn’t sure how to respond. It sounded utterly preposterous to him. “You can’t possibly know that.”
“True, it would be hard to prove. But in my line of business you sometimes have to let go of what you know and rely on what you feel.”
“I don’t know if I can do that,” said Nic.
“No one expects you to be sure,” said Rutga. “A time will come when it’ll be obvious. That was how it was for me, and for most others. You have to be a little patient.”
“And you let me go on that basis?” said Nic.
“Ha, not quite. You did have a little help from our Gweurvian friends. This isn’t exactly how I envisioned us having this conversation, but sometimes you also have to let go of what you planned.”
They sat there, opposite one another, in the yellow light of the lantern. From outside, there was the occasional shout or rumble of a passing carriage. The soldiers in the streets had been preparing for a fight, for dragons and an invading army, but none had materialised. Now they were restless and finding ways to ease the tension,
“Are you just going to stay here all night?” Nic asked. There was no indication Rutga had any other plans. No indication that he intended to take Nic anywhere, either. But Nic had a feeling the old man was here for a reason.
“Yes,” said Rutga. “Until I receive orders otherwise.”
“How will they know where to send them?” asked Nic.
“Ah, you’ve stumbled onto my clever ruse. They will find me when I’m good and ready. That’s part of the problem with being good at your job — people always want to give you more work. They’ll take it away from others who they think aren’t doing it well enough just to burden you a little more. You’ll have to watch out for that as you get older, Nic. It might seem alright at first, you might even agree with their reasoning, but the more you take on, the more they’ll keep giving you. You have to know your limits and then you have to impose them on your taskmasters.”
“I’m not sure I’ll get the chance,” said Nic. “I suppose it will depend on what I’m asked to do.”
Rutga raised a hand to stop Nic. “I speak only as an ignorant soldier, someone not qualified to question the intelligence of my superiors. This is the biggest difference between you and I, Nic. I’m just someone who faithfully carries out orders. You, you’re someone who always has to ask why.”
“But you aren’t carrying out orders,” said Nic. “You’re sitting here.”
“I carried out my orders to the best of my ability, which is what I was chosen for. No one can achieve something they aren’t capable of, after all. You can’t order a man to fly and expect him to flap his arms and float into the sky.”
Nic was getting the impression Rutga wasn’t being entirely honest with him. He was happy to keep Nic here, but not willing to tell him why.
“I think you’re going to get in trouble with Minister Carmine,” said Nic.
“That’s alright,” said Rutga. “It’s very hard to discipline a man you’ve trained to withstand all sorts of torture and punishment. Frankly, you only have yourself to blame.”
“What if they take it out on your family?”
Rutga took his feet off the desk. “There is that. Fortunately, I never found a woman I wanted to spend the rest of my days with. Lucky for her. I would have quite liked to, it’s not that I enjoy the solitary life, but it never happened. Your father, now there was a man who found the perfect woman. He was always talking about how wonderful your mother is, how lucky he was to find her, you know, all that lovey-dovey nonsense. There were times I thought he was just doing it to aggravate me, but I think, honestly, he was just young and in love, which can make a man extremely annoying to be around.”
Nic found it odd to hear someone talk about his father in such terms. He rarely heard anything about him other than what a fine soldier he had been, and then only because what else could you say about a dead soldier?
“I did look you know, for a wife, I mean. But I wasn’t going to settle for just anyone. She had to be the person I saw myself with.”
“You had a specific person in mind?” asked Nic. “Someone you knew?”
“Not exactly. I had a picture of her in my head.”
“You dreamed her?” asked Nic. He hadn’t expected Rutga to be such a romantic.
Rutga nodded. “All the time.” He stretched in the chair and repositioned himself to be more comfortable. “I can see her quite clearly, even now. A girl — she remains the same age even as I get older — a girl so pure and delicate, nothing around her can contaminate her. But it can all harm her. Yes, everything around her can hurt her! She must be protected, cared for. You have to be willing to pay any price to shield her from a cruel and menacing world. I... I would… ah, I’ve got a clumsy tongue. I can’t say anything clearly.”
“She’s Ranvar,” said Nic.
“I suppose she is now,” said Rutga with a laugh. “You’ve seen through my self-delusion as I only occasionally do. I had no girl to call my own, so I took on the biggest girl I could find. Some men are like that, they have particular tastes.”
Nic smiled at the image of a large, nation-sized wife.
“But the girl I love needs someone better than a mere grunt like me. She needs someone…” He sighed. “When I was a young man, there were leaders to look up to. Fearless men willing to sacrifice everything, including themselves, if that was what was required. They had unshakable principles and only cared for the well-being of their people. Not individuals, not family members — although I’m sure they were included — but every citizen, even those not yet born. Especially them… Such a shame.”
“What happened to them?”
“The same thing that happens to all great men. They grew old. For them, dwelling on the past and looking to the future became insufferable burdens, and since they were powerless to do anything about the present, their only option was to live out their waning years without thinking about anything. They lost interest in the only thing they ever cared about.”
“Isn’t that the way it always happens?” asked Nic. “Someone else comes along and takes over, don’t they?”
At this, Rutga, suddenly grew excited. He motioned for Nic to draw closer, and lowered his voice, as if afraid that someone would overhear.
“Yes, I ‘m happy to hear you say it. I think the same. It’s just a matter of finding him. Or her. You never know. Someone whose faith is rock-solid, who’s farsighted and takes the action required when necessary, and acts with calm resolve. Precise and serious, but when there’s a need they can go outside the lines and take extraordinary action.” Rutga sighed again. “That’s the sort of person we lack.”
“Don’t we have great generals and battle-hardened warriors who will step up when the time comes?” asked Nic.
“The time has come and gone,” said Rutga, shaking his head. “An old soldier without faith in victory is a sad sight to behold, is it not?”
Something in Nic’s mind caught fire. “You’re not thinking I might be this person, are you? Because of who my father was? Because I can assure you—”
“No, no, lad. I’ll know him when I see him.”
“Or her,” said Nic.
They sat there for a while, Nic not knowing why he’d come. It was something of an anti-climax. He was lost in his own thoughts for a while, and then looked up to note that Rutga had fallen asleep in his chair. The key he had used to gain entrance to the Librarium was on the desk.
Nic leaned over and picked them up, his eyes on Rutga, ready to apologise, a list of excuse running through his mind. Rutga didn’t wake.
The Librarium was cool and dark, with squares of light occasionally rushing across the walls as the lanterns on top of passing carriages illuminated the skinny windows.
Nic couldn’t shake the feeling he was doing something wrong. He crept through the bookshelves on tiptoe, his breath held in case someone heard him. He knew no one was here and there was nothing to hide from, but that didn’t stop his heart racing.
People didn’t sneak around in the dark for good reasons, generally.
He reached the central staircase and made his way up. Each wooden step creaked far louder than any other time he had climbed them, he was sure.
When most people behaved in a dubious manner, they justified it by exaggerating the importance of their goal — the ends justified the means. Nic would probably do the same, if caught. Wasn’t the fate of Ranvar at stake?
But in his heart, he knew that was nonsense. He was just playing the part of important person in world-changing events. He had always avoided the school drama club and now here he was, vying for the leading role. It wasn’t a vocation he was qualified for.
He remembered back in school — his old school — a teacher called Mr Kavensky who had taught him for high arts and monuments, a particularly subjective subject. His advice for exams where there was no correct answer was: decide what you’d like the answer to be, and then draw out the evidence that makes it true.
The lesson had served him well. Not only did it allow your examiner to evaluate the kind of person they were dealing with, it also provided an opportunity to convince them you were something other than what you truly were.
A well-worded essay answer could be utterly baseless and still paint you in an impressive light.
A subjective question wasn’t looking for a correct answer, it was looking for a demonstration of character. It didn’t have to be yours.
Presenting yourself as something impressive and laudable was meant to be a good thing. Put your best foot forward, show yourself in a good light, first impressions count. No one ever suggested you should present an accurate portrayal of yourself. Even when they said, “Be yourself,” they meant the version of you suitable for public consumption.
Nic reached the top of the stairs, the sixth floor of the Librarium, and his anxiety eased a little. Being this high above street-level made him feel more secure, less likely to be heard or seen through a window. Not unless it was by someone flying past. That thought made his start fidgeting again.
He moved quickly through the shelves, old and musty. Few people came up here during the day so it stood to good reason there would be even fewer around in the middle of the night. The deeper he went, away from the windows, the safer he felt.
The door he was looking for was up ahead, simple and unassuming. Nic took out the key Rutga had given him and put it in the keyhole.
It didn’t seem to fit at first, too big to even go all the way in. But then something seemed to give way and the key shot forward, making a loud metallic clang. It wasn’t actually very loud, it just felt like it. Nic froze for a second, listening for what? Rushing footsteps? He turned the key and the door opened.
Inside the small chamber, it was pitch dark. Nic stepped inside and closed the door. He’s had enough of his paranoid imagination and decided to get on with it. If there was a party waiting to ambush him, so be it.
Even though he couldn’t see anything, he remembered where the other door was. The room wasn’t big enough to get lost in and he found the other door handle easily enough. The second keyhole took some feeling around to find, but there were only so many places doormakers put them.
The second door opened and light flooded into the chamber blinding him for a second. He rushed in and shut the second door behind him, afraid some light might find its way out through any tiny gaps between door and doorframe or maybe through the keyhole. Even with the precaution of double doors it felt like someone might see a golden glow emanating from the top floor of the Librarium.
The room was full of books in glass cases, but Nic ignored them. The glow was coming from them, providing enough light to see by. Nic scanned the floor for the trapdoor leading down to the creature’s lair.
He had been here before, seen the Librarian open it, could visualise where it had been, but finding it was trickier than he’d anticipated. He was considering poking the key into every discernible crack until it somehow miraculously fit in one of them, but then he stopped and closed his eyes. He had the ability to be shown whatever he asked to see, so he asked to see the lock he was looking for.
It took a moment for his mind’s eye to settle inside the room, and then he could see the hole in the floor like it was made of white light. With his eyes still closed, he inserted the key and pulled open the door.
It was heavy but there seemed to be a mechanism installed that helped make it easier to lift. Once it was open, the dark stairwell dropped away beneath him. A minor adjustment and Nic could see the steps clearly. He started the descent, eyes closed, no fear of losing his footing in the dark. If nothing else, this ability had given him excellent night vision.
Nic hurried down to the bottom and arrived at the large archway that led into the white room where he had encountered the creature. He opened his eyes and the white walls ahead of him showed an empty room.
He peered into the room, what he could see of it. The white light from the walls was bright and easy on the eyes but nothing like sunlight and more stark than anything from a lantern.
“Hello?” said Nic, voice low. There was no immediate response. He was reluctant to go in uninvited and also wary of raising his voice. He might not be heard from outside, but there were other people who might hear him. “Hello?” He stepped forward, as far the archway without entering the room. “You said it was alright if I came back.”
Everything went dark.
“Yes,” said a voice in his head. “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”
Nic was tempted to say it probably would have taken him longer if he knew what it was he was supposed to do, but he kept it to himself.
“I’ve been getting used to the power you gave me,” said Nic.
“Yes,” said the creature, its voice coming from everywhere and nowhere. “You have changed since we last met.”
“I have? In what way?”
“In many ways. You have flown shadow dragons. That isn’t something most people are capable of. It isn’t something you were capable of.”
“It wasn’t that different from flying regular dragons,” said Nic.
“I assure you it is very different,” said the creature. “To think they are the same shows how far you have come in so short a time. Good. You have already exceeded expectation.”
“What was your expectation?” asked Nic. “What is it now?”
“My expectation was for you to remain uninvolved and disengaged, but you are here, of your own volition.”
“Not really,” said Nic. “I was sort of abducted and got away and then followed my would-be kidnapper here. I stumbled back here by accident, to be honest.”
“No,” said the creature. “That is only how it appears. You chose to come here, and you chose to confront me.”
“I wouldn’t say this is a confrontation.” Nic fervently hoped it wasn’t.
“You want to know what you are meant to do now, do you not?”
“Yes,” said Nic. He couldn’t deny that was true, it was just that he didn’t think anyone would tell him, so he didn’t see it as his goal. “Are you going to tell me?”
“Yes,” said the creature. “You are meant to do whatever it is you decide to do.”
Nic’s heart sank a little. More vague answers that had no real meaning.
“On my world, the one the High-Father destroyed, the one the High-Father used me to destroy… On that world, the people were already far in advance of this world even before the High-Father found them. They were proud of all they had accomplished, and they believed they were guided by a superior power that would not allow them to fail.”
“A superior power?” said Nic. “They worshipped a deity of some kind?”
“You could think of it like that,” said the creature. “Pastor Grey had a vision. Of death and destruction and a saviour that would come. He believed he was ordained to build that saviour, that he was being directed to create life, to become the image of his own creator by creating something he would breathe life into, and so he made me. Things did not work out as intended.”
“Pastor Grey?” said Nic. “He made you?”
“Yes. He received a divine visitation and received instructions, this was the world into which I was born. The great mages of my world were not unlike the ones here, people of immense power and ability looking for ways to utilise their gifts. They lived mostly in the coldest regions, where their power was kept in check. Pastor Grey’s efforts produced so much residual heat, the snow-covered area around his home was in perpetual spring. Flowers grew on every patch of grass, and within walking distance there would be tall banks of snow.”
“What were you created to save them from?” asked Nic.
“No one knew when my plans were first drawn. They didn’t need to know. Their faith in me was total. Their faith in themselves, likewise. It was to be their undoing. When the High-Father arrived and offered them more power, they considered those that accepted to be heretics and had them killed. But others took their place. The most powerful rejected what they saw as temptation to lead them astray, but the slightly less powerful were ready to be promoted — they always are.”
“He set them against each other,” said Nic. It was an old tactic you didn’t need to be a demon to employ.
“And it worked very well, for a time. But they were not so foolish that they couldn’t see the danger. But they still refused to change their ways. Their confidence made them inflexible. They believed their higher power would intervene to save them, that I was the instrument sent to protect them, and so they became obstinate in their ways.”
“You’re saying their faith in themselves was unfounded?”
“No, it was perfectly justified. It wasn’t enough, though. The High-Father never let them realise how hopelessly outmatched they were until it was too late.” The creature’s voice had a lament to it.
“Do you think things will be any different this time?” asked Nic.
“I thought not,” said the creature. “For the longest time I was satisfied with being a disinterested observer. There was nothing I could do to prevent other worlds from falling, it made no difference. But Winnum Roke convinced me otherwise.”
“How did she do that?”
“By suggesting something the High-Father would not be able to resist. A challenge he would accept because there he finds so few challenges. It took a mage from the mages and a demon from the demons and a human… you… from the mere humans. One of each. And then left to their own devices, he would allow them to prepare for the battle, unimpeded.”
“I don’t understand,” said Nic. “Why me? I’m not special among my kind. I don’t stand out. Surely there are others who are more qualified.”
He had returned countless times to this question, looking at it from different angles, leaving it to sit in the back of his mind in the hope an answer would emerge from within. But try as he might, the reason he had been chosen refused to appear.
“Perhaps, but you were chosen from many. You were the one who did stand out. The quality you possess that none of the others had, that my entire world didn’t have, is the ability to change your approach as required. You learn quickly, Nicolav Tutt.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be enough,” said Nic.
“No,” said the creature. “Probably not.”
The darkness came to life. Below him, or so it seemed — in truth he felt the room still under his feet — was Ranvar, the world, dark but still visible.
“Here we are,” said the creature. The city lit up, it’s already bright outline emphasised. “And here are the Ranvarian troops.” Dots of light appeared around the edges, thousands of them. “The Gweur troops. The allied nations’ troops. The hidden armies waiting to pounce, once they see which side is winning.”
Lights of different colours kept appearing across the map. The many factions involved, from the small rebel groups to the huge armies. It went on and on until the map was covered in swathes of colour.
“Why are you showing me all this?” said Nic.
“For you to see what there is,” said the creature. “What you do with the information is up to you.”
Nic looked at it. The different colours butted up against each other, a mix of paints on a canvas, pieces on a board.
“It’s a game to him, isn’t it?” said Nic. “The way it’s so well balanced. That can’t be by accident. He wants it to be like this. He doesn’t want an advantage, he wants to make it hard for himself.”
“Yes,” said the creature. “He is tired of winning too easily.”
“Then why doesn’t he remove his advantage completely?” said Nic. “He still holds the reins. He only allows us to be his equal. If he really wants to prove himself, let him choose a single champion, and we do the same, and let the victor claim the spoils. Not that he’d agree to it.
“I agree,” said a new voice. The High-Father stood next to Nic. “I agree to your terms. Who would you choose?”
“You do?” said Nic. “Okay.” His mind was already racing to think of a champion for his side. Winnum Roke seemed like the ideal pick, but would he allow her. “Winnum Roke?”
“An excellent choice. I agree.”
“You do?” There had to be a catch. “And who do you pick?”
“Why, I pick you, Nic.”
A catch, always a catch. “Can I forfeit?”
“Yes,” said the High-Father. “But before you do that, let me show you what you’re championing. Let me show you the world as it really is.”
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