“Should we go after her?” asked Fanny.
Davo found that he needed to take a breath and let it out slowly. He didn’t have the air to form words. Even if he had, he wasn’t sure what they would be.
It wasn’t until the girl had left that Davo realised how much he had been swept along by the air of expected compliance she seemed to carry with her. Her absence allowed clarity to return to his perceptions. He saw now that they were completely out of their depth and should have left matters to those who were better qualified, which was just about anyone. He had to fight to maintain control of himself.
He had experienced a similar effect a few times before. Occasionally a person of great importance would come to one of his father’s stores, and the atmosphere would change noticeably even before they walked through the doors. The air would crackle as though a great storm were about to arrive, and the customers, staff and even passers-by, would tense and somehow know to look in the same direction.
Some people just had an unquestionable authority when it came to making decisions, and pulled everyone close enough into their wake. They didn’t have to be generals or princes, although that was often the case. They could be women who brooked no delays, or girls who were so spoilt as to have become an irresistible force of nature.
And the rest of the world could do nothing but surrender to them, and hope not to be dragged too far by the undertow.
It wasn’t magic in the Arcanum sense, but it was still a form of supernatural power. The young Miss Delcroix certainly belonged to that group, but whether it was born of militant charisma or mere brattiness, he did not know.
“She said to wait, didn’t she?” he said once he’d caught his breath.
“I know,” said Fanny. “But what if she doesn’t come back?”
“Then she probably doesn’t need our help.”
“What if she doesn’t come back because she’s in trouble?”
“Even more reason for us to stay here,” said Davo. “What can we do against a demon?”
Both boys were quiet as they absorbed the unreal nature of their situation. It was a hard reality to accept. They crouched in the shadow of the steps leading up to the library doors. Closed doors with statues on either side that looked like they were trying to lean back into the darkness so as not to be noticed.
Davo felt a wave of disgust. He was annoyed with himself. He wasn’t crouching, he was cowering. It wasn’t particularly hard to fathom why, but it was still an unpleasant realisation. He was scared, and even though his fear served no purpose — there was no running away from this — he continued to be scared. Meanwhile, Fanny bumbled along as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening. He had always thought of himself as someone who would make a stand when it was necessary, whatever the cost. Everyone probably expected it of themselves. Everyone was probably wrong, just as he was. Nearly everyone.
“I don’t think we can just wait here,” said Fanny. He was saying the correct things under the circumstances, but his voice was even more thin and uncertain than normal. He was trying at least.
“What if we go stumbling in there, and we get her killed?” said Davo. The important thing was not to panic. Make choices based on common sense and reasonable odds.
“What if we don’t,” retorted Fanny, “and that gets her killed? And Nic.”
If there was a scenario he could picture where his and Fanny’s arrival on the scene would theoretically be advantageous, Davo might have felt a lot better about charging into the fray. As it was, they had been commandeered as pack animals, and left behind until whistled for.
“Do you really think there are demons here?” asked Fanny quietly. It was obvious what answer he was hoping for.
“I don’t know,” Davo replied equally quietly.
“What do you think they look like? I mean underneath.”
“I don’t know that either. I’m not particularly keen on finding out.”
The little that was known (or was allowed to be known) about demons suggested they could change their appearance to anything they wished. Nic’s encounters seemed to confirm that. But their true form? The fairy tales usually had them as monsters with bat wings and horns and tusks, which seemed excessive, but those were fanciful guesses. Probably.
The sky was pitch black, and the air carried no sounds. Davo strained to hear perhaps a cry for help or a scuffle, not knowing what he would do if he did.
“We have to get closer,” said Fanny. He had a box in his hand, and wires from it extending to his ears.
“Can you hear anything?”
“No, nothing. We should at least go round the side.”
Davo wanted to agree, but he couldn’t. He didn’t want to be close enough to be summoned. If she called for them, screamed for help, he knew he would have to respond. At least back here, he might not be aware of the call.
It was utter cowardice.
“We can’t stay here,” said Fanny. “If we found out later we could have saved them, but we were too scared…”
“If not for glory, then for guilt? I don’t disagree, but we are sorely unprepared for this. Even Nic would struggle to know what to do in our position.”
“I suppose. We could…” Fanny looked up, towards the library roof where Dizzy had scuttled up and vanished.
“How? We can’t climb up there.” Davo used the plural. We. He was referring to himself, though. The pairing made it sound less contemptible.
“No, I mean through the library. If we got on the top floor, we’d have a better view of what was going on.”
Inside. A window. Watching. Would that be better?
“How do you propose to get in? Do you have a key?”
Fanny shrugged. “I could try something.”
Of all their options, breaking into the library seemed an act of the mildest possible consequences. At least it would give them something to do.
“Okay, go on then.”
They crept around and tiptoed up the broad stone steps, making no eye contact with the statues, as though a tacit agreement had been made not to betray each other’s presence.
Fanny pulled a number of small items out of his pockets and switched them from hand to hand, like he was checking their weights. Davo regarded him with bemusement, but didn’t ask him what he was doing.
“I’m going to convince the door to open,” said Fanny, as though he could sense the question.
“Good luck,” said Davo.
Fanny nodded. He pushed something against the door and winced, like he was expecting it to hurt.
“What happened?” Davo asked, stepping back. “What have you done?”
“Nothing, apparently.” Fanny inspected the door.
“What was it?”
“I thought if I pushed the Arcanum field in the door to the right, the door would think it was over there, instead of over here.”
On a very basic level, that was a reasonable explanation of how Arcanum worked. Theoretically. On a more practical level, there was no way to know if that was how you got a door to open. The Royal College guarded its secrets well.
“Maybe try again?” suggested Davo.
Fanny sighed, then squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hand against the door. Davo felt a disconcerting sensation run down his back as Fanny’s hand sank in slightly. A trick of the light?
A faint wisp of smoke drifted between his short stubby fingers. Fanny’s hand leapt away from the door. His eyes, now wide open, stared at the thin trails of smoke coming off his palm. “Did it... work?”
“I think... maybe,” Davo said. He closed one eye. “How many doors do you see?”
“It doesn’t look any different.” Fanny copied him and closed one eye. “Oh. Two. Red and blue.”
There wasn’t a solid door anymore, but they weren’t gone, either. Not completely. There were two doorways, each a slightly different hue. Not brightly coloured, just a tinge of red on one, blue on the other.
“Which one?” asked Davo.
“Red,” Fanny said immediately.
“Because...” His voice trailed off. “Because it is.” He stepped forward before Davo could react, and disappeared through the red doorway.
Davo was pulled along, almost against his will. It was probably more to do with not wanting to be left on his own, but it was still a dumb thing to do. He was so worried about some unverified demonic force, but he had far more to fear from Fanny’s reckless use of unsupervised Arcanum. He’d probably be found cut in two, half of him inside the library, half outside.
He stumbled as he bumped into Fanny’s back. They were in the library.
“What?” said Davo, breathless again.
“I did it. I… magic.”
“Yes, congratulations. If we live, I’ll buy you a cake.”
“Really?” said Fanny, immediately snapping out of his daze.
It wasn’t really magic if a device was used — many occupations other than mage had access to such contraptions — but he had got them inside. It was an impressive accomplishment for a boy with a bunch of wires.
It was dark, but some light was creeping in through the tall windows. They peered around until they became aware of their surroundings, and then made their way to the staircase.
They were familiar with the layout, and quickly made their way to the next floor. They scurried to the window and looked across to where the Pagoda stood, but it was hard to make out anything with trees obscuring their view.
“Higher,” said Davo.
They missed out the next floor and went all the way to the top. The windows looked over the tops of the trees, and down to the base of the Pagoda. There was no sign of Dizzy.
“Maybe we should go up,” said Fanny.
“What are you talking about? We’re on the top fl—” He stopped and turned to follow Fanny’s gaze past his shoulder. “Ladder.” The word fell out of his mouth.
“The secret room. We might be able to get on the roof.”
“Why is it open like that?” said Davo. “Doesn’t that mean someone’s here?”
“Dizzy?” said Fanny hopefully.
They approached the ladder and looked up. There was no sound, but there was a very soft glow. Fanny reached out his hand, but Davo moved in front of him. He was tiring of being one step behind. And of Fanny, of all people!
He climbed quickly and didn’t even stop to check if there was anyone waiting up there. Presenting his neck would only give them the perfect opportunity to chop his head off.
The mirrored walls reflected a dim light, but it wasn’t clear where it was coming from. All he saw was his own movement reflected, and then Fanny, as he emerged from behind him. Shapes that were too warped to make out clearly.
They stood at the top of the ladder, listening.
“Hello?” said Fanny.
“Quiet!” Davo whispered hoarsely. “What are you doing?”
“Just being polite.”
“Why? You’re worried we’ll be murdered for poor manners?”
“Why don’t you both come over here,” said a soft gentle voice. “Come see the beautiful sky before dragons blot out the stars. You don’t want to miss this.”
The sky could not be seen through the mirrored walls, and even if it could, there would be no stars visible. They had already been blotted out, and if a dragon was responsible, it was a very big one.
Davo relaxed. He recognised the Librarian, even from behind. No one else had a stance so perfectly stiff. He moved forward. He wanted to see, he found, although he had no idea what he was being asked to witness. The Librarian’s invitation was impossible to refuse.
She was standing with her back to them, her slender form reflected into tight lines of nothing in the dome’s walls. Then she shifted slightly, and her face appeared on every surface until she shifted back. The mirrors were angled in such a way that they didn’t reflect things directly; nothing was where you’d expect it.
“She’s about to enter,” said the Librarian.
Both boys, one on either side of her, leaned forward, trying to see through the glass. The librarian swiped a hand in a large arc, from in front of Fanny’s face, across to Davo’s. The mirror shimmered and cleared, drawing gasps from the boys.
“Are you a mage?” asked Fanny in an awed whisper.
“No,” said the Librarian, smiling. She had a lot of small teeth, Davo noticed.
The library roof stretched out ahead of them, and then it stopped and the top part of the Pagoda was visible as a dark imprint. The sky was black. No stars.
“What are we looking at?” asked Davo, doing his best to sound calm. He didn’t know what was happening, but his instincts told him not to demand answers. He was being led gently, but a leash can always be tightened.
“Look up,” said the Librarian.
They did as instructed. The top of the dome was still mirrored, and along the curved part a figure moved, unnaturally clear and well lit, and upside down. Dizzy approached the Pagoda door, skulking in a manner that somehow seemed elegant.
“She made it,” said Fanny.
“Not yet,” said the Librarian. “She has a long way to go, but her chances are good. Or perhaps decent. It is a moment that should be shared by her friends.”
Davo wasn’t sure they qualified as her friends, but he was willing to bear witness, even if it was giving him a crick in his neck. The Librarian was content to watch from a distance, so he felt it was acceptable to do the same.
“What is she going to do?” he asked.
“She’s going to choose her path. She will have to fight if she wants to be the great leader she dreams of.”
“Fight a demon?” asked Fanny.
“No. Not yet. First she has to win the right. First she has to defeat her rival.”
As they watched, Dizzy cautiously pushed the Pagoda door open with a stick.
“Rival?” asked Davo. “Who’s her… You mean Nic? She has to fight Nic?”
“She doesn’t have to fight him, but she does have to defeat him.”
“Um,” said Fanny. “Can’t they sort of team up and work together?”
“Theoretically, yes. In practice, I’ve never seen it happen.”
“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen,” said Davo.
Dizzy entered the Pagoda, and the Librarian stepped away so that both boys were now in front of her. “Do you know the story of the Princess and the Farm Boy? You must have heard it in one form or another.”
“The one where the boy is reluctant and the girl is feisty?” asked Davo.
“That is one version.”
“Where the boy turns out to be a legendary swordsman,” said Fanny.
“Sometimes,” said the Librarian.
“I like that story,” said Fanny. “It makes you feel like anyone can become a hero. My favourite part’s where everyone makes fun of him and then they realise he’s better than them at everything, and then they hate themselves.” Fanny chuckled to himself. “That must be great. I wish that part were true the most.”
“Nothing about the story is untrue,” said the Librarian, “but everything it makes you feel is false. That is why stories are so powerful. And easy to abuse.”
“How can it all be true if every version is different?” asked Davo.
“Because the details aren’t relevant,” said the Librarian, “He wasn’t a farm boy. His father ran a stable in the shadow of the city walls. His mother made cheap jewellery she sold at market. They called him farm boy because his boots were always muddy and the scent of horse manure followed him. But he was still the Farm Boy of the story.”
“You sound like you were there,” said Davo.
“I was,” said the Librarian, and Davo’s heart stopped beating. “In a manner of speaking.” She smiled. So many teeth.
“So he was a real person?” asked Fanny. “The Chosen One?”
“He wasn’t chosen. He was the only one willing to chase after the princess. She was the fifth daughter of seven, and by far the ugliest. They barely knew she was gone. They would have arranged a marriage for her, of course, found her a prince or a count or a duke, but no one was going to fight demons to save her. Apart from him. What they didn’t realise was that she planned to fight the demons herself. She didn’t wish to be saved. He tried anyway. He was an incredible dolt.” She sighed. “I liked him.”
“I’m not entirely sure why you’re telling us this,” said Davo.
“Heroes,” said the Librarian. “They tend to come one at a time, if at all. But if two come together, they can’t help but clash. Only one can claim the title of champion.”
“The princess and the farm boy didn’t fall in love and defeat the demon?” asked Fanny.
“They did. They fought together, and it drew them closer. And they learned to rely on each other, and drew closer still. They argued incessantly, and became absorbed in one another. But he was wary of bringing her shame, of embarrassing her, of not being good enough. She grew tired of his chivalrous nature and took matters into her own hands, and then he promised when the king asked him what reward he wished for, he would ask for her hand. He was far below her rank, but a champion who saved the world can get special dispensations for that sort of thing.”
“Wait,” said Fanny. “Does that mean they had sex?”
“Of course it does,” said Davo.
“You don’t know that. ‘Took matters into her own hands’ could mean anything.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Davo turned to the librarian. “Did they have sex? There’s no need to be coy, we know what sex is.”
“Yes, I’ve read about it in a book,” said Fanny. “With pictures.”
“Have you?” said Davo. “What book was that?”
“My biology textbook.”
“Oh. Well, so have I. Hardly a guide to lovemaking.”
“I never said it was. Is there really a guide? Who wrote it?”
“They defeated the demon, or thought they had, I won’t bore you with the details, and they set off to return home with the good news. But the boy had been poisoned. A terrible, consuming poison that ate away at his flesh.”
“Yeuchh,” said Fanny. “That isn’t how the story goes.”
“By the time they returned, his entire body was ravaged and he kept his face hidden behind a silk mask. When the king asked what he wished as his reward, he asked for a small piece of land overlooking the ocean, where he could watch the ships go in and out of the harbour.”
“I bet the princess was mightily relieved,” said Davo.
“The princess was furious. She had given him her chastity and her purity and in return he had betrayed her.”
“Seems a bit harsh,” said Fanny. “Last thing you need when half your face is falling off.”
“She was also a great warrior, and had acquired great power herself. She vowed to find a cure.”
“Oh, I see,” said Davo. “The old twist ending.”
“She set off to seek the wisest men and the greatest sorcerers in order to restore him to the boy she fell in love with. Three years into her search, word reached her that he had died.”
“What kind of ending is that?” cried Fanny.
“The kind of ending you get when you take three years finding a cure,” said Davo. “What do you expect with terrible service like that? That’s why we guarantee same-day delivery.”
“She refused to give up.”
“Wait, what does that mean?” said Fanny. “I thought he died?”
“Death would not deprive her. She knew of nefarious arts that resurrected the dead. She would drag him back to the world of the living, whole and himself once more.”
“Oh,” said Fanny. “She was a bit clingy, wasn’t she?”
“I take it back,” said Davo. “She wasn’t the heartless debutante I had assumed. She was some kind of crazy woman.”
“But such magic did not exist,” said the Librarian. “No matter how hard she looked, no matter what depths she was willing to sink to, a corpse no longer contains the man. It would be a hollow victory to bring him back. A rotten flesh puppet.”
“So then she gave up,” said Fanny. “I hope.”
“She found a mystic. Not one who could raise the dead, but who could speak to them. He summoned the spirit of her dead farm boy, and they were reunited, almost. He could not see or hear her. It was like she was viewing him through a telescope. He looked young and beautiful again. He looked happy. She never believed there was somewhere you went to after death, but now she believed. She would reunite with him there, the place where the spirits of the good and the true went. Only, she was neither. Her search had taken her down some dark roads. She had done some terrible things to find the secret to raising the dead. Made some awful sacrifices. How could she atone so that her soul would be saved, and allowed into that glorious place her lover had gone? That’s when the demon she thought she had slain returned to offer her the thing she wanted most. A world where she could relive her happiest moments, again and again.”
“She went mad, didn’t she?” said Davo.
“That doesn’t sound like they lived happily ever after,” said Fanny.
“No,” agreed the Librarian.
“But that’s the one fact all the versions agree on. Although, I suppose no one can live happily ever after. Nobody can be happy all the time. Not unless, you know, they’re a bit simple.”
“Too true,” said Davo. “You seem quite cheerful most of the time, I’ve noticed.”
“Well, I try to keep my spirits up,” said Fanny. “No point being a down in the mouth worry-wart, is there?”
The Librarian turned back to face the glass wall. “The problem with those who want to lead is that they get in each other’s way. Close friends make good hostages and the best betrayals. Under the best circumstances, a team will offer support and sacrifice. Under every other circumstance, it rarely goes well.”
“Is that really what happened?” asked Fanny.
“Yes. Although there are parts I did not tell you.”
“The truth with parts left out…” said Davo. “Isn’t that called a lie?”
“No. It’s called a story. And in a story, many truths can co-exist.”
“Were you the princess?” asked Fanny. It was what Davo had been wondering, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
“No. I told you, she was very ugly. Do you think I’m ugly?”
Davo shot Fanny a look to make sure he didn’t say something stupid.
“No. I think you’re beautiful, for your age.”
Davo cringed, but it could have been worse.
“Only, you said you were there, and if you weren’t the princess… were you the farm boy.”
Davo was too far away to be able to kick Fanny. He would have to remember to position himself better in the future.
“She wasn’t the farm boy,” snapped Davo, and then realised he may have made an even bigger faux pas. “Were you?”
“No. I was not the farm boy.”
That left few options, none of them good.
“Are you Winnum Roke?” asked Davo. It seemed like one of the less bad options.
“No. Winnum Roke is dead.”
“How do you know?” he asked.
“Because I killed her.”
He had to admit it was a solid answer. He glanced over at Fanny. His face was contorted. He looked afraid. About time. Davo felt strangely calm, though.
“Now let me ask you a question. Do you wish to help your friends? They need someone to stop them making a terrible mistake.”
She was looking at him, not Fanny. He knew the expected answer, but hadn’t she just told them heroes worked best alone? What was he meant to do, other than act as hostage or traitor?
But he did want to be of help. He wanted to be more than the boy on the side, clapping politely for the great and the grand.
And then Davo was running. He was outside the library heading for the Pagoda. He couldn’t remember how he got here, but it didn’t matter. He had to help his friends.
He looked to either side, and then behind him. There was no sign of Fanny. He might already be inside. He ran faster. He didn’t feel scared anymore. He knew what he had to do. He knew he was destined to be the one who saved everyone. He was the only one who could.
Finally he didn’t feel like he was out of his depth, he felt like he was the hero in a story. It was a wonderful release. He ran into the Pagoda.
Now that he was on his own, Fanny was terribly scared. He couldn’t move. He was staring straight ahead, at the top of the Pagoda, and not even his neck could turn. “What did you do to Davo?”
“I sent him on a hero’s quest,” said the Librarian. There was noise going on behind him. Clicking and grinding.
“Why didn’t you send me?” It was probably a stupid question. If Davo had still been here, he would have closed his eyes and slowly shaken his head. But he wasn’t here.
“Men struggle with madness when they know too much,” said the Librarian.
“And women?” asked Fanny.
“Some women, too.”
Fanny could steady his nerves when he had someone he didn’t want to disappoint. It was much harder to do alone.
“You are more resilient than I’d thought,” she said. It almost sounded like a compliment.
“I have sisters,” said Fanny. “You have to learn to resist all forms of psychic attack.”
There was something that sounded like a laugh. He couldn’t see.
“Don’t worry, I have other plans for you,” she said. “Your friend might not be up to the task.”
Fanny felt the urge to defend Davo, but it would probably be better if he failed whatever task he’d been sent on.
“You were the demon, weren’t you? The one they thought they killed.”
“Mmm. I wanted to see what they would do if they thought they had won. The exhilaration of victory. It was much messier than the stories would have you believe, but also more entertaining.” She stepped forward so he could see her out of the corner of his eye.
“Your souls are so different from ours,” the Librarian continued. “A person is constantly changing. They have the capacity to grow, learn, wither, die. Their soul does the same. It is fascinating to watch. Every morning... you are someone new. Even the most insignificant of you have the potential to be something better. Or worse. We are what we are. You are never the same person twice.
“But you are fragile things. You wear down and wear out. It is both your strength and your weakness. You have so little time to achieve your ambitions, it makes you unstoppable. Yet, your desire to shed your skin makes it easy to tempt you into new clothes.”
The librarian leaned forward, clasping her hands behind her back. She looked like she was on the prow of a ship.
“By all rights it should be the girl who emerges, but we shall see. Nic Tutt has a way of surprising me.”
She stared into the inky night sky, and Fanny tried his hardest to extend his fingers deep into his pockets. There was bound to be something he could use to free himself, to save the others. But everything was out of reach.