The rim of the Wordhoard Pit was not a place Deeba could say she expected to be when she got out of bed this morning. But maybe it should have been, because her days since defeating the Smog were not the same as her days before. "Going to the library" had become her go-to excuse to pop off to UnLondon, but this was the first time it had actually been true.
"We're meant to send someone after the book," said Hemi, peering uncertainly over the edge. Deeba still wasn't sure what he was so afraid of. "That's how this works."
Thanks to her unexpected arrival—not so very long ago, even if it felt it—Deeba already knew perfectly well how the library worked.
"I think that's more of a guideline," said Deeba. "Can't we just pop in and out ourselves? I don't even want the thing. I'm on here because they told me I needed to read it."
"Since when have you done what you're told, anyway?"
"Since I don't know when," said Deeba. Since she suddenly had more responsibility than she ever expected to. "Do you know how to work these harnesses?"
"They're harnesses," said Hemi. "How hard can they be?"
Deeba looked at the straps dubiously as she tried to work out which went where.
"Oh no, you don't," came a voice from below her. Deeba looked down, and tried not to get dizzy as she watched Margarita Staples scale the stacks towards her. "And you've got that backwards."
Deeba sheepishly turned it around. It didn't make much more sense in this direction than it had before.
"Send her after it," Hemi whispered to her. "It's her job."
"We're looking for a book," said Deeba.
"Well, I didn't think you were here to jump," said Margarita, grappling over the rim and hauling herself up. "Still not using the front desk, I see."
"We may have bypassed it," admitted Deeba.
"Oh, we," Hemi echoed her. "Right." But since he was the one who staged the distraction, he didn't have any business acting like it was all on her.
Margarita looked Hemi up and down. Deeba didn't know if it was his new reputation, or the practicality of an extreme librarian, but she didn't say one thing about Deeba travelling with a ghost. Even a half-ghost.
"The front desk isn't just there for decoration, you know. If you weren't who you are, I'd send you right back again."
But Deeba was who she was. If she hadn't been, she wouldn't have been needing some book in the first place.
"The Ambassador needs to catch up on her reading if she wants to negotiate with the moil tribes," said Hemi importantly. "She's just come from her office in London just to retrieve it."
"It's not really my office," said Deeba. "I don't have an office. I don't need an office. I just use the lift once in a while."
"But you are an ambassador," said Hemi, giving her a nudge.
"I'm just me," said Deeba. Ambassador was much too important a title, with a lot of duties she didn't even really understand. She was more of a...liaison. But Obaday and Mortar and even Jones all seemed to think it was very important that she learn proper negotiation skills all the same. "Yet next thing you know, they're going to want me to broker a ceasefire with the giraffes."
"Not unless you've got a good herd of sheep to put in their path so they can do some quality rending while you talk," said Margarita. "Well, let's have it, then."
"The name of the book, of course," said Margarita. "You're not going to find it yourselves."
"The thing is, I really haven't got all that much time," said Deeba. "I just thought we'd pop in and out and then I'd be off home with it without bothering anyone. If it's a popular book, it ought to be near the top, right?" Margarita just looked at her like librarians do, waiting for Deeba to come to the right conclusion on her own. Or maybe she just knew perfectly well that Deeba would use any excuse to return to the stacks, even if just for a little while. "Not near the top, then?"
Another moment of unflappable silence later and Deeba was fishing the name of the book out of her pocket. "Moil and the Man," she read, still a little baffled not by the meaning of the title but by how such a book came to exist.
"Ah, of course," she said. "That ought to give you a good leg up on the footstools and milk crates. Good mates to have, milk crates."
"That can't have seeped through from London, though," said Deeba. "They wouldn't have the foggiest what moil is."
"Of course not," said Hemi. "What, you think people in abcities can't write books too? That's prejudice."
"That's not what I meant!" said Deeba. "I just thought...."
"You're going to need to do a little more of that if you're going to be an ambassador."
"I'm not an ambassador," said Deeba. "I wouldn't even want to be an ambassador. I just want to do the right thing."
"Maybe ambassador is the right thing," said Hemi, but he sounded less teasing and more supportive this time. "I'll come up with a different title if that's your sticking point, all right? How about 'Emissary'?"
"That sounds even more showy," Deeba complained. It was even worse than UnChosen. No, actually, she liked UnChosen all right, but it wasn't the sort of thing you used every day. "So what's this book about, anyway? How to explain to your parents how you've got a very important job in an abcity? Because that'd be a useful one."
"Moil and the Man," said Margarita again, "Sixty-Three Ways to be Heard Over the High King of Hoovers. Anyone who's anyone's read it. Or heard of it. Or tasted it, at the very least."
"Sixty-three? Why sixty-three?"
"Because that's how many there are, I guess," said Hemi. "Are they supposed to leave some out or come up with more just to make a nice round number for the title?"
"I can't believe I have to learn to communicate effectively with a paperclip," said Deeba.
"Paperclips are actually very sensible," said Margarita. "A real organized lot. It's the leaflets you've got to watch out for. Won't let you get a word in edgewise."
"I don't think I'm going to have much occasion to talk to leaflets," said Deeba.
"You don't know that," said Hemi. "As an emissary, you might have to talk to loads of different tribes."
"I'm not an emissary!"
"We've got to go about a half-day down to this section," interrupted Margarita, "so if you're intent on coming along, you'd better suit up."
There really was no way Deeba was going to pass up a chance to explore the stacks, but that returned her to the problem of the harness and finishing sorting out where her legs and arms were supposed to go. Still, the problem of getting herself into a harness had to be easier than clinging to the shelves like the last time she'd been here. When she finally managed, she looked up to see not just Margarita waiting for her but Hemi as well, who'd figured it out much more quickly than she had.
"Do you even need a harness?" she shot at him.
He just frowned back at her. "Don't take it out on me just because you couldn't sort it out," he said.
"I hope you brought a lunch," said Margarita, and then she was off, rappelling down the stacks. "Stay together!"
Deeba was much less graceful when she tried to follow, stumbling across the stacks rather than lightly bouncing off them. Still, she'd managed climb her way in here, once, without anything but her hands, her feet and her willpower, so she could get the hang of these ropes, and she could do it just as well as Hemi could.
It turned out that a half a day was a lot of time to get used to something.
On their way over here to the library, Hemi'd lifted her something that looked like a baseball from one of the shops; she'd scowled at him at the time, but she was glad to be carrying something to eat now that they were getting deeper and deeper into the Wordhoard Pit. She still spotted other little groups on the way down, when she dared to look around, but mostly she kept her eyes on Margarita and Hemi and tried not to lose her way. The warning about ending up in other libraries stayed with her, and while she was an expert now in navigating unfamiliar abcities, she wasn't sure she wanted to do it like that.
"We've got to be getting close now," said Margarita after what felt like hours of descending and scuttling and descending some more. No, it didn't just feel like hours, it had to have been hours, and Deeba's wasn't going to admit it but her whole body was starting to get a little sore. She knew what went into navigating the Wordhoard Pit but she still hadn't expected it to be quite so much like sport.
She looked at some of the titles in front of her as they passed, but not one of them was quite familiar. The Adventures of Seamus Holden. Rosamund and Julian.
"You reckon we're at least a couple miles down now?" said Hemi, looking forward at the books, and certainly not down.
"Oh, near enough," said Margarita. "Not far at all."
Deeba felt a bit of apprehension at the idea of going miles further, but she felt a bit of excitement too, at a whole world of books below them. Even when a fluttering of wordcrows sounded in the abyss below, a little too close for comfort.
"Got it," said Margarita out of the blue, after a sideways scuttle, just when Deeba's stomach had begun to rumble. "Oh, this was an easy one. You really should've just left it with us. We could've broken in a junior with this." Whether they should have or not, though, an opportunity like this didn't come every day, and if pressed Deeba could always have said that she thought it would be an important thing for an ambassador to learn. "We might even be back before dark. Wouldn't that be something?"
This deep in the Wordhoard Pit it was hard to tell night from day, and Deeba had to admit she did feel a little longing to see the UnSun again, even if just for a few moments before she picked her way back to the lift and home.
"We're going to stop to eat, though, right?" said Hemi, so Deeba didn't have to. "I'm going to stop to eat, doesn't much matter what you lot decide to do."
"You haven't got any food," said Deeba, "so it matters what I decide to do."
"If one stops to eat, all stop to eat," said Margarita firmly, snagging the shelf with a hook at her hip and pulling out a nice red brick that smelled of fragrant cheese. The good kind, not the kind that reminded Deeba of her brother's socks. She pulled out her baseball and broke it in half, offering one of them to Hemi who took it silently and licked a dribble of juice off his faint wrist.
Deeba heard a fluttering again, a little more distant this time, but now that she was more firmly attached to the stacks she peered into the darkness anyway to see if she could make anything out. All she could see, though, were distant flickering lights and shelves and shelves of books.
The half a baseball fruit didn't last long at all, and before she knew it she was licking her fingers clean.
"Off we go, then," said Margarita. "Should be smooth sailing from here on up."
Two things were wrong with that. First of all, up was never quite as easy as down. And second of all, Deeba knew that you should never say something would be smooth sailing out loud. That just tempted fate.
"Did you hear something?" said Hemi. "I think I heard something."
"We've got a team of bookaneers who've been down there going on two weeks now," said Margarita. "You can hear them echo upwards every once in a while. Usually talking about string or gravity or some nonsense like that."
"I don't think that's an echo," said Deeba uncertainly, hearing a different sort of fluttering this time. A denser fluttering, accompanied by a shift and a slide. It was possible it was her imagination, that being surrounded on all sides by thousands of books and millions of pages made her hear them in her head. But she didn't think so.
Margarita paused and listened herself. "It won't be feral books," she insisted. "We're not in the right part of the stacks for that."
"Maybe something just fell behind," said Deeba, but then the sound came again, a little closer, a little louder, and it was definitely not her imagination this time.
Margarita cocked her head to the side, then her eyes widened. "Up," she said urgently. "Up! As quickly as you can!"
Deeba didn't ask why. Deeba just hauled herself up the stacks. Hemi might've asked—he certainly looked like he was going to say something, and Deeba would know—but the question was pre-empted when a long and winding creature sprung from the stacks ahead of them. It looked to be made almost entirely from stacked books of varying sizes, colours and ages, with thick magnifying glasses for eyes and an well-worn ink stamp for its stubby little tail.
"Bookworm!" said Margarita, her voice a little hushed and a little breathless. And if something worried an extreme librarian, Deeba knew to be terrified. A moment later she was blowing a shrill whistle that sounded all up and down the pit.
"I'm guessing that doesn't just mean it's a voracious reader," Deeba whispered.
"Shhhhh!" said Hemi.
"It's a good thing we're tethered," said Margarita without taking her eyes off the creatures. "It would knock us straight into the abyss given half a chance. Don't let it out of your sight, children, keep its attention as much as you can."
Deeba wanted to lose its attention, not keep it, but she did what she could anyway. As it turned its booky head to and fro, she even lifted a book of her own from the stacks to see if that would entice it. Living here in the Wordhoard Pit, she couldn't imagine it lived on anything else, except maybe wordcrows. Or librarians.
"Bookworms chew their way through the stacks," said Margarita, "getting bigger and bigger the more books they consume. This one's been operating for quite a while, that much I can see. The only way to defeat it is to get a team together and pull it apart again."
"Couldn't you just chuck it down the abyss?" said Hemi. "That'd work, if you ask me."
"But then you'd lose the books," said Margarita in a hushed and horrified voice. "Just keep its attention for a little longer. Help is on the way."
And keep its attention Deeba did, so much so that the bookworm, which had been staying mostly still and undulating as it divided its attention between Deeba, Hemi, Margarita and the books, finally jerked towards her and started coming down the stacks.
"Run!" said Hemi.
"Hold your ground!" said Margarita.
"We're coming!" said someone else, and as Deeba clumsily scuttled down and over, hoping she didn't go too far down and too far over, Deeba could see lights getting closer and close, a posse of extreme librarians come to tear the bookworm to bits.
She knew she couldn't move fast enough to escape it, her still clumsy on her lines and the creature native to the stacks, so she finally stopped and held the book in front of her and stood her ground. It would have to come at her pretty hard to dislodge her from her position, and the ropes ought to keep her from disappearing down the abyss. And if they didn't, well, running wasn't going to help either.
The bookworm was moments from crashing into her and her bait, just moments, when the first pair of hands reached it from the left flank. It still impacted her, but Deeba just rocked back and held on. Then another pair of hands arrived, then another, until the librarians formed a rending mob, strangely gentle in their viciousness as they tore the books apart from one another until all that was left were a pair of magnifying lenses that tumbled down into the abyss.
Deeba finally remembered to breathe again.
"I've been after that one for weeks," said an older gentleman with shockingly blue hair and a monocle. "Well done, young lady."
"I didn't do anything," said Deeba, and shakily handed the book she'd been holding over to him instead of mis-shelving it herself.
"All the same," he said, and clapped her on the shoulder and scuttled over to shelve her book.
"Deeba?" said Hemi, who'd finally managed to drop to her side. "Are you all right?"
"I think so," she said, and did a quick check to make sure all her body parts were still present. "Yes."
"Good," said Margarita, "because we've got a long climb ahead yet. That was a good tactic, keeping it on the surface of the stacks like that. Usually they duck right back inside when they feel threatened."
Tactic. Right. Maybe Deeba should get a book on that, too.
"Is everyone else all right?" she said. "Did all the books make it?"
"One of them is going up for repair," said Margarita, "but there were no other casualties. Ready to go?"
Deeba wasn't sure ready was the word she'd use to describe it, but going was certainly a better option than staying, so with Hemi at her side they started to climb again.
When they finally hauled themselves up on top of the tower, Deeba felt like her whole body was jelly. She didn't let herself go, though, until she'd gotten out of her gear and her book was in her hands, stamped by Margarita and due back to the library at an indefinite future date.
"Now's the hard part, though," said Deeba.
"Now's the hard part?" said Hemi. "We just fought off a bookworm in the stacks and now's the hard part?"
"Now," said Deeba, staring at the stark cover of the volume, "I've got to read it."
Though reading itself, of course, wasn't daunting her. It was reading the book and applying the knowledge to all of UnLondon. Deeba wouldn't call herself fearless, but she'd definitely seen a lot in the past few months. She'd faced a lot in the past few months, and stood up against maybe the most terrifying things she ever would. But revolution seemed pretty easy sometimes, compared to all the work that came after.