Any collection of books is powerful in the knowledge it represents, from the humblest half-shelf of tattered dictionaries to the vast collections of universities. The Library of Hazar - the Library, period, to all in the know and in the need to know - wore its power outright, sprawling along one side of Hazar's great square and towering over both City Hall and the main temple complex. The booksellers who offered commemorative publications to tourists took care to keep their backs to the carvings on the great pillars. You needed to climb the seventy-seven steps to examine them closely, but even a couple of glances were enough for a week's worth of nightmares.
Beyond the pillars, white tiles marked the path to the iron doors that were the entrance to the library proper. On the grey tiles, occasional well-chewed bone fragments hinted that a visitor would be wise to stick to the white tiles.
The doors towered over most humans, but they opened easily enough. The handles were plain black iron. The only adornment was a life-sized male human body, twisting in naked agony, blindfolded and bound with chains, suspended above the handles. It seemed iron as well, but each detail was life-like down to the pores of the skin. When the doors opened, the body separated in two at the waist. The innards were similarly detailed.
The entrance hall was lined with a plush red carpet that by some sorcery showed no joint or wear. It stretched to the sides as far as the eye could see, the first concrete confirmation for visitors that the inside of the Library had little relationship to its outside.
Another forbidding flight of steps rose right opposite the entrance, and to the sides lay gleaming catalogue cabinets, each carved into the shape of a different improbable creature. The occasional potted plant snapped at the air and clawed at the carpet, leaving no mark at all.
Each new arrival first joined the cluster in the middle of the hall, where at any time of day a collection of the world's premiere scholarly minds huddled in hushed silence. Officially there were no regulations or penalties against speaking outside the reading rooms, but it was better to be safe than in pieces.
Instead of speaking, they tracked the movements of creatures at four desks, two to each side of the stairs. The polished stone of each desk surface - white, green, red or black marble - reflected the multitude of sharp limbs that lifted papers and quills in incomprehensible patterns. Occasionally, unpredictably, an eyestalk would lift, a mandible crook, and one of the four identical librarians would beckon towards the huddle.
There was a regulation against queue-jumping, one of the many carved on the pillars outside, but it was rarely broken because if anyone moved out of turn, the others waiting would seize hold of the interloper's arms and mouth. Other librarians often joined in the feeding, so any incident lengthened the wait by an hour or more.
Once a visitor's turn came, a librarian would fill in a card, four quills sketching at once, the resulting likeness uncanny. The visitor's name would be scribbled beneath. By custom, the visitor presented it written on a card of his own, for the librarian to transcribe, and the sharp claws that took it for the library's own files drew the bead of blood necessary to seal the spell.
"That's Amarelle with two Ls," the visitor said.
The librarian's eight upper limbs all froze.
"And an I there. At the end. Amarelle Parathis."
"Amarelle Parathis, you're insane."
"Or drunk," Brandwin added to her lover's comment.
Amarelle crossed her arms. "I'm entirely sober."
"Were you sober when you made that bet, boss?" Shraplin asked.
Amarelle cleared her throat. "I'm sober now. And it's-"
"It's insane," Sophara repeated. "It's the Library of Hazar, everyone knows you can't get books from the Library!"
"It's famous for it! And no, we can't just break the spells, they aren't spells! That place isn't in this world. The quickest way to die is to steal a book from the Library!"
"It's not against the regulations," Amarelle said quickly as Sophara paused for breath. "I'm not proposing to break into the Library. There's a whole three pillars all about how to borrow a book."
Jade pursed her scaly lips. "I knew an elf who tried to borrow a book," she said. "He was a master forger, as good as me. His papers were flawless. But when he showed the librarians the name he went by - the name no-one in all of Hazar knew was false - they fell upon him and tore him to shreds."
"So I won't do that." Amarelle shrugged. "I won't cheat, or forge, or smuggle things that are banned by the regulations. I'll do this one by the book."
Sophara tsked. "You think you're the first person to try? There was a Theradane wizard, about two centuries ago. He spent a year and a day in the library trying to borrow a book. When he emerged, he broke his staff and went off to be a mollusc farmer in Tzaimyra."
"You'll need a copy of the regulations first," Scavius said. He was the only one in the room smiling widely. "They're surrounded by those very interesting carvings. I heard reading more than one pillar a month melts your brain."
"Maybe your brain," Shraplin said. The automaton snapped his fingers. "The melting temperature of my brain is much higher."
Sophara looked to her lover for support, but Brandwin was already opening the box that held Shraplin's spare hands. They hadn't needed the scribe hands in a while.
If you knew what book you were looking for, all you needed was the card cabinet for the first letter of the author's family, clan or origin name. The Library of Hazar had all of them.
Searching by subject matter was - trickier.
Amarelle dodged the claws of a plant, then ran her fingers along the top of the next cabinet. On this side they weren't arranged by names, but by numbers, in a convoluted sequence you needed a mind like a corkscrew to decipher.
It was a good thing Sophara had experience using it.
She found the first number on her list, and the further-numbered drawer in that particular wyvern-shaped cabinet. There were eighty books under that category, some of the titles several cards long. Amarelle took out a small metal cubee and ran it along each card. Inside it, gears and cogs whirred.
She repeated the process two hundred metres further, with a catalogue cabinet that had six legs and eighteen tentacles. This one took longer, with over three hundred titles to examine. The third was a many-winged bird, and Amarelle had opinions about whoever designed some of the drawers under the wings to open upside down. This time there were only forty-six.
By the fifth, the cube turned warm in her hand. She took a blank card from her pocket and ran the cube along it. Tiny needles inscribed a title, author and a sequence of numbers.
Sophara was still frowning over the pile of notes that was the haul of Shraplin's first transcribing trip. "So what are you going to borrow? Klymaline's Prophecies? I think they have one of the four copies in existence."
"No-one's going to buy a book from the Library of Hazar from us, not if they want to live." Jade frowned. "And it can't be anything common either, or people won't believe we didn't just forge the Library's mark."
Amarelle grinned widely. "I have an idea."
"So I don't know the title. But the Library has every book, right? On any topic?"
Sophara was leaning forward despite herself. "That'll get you a month just going through the catalogues, even if we narrow down all relevant subject fields. You'll end up with a list of hundreds, unless you spend ages copying the titles and cross-referencing them. Or you would..." She snapped her fingers. "Darling?"
Brandwin widened her golden eyes, slightly cloudier due to the bottle she was sharing with Amarelle and Scavius. "I thought you didn't approve."
Sophara rolled her eyes. "It's idiotic and impossible, but if Amarelle wants to melt her brain, we can do our best to have fun with it. Do you still have that comparison cube you made for the Bank of Theradane job?"
The reading rooms were four flights up from the entrance, despite the fact that from the outside, the building looked barely tall enough for two floors above that level. There were seven primary rooms, each stretching in a different direction and rolling with mist of a different colour. The eighth was the only one whose size could be seen with the naked eye, barely larger than the main temple hall of the city, though it was still filled with a greenish-purple haze. It featured much smaller desks and rickety hard chairs instead of the clawed armchairs of the other rooms. On each tiny desk, request forms piled shoulder-high despite the ten-book daily limit for all visitors. Once Amarelle picked up one of them, the reason was clear - the request form for one book was twenty pages long.
There wasn't even any punishment for filling them in wrong. The enquiry desk staff, moving soundlessly despite their barbed and enamelled armour, simply pointed out the first error they encountered and sent the hapless researcher back to fill a clean copy properly. Some alchemists were rumoured to spend a week per book in the forms room alone.
Some alchemists didn't have Jadetongue Squirn's facility with bureaucracy. The tutorial had been painful, mainly due to Jade's tendency to jab Amarelle's side with her finger when she made a mistake, but now her form was filled in and filed exactly as per regulations.
The red-lit visor turned downwards, then swiveled up again to examine her.
"No rule against it," she said. "A woman can check out her own biography."
"Every book," Amarelle said. "Every book that is, or can be. It says that on the tin."
"On the building, boss."
"And you want it why?" Scavius grinned. "To find out the name of your one true love?"
"To find whoever is going to write it and make sure they get the good stuff in."
The book was slim enough, but the frontispiece engraving was good. And flattering. Amarelle's face hadn't been that smooth since the first encounter with the Death Spiders.
The librarian in the yellow reading room was tall and cadaverous, but he sported a regular number of arms and legs. The tiny chains that replaced his hair made no sound as he moved, and the blood that dripped from the hooks where the chains anchored in his skin never dripped on the desk.
"Carrel four hundred and twenty-seven," he said as he handed her the book.
"I won't need it." Amarelle bared her teeth. "I'd like to borrow it."
The quill broke in the librarian's blue-tinged hand. The ink gathered in perfect spheres, just above the ledger.
"I know I'll need the circulation desk," she added. "I'd like a floorplan, as per section 55 (32) C.83 of the Regulations. Please."
The librarian waved his hand. A section of wall next to his desk shimmered and turned into a shelf of brochures in all main languages of the continent. Amarelle picked the three she was best at.
She looked back at the librarian on her way out the door. He was prodding the ink-spheres around the pages of the ledger, running one into another and watching them splatter.
Jade tapped the next item in the list. “We don’t have a floorplan because they can’t be removed from the Library according to Regulations-“
“Section 55 (32) C.83(e),” Shraplin added helpfully.
“- and because the catalogue room plants eat anyone who tried to smuggle one out. So from this place we’re working on hearsay and stories. All we know for sure is that if you read the instructions, follow the path and don’t touch anything, you should be all right.”
“Should isn’t very encouraging.” Scavius’s broad grin belied his words.
The floorplan helpfully drew a silver line from your location to the point you tapped on it. The line appeared on the floor as well, guiding her through a maze of corridors. Which was very helpful, because everything else kept shifting.
Amarelle was good at ignoring things she didn’t want to look at or listen to. That meant all she had to worry about was the floor changing, boards to carpet to leaves to coals to thumbtacks. Her knee-high boots dealt with all of them, including the mud and the piranhas. She pulled her coat up when the lava started and walked faster.
The circulation desk was in a room of white mist. It was carved of white marble, with a different exquisite figure holding up each corner. The woman behind it looked carved of the same stone, with pale skin, white hair and bloodless lips. Only her eyes were dark, shaped like half-moons, and very sharp.
She examined the duplicate of Amarelle’s request form, making notes in very light grey pencil.
“Everything seems to be in order,” she said. “Even the horoscope and the letters of recommendation, well done. You have the book – oh, that is a good likeness. Your own?”
“You’ll have to find someone else to read it, of course. That does explain it. Though it’s most irregular, of course.”
“It’s according to regulations. So if you could sign my rental slip, I’ll be on my way.”
The pale woman closed the book with a sharp sound. “I’m afraid not.”
“This is a special collection item.”
Amarelle frowned. “Any book in the library can be borrowed. That’s what it says in the regulations.”
“Yes, but special collection items need a counter-signature.” The woman scribbled on a deceptively small piece of card. “Any head librarian will do.”
Walking a little more tentatively, Amarelle headed back into the corridor. At least the silver line was still there.
“Please don’t grind your teeth,” the woman called after her. “The books really don’t like the sound.”
By the last week, Amarelle was dreaming in Library regulations. She regularly woke up quoting paragraph and verse.
“You’re overdoing it,” Scavius said. “And you’re kicking in your sleep.”
She yawned and turned over, stealing the covers.
“I found a bard who had a song about the hounds,” he said. “I’ve got an idea how to distract them, if you run into one.”
Amarelle muttered an imprecation on his ancestry and putative progeny.
“Because I care about you, you stupid thief.”
Amarelle passed on the first fork in the silver path, because something about the banana peel in the doorway just felt wrong. She almost tried the second, but just through the door a dark-skinned girl with a satchel full of books informed her that this part of the library was closed down this week for reasons of revolution.
At least the carpet was back to normal.
She heard the hound before she saw it. The sound was less audible than tangible, a vibration that ran through the floor and straight into her spine.
The hound was half the size of its statue that guarded the steps outside, but that was still big enough to fill the hallway. Each bared fang was the length of Amarelle’s hand, and there were at least two hundred of them between the two heads. Its fur was black, with the occasional flame rolling over the surface. It tensed, lowering the growl even more.
According to the regulations, the Library’s hound was empowered to eat anyone who disrespected it in any way. The librarians often freed trapped visitors before they died of thirst.
She reached into her deepest pocket. She wasn’t sure about this part of the plan, but Scavius had been very sure.
She stepped back very slowly to the nearest intersection of corridors. The hound followed, its blazing eyes narrowing in a way that suggested it wondered how she’d taste.
Amarelle withdrew her hand, clutching the tiny ball of fur.
“Sorry, little one,” she muttered, then threw the kitten to the side.
The hound leapt. It was murderous grace in motion, muscles coiling and springing, the growl rising into a bay.
It stopped, nose an inch from the small grey kitten.
The kitten meeped.
Amarelle dropped on the floor. The hound’s leap took it clearly over her head, but the kitten bounced on her calf, back and head in pursuit.
It was time. The exact time, if Sophara’s horoscope were to work as an attachment to the lending application, anyway.
Brandwin hugged Amarelle first, checking all devices were in place. Sophara cuffed her ear, then cast a quick spell to get Amarelle’s hair to behave. Shraplin hugged her hard enough for her ribs to creak. Jade tucked three additional pencils in Amarelle’s cape.
Scavius had his arms crossed all the time, but he blew her a kiss just before she turned to face the Library door.
She started walking.
The carpet faded from red to a nondescript brown, the silver line barely visible. The walls lost their enameling and luster, then a few junctions further a striped wallpaper appeared. Instead of proper magical orbs overhead, glass spheres sputtered and flickered.
Amarelle wasn’t even surprised when the final door had a handwritten sign and a few flowers inked next to the scribble that had to be the head librarian’s name.
The room was small and lined with rickety bookshelves, with a mix of reference books and the kind of wooden miniatures that included names of resort towns on tiny planks. The desk was pine. A window opened onto a vista that wasn’t any land Amarelle knew of – not with a sky that blue, or green grass and strange fluffy creatures that wandered about with bells around their necks.
The librarian had grey hair in a bun and wrinkles, enlarged by her big round glasses. She sat behind the desk, her hands steepled together.
There was a chair in front of the desk. Amarelle sat in it very carefully.
“I need a counter-signature,” she said. “Here. I think.”
The librarian smiled. Her smile was kind, and warm, and terrifying.
“I think I would like one answer first.”
Amarelle kept her eyes on the request form. “It’s according to regulations-“
“Of course it is, my dear.”
Amarelle hazarded a look up. The librarian’s brown eyes were twinkling.
“You have been very determined to borrow this book. Very prepared, I might say. Why this book?”
They had practiced several versions of justifications, from the formal to the economic. Amarelle couldn’t find any of them. So she had to wing it.
“It’s not about the book,” she said. “It’s the borrowing. No-one’s ever successfully borrowed a book from the Library of Hazar before.”
“Not in your world, certainly.” The librarian smiled. “What will be the borrowing period? Shall we say… subject to extension?”
“I’ve read it,” the librarian said. “I’ve read every book in this library, Amarelle Parathis. Including all seven of your biographies. I doubt borrowing the book alone will satisfy your ego.”
Amarelle made a gurgling sound.
“Will you be wanting the kitten back?”
“Keep it,” Amarelle said quickly.
“The company will do Fluffy good.” The librarian turned over one of the dozen picture frames on the desk so that Amarelle could see the scene inside. In a labyrinth of icy arches, the hound was trying to squeeze itself into a cavern barely big enough for its head. The kitten was snuffing the hound’s tail, deftly avoiding the scrambling back legs.
The librarian picked up a metal tube with a pointy end. It allowed her to sign the lending form as well as any quill.
“I don’t recommend reading ahead your own biography,” she said. “It tends to spoil things. Reality, sometimes.”
Amarelle looked at the book on the desk, the gold letters embossed on a cover of black cloth.
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
She ran her fingers over the raised phrase as she picked it up. She thought she might even use it. The Duchess Unseen.