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Game of Stacks

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Podrick Payne peered into the blackness and then climbed back up the stairs. He marched back to the reference desk. “The lights are off and it’s pretty dark down there.”

A striking redhead appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She sat down next to the librarian who had been helping him. “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

“Is that poetry?” Pod asked.

The redhead in the filmy red dress was about to reply when the older reference librarian cut her off and smiled tightly at Pod. “There is a motion sensor. The lights will turn on as soon as you walk into the stacks.”

“Stacks?”

“The area where the books are,” she translated.

Podrick glanced dubiously at the pieces of paper in his hands, but thanked her again. The old lady had been pretty helpful and printed out a couple of things for his paper. He spared a glance at the redhead, who was probably what his roommate would have called a MILF. It was probably better she hadn’t been on duty when he’d gone to ask for help; he would have been so distracted. He went down the stairs and stepped boldly into the shadows and was rewarded by the flickering of fluorescent bulbs. He didn’t like this part of the library. It wasn’t like the ones from back home. They had normal shelves—these were different.

When Pod had started at Crownlands, he had dutifully gone on a tour of the library. His roommate at the time had been horrified. Only the geeks did that. Pod had nodded and assured his beer-drinking, girl-chasing roommate that he was not a geek. This had been the first of several indications that Pod needed to find a better roommate.

Uncool as it might have been, he had found the tour helpful. The librarian had called these “compact shelves,” he remembered. They used them so they took up less space. She demonstrated their use to the tour group. You just pressed a couple of buttons on each side, the shelves would part, and you could go down them just like in a regular library to get your books.

It was all perfectly safe, she assured them, when a student wanted to know what would happen if you were in the row being compressed. There were sensors apparently that could detect if someone was there and the shelves would just stop. Pod thought the whole concept was sensible, but he kind of missed the ordinary shelves. Actually, he missed his old library.

As he moved down and across the floor, sections of lighting flickered on. Ignore the creepiness, he told himself. Just get the books and go back up where it’s bustling and warm and be done with it. “There is nothing to be afraid of.” Had he said that aloud? Not that it mattered. There was no one down here but him. “Nope, there’s no one to care if I talk too loudly,” he said with a smile.

Another section of lighting flicked on. He turned down a row and then moved to the next part of the basement.

It was then that he saw the arm sticking out from between two sections of compact shelving.

 * * *

Eddard Stark was not having a very good day. Actually when it came down to it, he was not having a very good year.

It had started out well enough. He was finishing out his term as chair of the history department, when he got a call from Robert Baratheon.

Once upon a time, he and Robert had been callow undergraduates, ostensibly studying history at Crownlands University. Truth be told, they had been more interested in drinking and women, or in Robert’s case, women and drinking. Then one semester they had rented a garage apartment from Jon Arryn. He was old even then, a seemingly cranky collection development librarian, but an odd friendship had sprung up amongst them. After a semester or two, they had come to care for him the way they would a father. He had taken them hunting, given them guidance, gotten to tame their excesses, and steered them into more productive directions. Those had been good years.

Ned and Robert parted ways for graduate school, but kept in touch. Robert took a position at a college in the Westerlands and then to Ned’s astonishment had begun to climb the administrative ranks. He would have sworn that Robert was the last man to play that particular game. Give Robert a class of 400 bored undergraduates and the man would have them eating out of his hand in no time. But when it came to department politics, Robert was bored to tears.  So why was Robert opting for administrative assignments?

When he’d met Robert’s wife for the first time, that mystery was solved. Cersei Baratheon née Lannister was clearly ambitious for her husband and she had her father’s connections to pave the way. Robert served in increasingly high-ranking positions around Westeros before returning to Crownlands as President.

Ned stuck to research and teaching. He assembled a respectable list of publications and presentations. He wasn’t interested in the petty politicking that went with an administrative career.

By the time Cat had given birth to Rickon, they were looking down the barrel of university tuition for five children. The posting for Crownlands had come just in time. He was head-hunted. There was the promise of chair of the department, spousal hire for Catelyn, a sizeable raise in salary, and free tuition should the Stark kids want to attend Crownlands University. It was the kind of offer you just couldn’t refuse. Catelyn was not thrilled about it, but she had finally come round. They had been happy for a time.

Until the day that Robert’s plea came.

“I need you to take over as library director, Ned.”

Ned was flummoxed. “You may have missed this, but I don’t have a MLS.”

Robert waved that away as a technicality. “We’ve gone through three directors in the past five years. Chelsted—” Robert swigged down some whiskey. “—he seemed promising enough, but he left a right mess.”

“He had a heart attack,” Ned said puzzled.

Robert snorted. “The security guard found him dead in the reading room, with two hysterical whores. He was naked and tied on top of one of the library tables.”

“Seven hells.”

“We paid a bloody fortune to keep it quiet.” Robert poured them both more whiskey. “Then Rossart—”

Now it was Ned who drank deeply. Being crushed to death by a collapsing card catalog was not a fate he would wish on anyone.

“And now Jon Arryn.” Robert finished off his whiskey.

Ned shuddered.

“We don’t have time to wait out a national search. Stannis wants the job, but you know as well as I do what a disaster that would be. There are a few other optimists on the staff, but I need someone in there now. I need someone I can trust.”

“I’m not a librarian. I love libraries. I’ve used them my whole life, but I wouldn’t have the first idea how to run one. I don’t have the knowledge.”

“Look, the degree is a short one; Stannis was done with his in a year, but I don’t think anyone would quibble if you took two to finish it. The University of Winterfell has an accredited program”

“Winterfell is a good three hour drive. Winter is coming. When it hits, it’s going to be more like six or seven hours.”

“They have an online program. You only have to go up there a few times a semester. I have the authority to appoint you. You’ll get the degree while you’re on the job and you’ll whip that place into shape.”

“Robert, it’s not something I really want to—”

 “—Ned, I need you.”

Well, now he was halfway through the degree and he was miserable.   Oh, the course work was interesting. He had used libraries his whole life, but he had never given very much thought to how the books got on the shelves, the Byzantine mysteries behind serials, or how the materials were cataloged, or how a good reference librarian could find the proverbial needle in the haystack. No, it was the job itself.

Ned Stark had inherited a mess. The budget was a nightmare. The staff offices were falling apart. User satisfaction was at an all-time low. Half the staff resented his appointment. The other half was mostly, well, nuts.

Faculty dissension across the college had been simmering for some time, but Ned was astonished to learn that the perception among upper administration and more importantly, from the board of trustees was that it was fomenting from the library faculty. Tywin Lannister, Robert’s father-in-law, the library’s biggest donor had a real bug up his arse about that.

That was probably why he was now stuck with the man’s snarky and inexperienced son.

 * * *

Tyrion stared at his father in horror.

Tywin Lannister didn’t bother to look up from the report he was reading. “You wanted a position. Well, now you have one and it’s a better one than you deserve.”

“Father, it doesn’t work like this. There is a process for academic appointments. They’re going to think I got the job because I’m your son.”

“I’m sure they will and frankly, you did. They wanted someone else.”

Tyrion didn’t need his father to tell him that. “They’re going to resent me.” They were going to loathe him. This position was, in the library world and with this job market at least, a pretty nice one:  reasonable required qualifications; interesting but manageable job duties; decent starting salary; and good benefits. It was tenure track, but if their criteria document was anything to go by, the requirements wouldn’t be too onerous. And it was one of the more prestigious liberal arts college libraries in Westeros.  It was also a collection development job which was what he’d been looking for all along.

Tyrion was certain that the search committee had waded through fifty or more applications. He had slaved over his cover letter and vita. He had been confident of the phone interview, until he had it. By the time the phone interview was over, the search committee’s enthusiasm seemed to have cooled.  It was probably his sense of humor, he thought, too dark, too cynical, and maybe a little too flip.  When he got the email inviting him for an in-person interview, he had been shocked. Then he had grown hopeful, until he went through the two day ordeal.  Everyone had been very . . . polite . . . but Tyrion left thinking it had just been a pro forma thing. Some esoteric academic practices had forced them to bring him in for an interview.

He was already onto his next application when the icy call from Dr. Stark had come in offering him the position.

Well, now he knew why.

“That’s not my concern, nor should it be yours.”

“You can’t just make them hire me.”

"I can and I have.”  His father’s attention was on him now. “I simply had a conversation with Robert who had a conversation with his friend, the Director.  He understands that the future of the library depends on my good will. He was willing to override the search committee’s recommendation in favor of you. It’s done.”

Tyrion thought he was going to be sick. “Well, I won’t take the job. This is my career, Father. Not yours and if you—”

“I am not without influence in academia, Tyrion. Oh, I’m sure you could find a position doing . . . something . . . somewhere, but all it would take is a few words in a few ears.”

And he would be fucked seven ways from Sunday, Tyrion thought.  His father would make sure of that.

To hammer the point home, his father added, “and you’ll be doing whatever that is, wherever that is without my money.”

Tyrion absorbed the threat in shock. Whatever else his father was, he had always been liberal with his money. Tywin Lannister didn’t care what his children spent his money on and he had never cut any of them off before.

“So, you will sign. You may negotiate the contract if you feel it insufficient,” Tywin allowed generously. “But you are going to take the position and you are going to keep an eye on those leftist idiots. They’ve been making waves about how I run this university and I won’t stand for it.”

Technically speaking his father didn’t run the university.  A president, a provost, and assorted other academic bureaucrats were in charge. But Tywin Lannister had donated millions; the president was his son-in-law, and more importantly, Tywin Lannister was on the Board of Trustees. He wielded considerable influence.

“Don’t let me keep you. I know Dr. Stark is eagerly awaiting your call.”

 * * *

“Please sit down, Melisandre.”

The religious studies bibliographer gracefully took the chair he offered her.

Ned knew most men would probably consider Melisandre gorgeous, but he was always slightly disturbed out by her. It wasn’t the dyed red hair. “Out of a box,” Cat had said to him after meeting her. She wore all red, all of the time. Then there were what passed for her clothes or rather the fact that she didn’t seem to bother with any undergarments. But mostly it was her religious fervor. This is what had prompted this conversation. “We’ve had some complaints,” he began.

“Oh?” She crossed her legs.

Ned was not going to have the dress code conversation with her just now. “Several student patrons have reported that you’ve been trying to proselytize them to,” he glanced at his notes, “worship the ‘lord of light.’ I’d like to hear what you have to say about this.”

“The Lord of Light is the one true god,” she declared.

“Well, that may be, but if these allegations are true, your behavior is inappropriate. The one report says the student came to the desk asking for help with a political science paper and said all he could get out of you was information on ‘R'hllor.’ He said that despite asking you repeatedly for material on the use of media in politics, you would not help him. Then he said that when he tried to leave you warned him that ‘the night is dark and full of terrors.’”

“Yes.”

Ned blinked. “So you’re not denying this?”

“No, of course not. R’hllor is the one true god. If you would just open your heart to him—”

Ned stopped her right there. “You can believe in whatever god or gods you want, Melisandre.” The staff was diverse in their beliefs. Some worshipped the Seven. Others believed in the old gods. He had one librarian who worshipped the Drowned God.

“There is only one true god.”

“We receive government funding,” Ned continued as if she had not spoken. “The rules are very clear. You cannot try and convert patrons or staff while you’re on the college’s time. You can do whatever you want on your own time. Olenna said she’s spoken to you about this before.”

She didn’t like that one bit. “A day will come when the Lord of Light—“

Ned resisted the urge to hit his head against his desk. “I don’t know if Rossart or Chelsted or Jon Arryn put up with this, but I can’t tolerate it.”

“Azor Ahai has been reborn.”

Seven bloody hells, he thought. Ned looked at his watch. “What time do you have?”

Melisandre fished out a watch on a chain from her ample cleavage. “It’s 9:30.”

“You’re on our time. You’re working. No religion. No proselytization. No pamphlets. No predictions of doom and gloom. No prophecies. I’m going to type up a warning and it’s going in your file. Is that clear?”

She glared at him, but finally nodded, and then swept out of the room.

Well, that’s one crisis dealt with, he thought, one crisis on a very long list. The Third Semester was in full swing already and the First Semester would start soon. That meant one thing; the students were coming.

 * * *

The Aegon Targaryen Memorial Library was at the heart of the Crownlands University campus. It was how most prospective students and their parents thought a proper library should look. Ivy-covered walls, stone pillars, grand steps, and carved dragons were some of the architectural features gracing the exterior. Inside it was marble floors, stained glass, wood-paneling, a fantastic collection, and of course, rows and rows of computers. No self-respecting academic library was without as much technology as it could stand these days.

The working part of the library was something else entirely. Tyrion did his best to hide the abject horror he was feeling as the student worker led him through the warren of staff offices. Everything was grim, dim, and depressing. Well, he hadn’t gone into librarianship for the money, Tyrion told himself.  Nobody did.

“Here we are,” the student told him brightly. She was a tall, pretty girl with blue eyes and long red hair. He thought she was maybe about nineteen or twenty. “I’m Sansa, by the way. I work out at Circ.”

“It’s good to meet you, Sansa.” He could tell he was early because half the lights were off.

She stopped in front of a wooden door. “This is your office. I’m supposed to give you these keys.  There’s coffee around here somewhere. I think.” Sansa waved her hands vaguely around the work area. “Dad said he had a meeting but he’ll be in later to get you started.”

“Dad?’”

Sansa nodded. “Didn’t I say? My dad is the director. I’m Sansa Stark. I should get back to the desk. I still have to process all the holds. The librarians will be in soon if you need anything.” She smiled and then wended her way back out of the staff space.

At least his wouldn’t be the only case of nepotism, Tyrion thought. Although, as he reflected further, it occurred to him that student workers were usually considered to be a different type of animal entirely. Nobody blinked an eye if some professor’s kid was shelving books.

Tyrion unlocked his office door. He was glad no one was around to see his horror.

He had not expected much, but this was . . . ?  He wasn’t sure what the right adjective was to describe the space. There was something that looked like, once, very long ago, it had been a chair. Even then, it must have been the most unassuming of chairs, meant surely to last a few years only, not a decade and a half. There was a computer desk, evidently being held together with electrical tape. The table was, all right, actually, the table was halfway decent. Tyrion thought it was possibly even made out of wood. He put his briefcase on it and was rewarded by seeing the table wobble somewhat alarmingly. Tyrion pulled the briefcase off and again the table trembled.

There were some MDF bookshelves that looked like they had been through a fire. There was also a dented metal three drawer filing cabinet; upon closer inspection each of the drawers was jammed shut.

The walls of the windowless room had been repainted recently a nondescript shade of beige and it looked like the linoleum floor had recently been washed and waxed.  That was about all that could be said for the room.

Tyrion glanced at his watch and waited and waited and then he waited some more.

“Oh, hey.” A man stuck his head in the doorway. “You must be the new guy.”

“That’s me.”

The man pulled his head back and a second or two later pushed a book cart laden with a computer monitor, a tower, and a lot of cables into the room. “I’m Bronn. I do Systems around here.”

Tyrion got off the thing that had once been a chair and shook Bronn’s hand.

“I’ve got your computer. Is it all right if I set it up now?” Not waiting for an answer he started pulling cables out. “Wow, they really stripped this place bare when the last one left.”

“So this wasn’t a special welcome for me then?” Tyrion muttered.

Bronn flashed him a grin. “Is this your first professional librarian job?”

“Yes.”

“There’s almost never a lot of money for staff office furnishings,” Bronn explained as he got down on the floor and started to hook up the tower. “So every time somebody quits or retires, most of the staff descend on the old office like a plague of locusts and pick the place clean.”

“Good to know they don’t hate me.”

Bronn laughed. “They might do, but every new librarian since I’ve been here starts out in a room like this.”

“So what happened to my predecessor?” Did she move on or retire?”

“He.” Bronn corrected. “He died on the job as a matter of fact.”

“Oh.” Well, it wasn’t unheard of. A lot of academic librarians worked till they dropped. “That’s too bad. Heart attack?” Tyrion didn’t really care, but he was going to need all the friends he could get. Polite interest was as good a way as any to start that process. “Wait, did he die here in this room?”

“Do you like where the desk is? It’ll be a pain to move it later.”

Tyrion considered. “No, this is good.” He got out of the way.

“No, Jon Arryn died downstairs.”

Tyrion was relieved. Not that he believed in ghosts; although by all rights he should have, growing up as he had in the gothic horror that was Casterly Rock. Still, the office was dismal enough without the distaste of some old man dying at a MDF desk held together with electrical tape. “Downstairs . . . I thought that just held the compact shelving.” He had been impressed by its quality.

“Yeah, they found him in the basement stacks. Something went wonky with the sensors and he was crushed between the shelves. The authorities said it was a freak accident.”

Tyrion shuddered. And here he had thought it was state-of-the-art stuff. He had a lot to learn. “Have you been working here long?”

“About five years,” Bronn stood up. “I could make more money in industry, but I like the work here. You know,” he said thoughtfully looking at the object formerly known as “chair,” “I could rustle you up something that won’t break the next time you sit in it.”

Tyrion thought that was a grand idea. “I’ll owe you.”

Bronn flashed a grin, “Yes, you will.” He powered up the pc. “For the rest of it, you want to get on Varys’ good side.”

Varys. Tyrion thought quickly. The name was familiar. He thought he had met him during the in-person interview. “Bald man, heavy set?”

"That’s him,” Bronn agreed. He got Tyrion set up with a password for the computer and took him through the phone system. “He knows where all the bodies are buried, but more importantly, he knows where they keep the good office supplies.”