Sarah stepped into her library and drew a deep breath. The smell of books surrounded her--and, she admitted wryly, the smell of dust. That was to be expected after thirty years of neglect. Still, a cursory examination of the shelves suggested that her preservation spells had held and that her books had not degraded, so that was a benefit. It was hard to see more than that, since the library was dimly lit at best just now.
She stood in the center of the room and looked around. Outside, Kaim was attacking the overly enthusiastic mountain plants that had taken over the yard, and she could hear the thunking noise of the axe as he took on the trees that were crowding out the light. She could hear shouts and laughter as the children chased each other through the ruin of her gardens. Once, this house had boasted the best gardens in Tosca, with beds of herbs and vegetables neatly arranged so their precise rows and shades of green would complement banks of flowers in every color. Sarah had dug every bed herself, and planted everything, one spring while Kaim was off leading a mercenary unit. When she had been pregnant with Lirum, she had cared for the garden herself until she couldn't anymore, and then Kaim had followed her exacting directions to keep her flowers in order.
There, in the eastern corner, Lirum had had a small bed of her own. Sarah remembered small hands under hers, and how Lirum had roamed through the garden picking the plants that would be hers. The seedlings had barely taken root when Gongora stole her daughter from her. Sarah was sure that nothing remained of the haphazardly arranged marigolds, ageratum, and petunias, not even descendants from seed, but she would check. Perhaps Cooke and Mack would enjoy learning to garden. Kaim had told her they had hunted for flowers for Lirum in Numara.
Sarah glanced toward the window, but there was no sign that Kaim's war against vegetation was approaching victory for her window. She conjured a small ball of flame at shoulder height, and turned toward the bookshelves on the southern wall.
Unlike the rest of the room, stacked thick with volumes of history and literature from around the world that she had patiently analyzed in search of information about why this world should have been bleeding over into her native one, the southern wall contained personal items. There were shelves of her journals and poetry, and she brushed her fingertips gently over their worn leather spines, sending a small cloud of dust flying up. She crinkled her nose when it collided with her fire-light, releasing the distinct scent of burnt dust.
The library could really use a good cleaning before she started to do anything with the books here, but she only needed one today. She crouched down to access the lower shelves, at the height a five-year-old girl could have reached. Half of the bottom shelf was filled with her own writings, but the other half had books with brightly colored spines and simple titles. Sarah picked the one farthest to the left, which was covered in fingerprints and worn from time and re-reading.
Another puff of dust stung her eyes as she pulled the book off the shelf, and a dust bunny half the size of her palm tumbled around her feet. Sarah ignored both, and opened the books.
Her preservation spells had helped the book weather the past thirty years extraordinarily well. The pictures were still as vibrant as the day she had received them from Ming, a loving gift from a loving friend. Sarah hadn't meant to ask for them; she had only said that she was putting together a storybook for Lirum, and Ming had asked what stories she planned to use. Three weeks later, a courier who had taken a swift ship from the island nation showed up on Sarah's doorstep, carrying a painstakingly wrapped package of hand-painted pictures fit to grace a princess's storybook. Ming's note had said simply that she hoped Lirum liked the pictures, and she looked forward to reading the stories with her.
She'd never had the chance.
Sarah stroked a fingertip over the page that had fallen open. The picture was of a tall, strongly built brunette facing off with a massive monster, a sword in her right hand and a fire spell glowing around her left. The spine was creased and cracked here; this had been Lirum's favourite story. Sarah remembered when she had first encountered this story; it was one of the first she had collected when she began to gather stories, a thousand years ago. The original version of the story--or at least, the story as she had first heard it--was about a young girl living in a village not unlike Tosca, who came home one day to find her family held prisoner in a spell. She had already been in training as a village guard, and so she armed herself and set out for the Black Cave, where monsters were known to dwell. She fought her way through perilous adventures and had help along the way from minor characters, and at last she triumphed over the monster and freed her family.
The story had changed over the years; the version now current starred a young boy, and the one five hundred years ago had been about a brother and sister. Sarah had a Numaran version recorded in one of her books where the girl had sacrificed her own life to save her family; a Khentish variation, seeking to dissuade young women from leaving home with foolish ideas about adventure, had the girl being permanently injured in her fight against the monster and requiring rescue by a prince who then pitied the maiden and married her.
Sarah had never cared for the Khentish version.
She turned the pages, tracing her fingertips over the large-printed words and hearing the thin echo of Lirum's voice, painstakingly reading along with her. A massive two-page image of swans guarding a sleeping boy prefaced a story about a young prince whose twelve older sisters had been transformed into swans, and how he suffered torments weaving them shirts of nettles to cure them, keeping silent the entire time. (She had a Uhran variation in which the prince, careless upon drawing so near his goal, cried out in the throes of passion with his bride and so slew his sisters all in one fell swoop; she had not considered it appropriate for her five-year-old.)
Sarah smiled at seeing so many familiar faces. A story about a cat in boots who won much through cleverness was accompanied by illustrations in which the shod feline was the spitting image of a cat they'd owned when Lirum had been born. Sarah had no idea what had happened to it after Gongora had stolen her daughter; she hoped it had lived a fruitful life guarding the fields from mice.
Sarah paged through the final story. A young boy whose good behaviour had earned him magic horses rode up a glass hill. He did this to prove his worth to a princess who sat atop it with golden apples in her lap. Sarah smiled at the illustration of a man in golden armour atop a truly fine horse. At last she shut the book and got up slowly, her legs stiff from kneeling on the hard tile floor. At the same time, Cooke and Mack burst into the library, grubby with their afternoon's adventure in the garden.
"Sarah, Sarah! We found a nest of bunnies!" Cooke said.
"Did you leave them where they were?" Sarah asked sternly. They had already had two conversations about the proper way to treat baby wild animals.
"Yes," Mack said. He craned his head to see the book she held cradled in her arms. "What's that?"
"It was your mother's storybook, when she was younger than you," Sarah said. "After we've all had baths, would you like to read it?"
Cooke looked like she was thinking about being too old for indulgences like stories, but Mack practically bounced in place. "Yeah!" he said.
"I guess," Cooke said.
Sarah smiled. She hoped her grandchildren would love the book as much as their mother had.