Sample Chapter - What May Rise from the Ashes
Ofronia Mills knew the place of a book by its scent. Dusty sandalwood marked it as part of a noble's donation in the section for rare books on the library's first floor, towards the back, away from the windows. Leathery musk belonged to the old scientific tomes, outdated in some ways and therefore relegated to a spot in the second basement. Pine meant it belonged on the novelty shelves in the big reading room next to the entrance. Ofronia Mills had breathed library air all her life.
The library was the only grand thing in her life besides her first name. And unlike the name, the library made her feel at home. Sure, when she was young, she had thought the name meant she was destined for greatness if only she reached for it. After all, she had even been invited to the royal palace when she was only eight, because she was named after the King's mother, Queen Dowager Ofronia. Only when she got there, she had realized two things: There were hundreds of girls named Ofronia, just like her, none of them especially grand-looking and none of them were allowed past the gardens into the palace proper. They had each been given a thin excuse for a diary and a cheap pen and, after being told to live up to their name by following the rules and becoming respectable members of society, they had been dismissed.
All in all, Ofronia had left the palace feeling rather like an ill-bred dog who had been paraded for its single funny, but slightly embarrassing trick. For a while after, she had fantasized about becoming a pirate, just to spite these palace-dwellers. But the years had trickled by and Ofronia never got around to it. She had entered the library as a young girl lured by adventure stories. She had stayed for an apprenticeship as a librarian when they offered it to her, despite her plans to study and see the world. Now, nearing the age of eighty, she realized that she had never left. Perhaps she had waited too long. The library was all she knew. Every shelf, every dusty corner familiar. Though sometimes, lately, she didn't recognize it anymore.
Recently, for one, people had taken to calling it the Royal Library, but that was false and even ten years ago, the librarians would have scoffed at the thought. No royal had set foot inside the building as long as Ofronia could remember. The crown didn't finance the library, apart from donating some books every couple of years. The library was paid for by taxes, it belonged to the people, and though quite a few nobles and merchants had donated to it over the centuries, they had done so out of love for books because the library had always refused gifts that came with strings attached. Its wings and floors bore the names of landmarks and regions of Sinovie, names like Taram High Mountain and Great River Lunx. They evoked landscapes distant and familiar, not long-dead rich men.
The second change had arrived in the shape of grand-director Lorn van Shipplestorm, a man every bit as atrocious as his name would suggest. A prior Dean of the Royal Academy, he had first canceled all current apprenticeships for librarians and then started to terminate the employment of Ofronia's colleagues, until only she and a handful of other staff remained. Ofronia suspected he kept her because she knew even the most obscure corners of the library, and, after asking for a raise once in her career, some fifty years ago, she had never gotten around to it again.
Van Shipplestorm saw books as a higher calling and only accepted graduates from the academies as his new employees. While Ofronia was relegated to tending the third basement (untranslated poetry, outdated law texts, esoterica and superstitions) these honorable scholars resided in the daylight floors, airily offering aid and suggestions to visitors.
Few visitors ever found their way to the third basement, but this suited Ofronia just fine because some of the visitors, too, had changed. Ofronia had grown up regarding books as something sacred, something almost untouchable and divine. They could store knowledge and thoughts for generations, safekeeping the foundations of society. But they could also inspire new thoughts, connect ancient knowledge with modern inventions. And they offered a way of escape, a shelter of the mind to those in need. And everyone was in need sometimes.
Yet, these new visitors held books in a different
regard, entirely. Several times in the last year, young scholars had
entered the basement's law section, and, after rummaging around and
complaining about dust, they had spilled various drinks on irreplaceable
tomes. Always, they claimed, by accident. Some even apologized
profusely, but Ofronia could tell they were more upset about the loss of
their drinks than the damage to the books
She had banned drinks from the third basement, taking great care in drawing the announcement and placing it well in sight of the stairs. The accidents, however, kept happening, only now the offenders claimed to not have noticed the sign.
Worse, lately, groups of young women appeared on the weekends and headed, giggling, into the esoterica section. At first, Ofronia was able to chase them off by pretending to dust the shelves. Now, however, not even that helped and all she earned were angry stares as she disturbed their impromptu seances. This worried Ofronia because one of them might eventually discover the way to the fourth basement. Van Shipplestorm had not assigned a librarian to that floor, and Ofronia doubted he knew it existed. It certainly wasn't on any of the official maps. The fourth basement housed books on magic, and not even Ofronia dared to enter it.
She only knew about it because she had completed the special three-year apprenticeship on rare books, and it had been part of the tour the then-grand-director had given her on her graduation. Ofronia had never attempted the additional seven-year apprenticeship in magical books, even when it was offered.
Having entered the fourth basement once,
she had found it frightening. Ever since, she had stayed as far away as
she could. But times were changing and Ofronia feared she wouldn't be
able to guard the entrance forever. At some point, the fourth basement
would be rediscovered. The thought of Van Shipplestorm touching those
shimmering hidebound books made her nauseous, and so, Ofronia tried
never to think of the fourth basement and avoided Van Shipplestorm as
best she could.
One day, however, Ofronia ran out of other options. It was the day Cecilia, the librarian at the front desk, refused entry to two young boys, both avid readers. Ofronia had noticed them in the reading rooms before, they had been quiet and well-behaved.
"I'm sorry," said the clerk to them, without sounding sorry at all. "To enter, you must bring a note of recommendation from your master of letters, who will vouch for your good behavior. Unless, of course, you can present a seal of nobility instead?"
The boys paled and shook their heads.
"We— we don't have a master of letters," they stammered. "But we come here all the time, and we never make trouble, so can't you—?"
"I'm afraid I can't otherwise assist you. This is a house for learned people, and those studying to become such, in earnest." The clerk waved them off. "Good day, children."
"Now hold on," said Ofronia, before she could stop herself. The clerk lowered her nose and stared at Ofronia over the rim of her glasses.
"The library has never asked for notes
before. It's open to all people, as long as they behave in an
appropriate manner," Ofronia said, flabbergasted at the scene she had
witnessed. She had just come in for her shift, determined to stay out of
Van Shipplestorm's way, but how could she, if he was keeping people out
of the library now?
"Order from the top," said the clerk. "Like I was telling these children, nothing I can do about it."
"You didn't have to listen," muttered Ofronia, more to herself, but the boys heard and snickered. The clerk gave them an irritated glance. Ofronia cleared her throat.
"What if I wrote them a note?", she asked. "Surely that should be as good as one from a master of letters?"
"You're not even academy-accredited," said the clerk. "It won't do any good."
"I care for this library," said Ofronia. "I've looked after it since before you were born. Surely my word can be trusted? I will vouch for their good behavior."
"But you work in the third basement, Miss Mills," the clerk stated, exasperated. "How could you judge their behavior? Have they been perusing the old law texts?"
Ofronia cleared her throat. She didn't like to lie, but she had gone out on a limb for the boys already, too late to stop now.
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