Each footstep wailed out an eerie reverberating song through the empty room, like someone running their finger around the rim of a wineglass. The large and airy halls were darkened now, save for the distant glimmer of moonlight seeping through the clouded walls, and the quiet throb of orb-light fracturing against every reflective surface, as the glowing spheres blushed at them from every side. Each haltering step chimed a different note until their quiet, winding path made a melody of sorts, each of Ako’s footsteps harmonising with Master Mattin’s. The old librarian led him in this strange, dignified procession through the sturdy glass shelves and their footsteps sang a loud and sonorous song, as slow as a funeral dirge and just as solemn.
Ako had never been in the Escu de dos y ra before. The Library of Glass and Light, as it was called in the common tongue, was technically off limits for apprentices like him. He lived in the much smaller, plain brick building that sat squat and ugly at the bottom of those gleaming glass tower walls with the rest of the library apprentices. They had been told, time and time again, that they must not venture into the sacred space until they were invited. He hugged himself tightly now, vibrating with excitement at the thought that he had been deemed worthy at last. None of the other apprentices were invited. The thought was smug. It almost made up for the bruises the bigger boys gave him.
He stared around at the glistening shelves towering around him, reflecting back his own wide eyes endlessly, and tried to imagine what it would be like at noon instead of midnight. He could almost hear the noise of the masters’ footsteps, ringing around the glimmering corridors in a new symphony every day, never the same twice, a discordant cacophony of that piercing, humming swell, as each of them added their own unwitting melody to the music. By daylight, too, he was sure that the heat in here would be stifling. It was hard enough to bear at night. The thick glass walls were cloudy and translucent, which made everything beyond them seem misty and unreal. Inside, it was muggy even by moonlight, it must be almost deathly by the heat of the sun. Distantly, Ako wondered how the frail, withered master before him managed it. But then, Master Mattin had given his life to Davish’de’s Greatest Service. He was surely used to it all by now.
It is an honour and a privilege to serve the giving, Ako remembered, almost sanctimoniously. We must not take the sacrifices of the citizens in vain. We must honour the gifts they give us. It is the Greatest Service. How petty to complain about the heat in the light of that.
He ran an idle finger along the towering glass shelves as he trailed after Master Mattin. Upon each of the heavy glass shelves towering above him, were the Gifts, one given by each of the citizens of Davish’de after their deaths, each according to their greatest strengths and it was the responsibility and the honour of each of the Masters to protect them and use them well. A weighty privilege, indeed.
Some of the glowing orbs waiting patiently there upon the glass shelves shone brighter than others. Talented Masters could tell them apart without touching them, Ako had heard it said. That from the depth or hue of the glow, an expert master could tell whether it had been a blacksmith’s strength that had been archived after his passing, or a pick-pocket’s dexterity, an alchemist’s curiosity, or even just the longevity of the ancient’s life.
Ako leant forwards, his hand stretching out towards one of the orbs now. It seemed to thrum and glow even brighter as his fingers approached it, as if it thought he was about to steal it. The light tangled on the ridges of his bony fingers, almost beckoning him, and he closed his hands into tight little fists to avoid temptation. The glow of the orb glittered back at him almost malevolently from a thousand cloudily shimmering surfaces and, for a moment, Ako wondered if he had somehow got trapped within a mirror, if he was swimming through the silver as someone else’s reflection.
The thought frightened him and he skipped forwards slightly, trying to catch up with Master Mattin, playing a jaunty little harmony on top of Mattin’s steady footsteps.
“Peace, Ako,” Master Mattin croaked reprovingly. “This is a place of respect.”
“Sorry, Master Mattin.”
“Very few apprentices ever get to walk these halls at all,” Master Mattin croaked at him, the flaring candle-stick in his hand setting deep shadows in the hollows and crags of his face. “You are now part of a long and honoured tradition. A secret tradition,” he added sternly.
“I won’t breathe a word of it to anyone, sir,” Ako whispered, feeling his eyes widening. Master Mattin smiled slightly.
“I know you won’t,” he averred with so much conviction that Ako found himself swelling with pride.
It was not often that people trusted Ako. He had no family left before the Masters of the Library had found him. He had been living on the streets, fighting rats off for food, before the masters had taken him into the acolyte house, bathed and shaved him, and given him the scratchy brown robes of the apprentice boys to wear. He hated those robes. They were warm and they were clean, which is more than his last clothes had been, but they always itched him uncomfortably, making his tanned skin rashy and red. He hated the prickle of stubble against his head, too. His black hair had often been matted when he lived on the hot and dusty alleys of the sandstone city of Davish’de, but he felt naked with it all gone.
At least none of the other apprentices teased him about that, he supposed. They all had to wear itchy brown robes and shave their heads, too. It was about the only thing they didn’t tease him about, he thought morosely. Many of them were the second or third sons of minor nobles, looking to find a career as a master themselves, and they didn’t like having to share their classrooms and dormitories with someone like him.
Only Vernos was kind to him. Vernos, almost sixteen already, would sometimes stop the others from beating him up, if the mood took him.
“I don’t know why you’re wasting your time tormenting him,” Vernos would say airily. “He’ll run away soon anway, even without you chasing him off. All the scholarship children run away in the end. I know it’s supposed to be charitable to take them, but they’re just not suited to life here.” And all the other apprentices would laugh loudly, but they would stop hitting or spitting at Ako all the same, and Ako was grateful for it. He tried to thank Vernos once, catching him in the corridor after the midnight light ceremony, but the older boy had shaken him off.
“Don’t talk to me.” He had said it coldly but not unkindly. “You will draw attention to both of us, and then you will only bring yourself more beatings. If you want to survive this place, keep your head down and do not draw anyone’s eye. Not until you are bigger and stronger, anyway,” he had said, running his cold black gaze over Ako’s skinny body, then he had swept away without another word.
Ako didn’t mind. He knew that Vernos was looking out for him really.
All the same, Ako had no intention of running away. He didn’t know why the Masters had chosen him, of all the street brats, to take in for their annual scholarship child, but nor did he know how those other children could have bared to have left. There is food here, and shelter and the hope for a job, come the end. That is worth any amount of teasing.
Ako thought that when his life ended, perhaps the Grey Takers would preserve his stubbornness. It was by far his most abundant quality, after all. It will make a good Gift, I hope. He wanted to give a good gift to the Library. It was the privilege of every Davish’de citizen to continue the circle—to give in their passing what they had enjoyed in their life.
“This way, Ako,” Master Mattin said, gesturing to a thick wooden door at the back of the hall. Ako frowned, it looked out of place here.
“Why is it not glass?” he whispered, his voice carrying through the still, watchful night.
“There are some things that must not be seen, even here,” Master Mattin told him, gesturing him forwards. “You will learn the secret of the Escu de dos y ra tonight, little one. You will see things that none of your other peers have seen.”
Ako shivered with delight and hugged himself close at the thought, as he obediently slipped through the door. It closed behind them both with a heavy thunk.
“Down the stairs, Ako,” Master Mattin said, gesturing to the stone stairs spiralling tightly into the darkness before them. They were narrow and slippery and Ako had to press one hand to either wall as he slipped down them, terrified lest he might slip. It smelt strangely, a musty, decaying smell Ako could not quite place, and he felt the hairs on his arms prickling uneasily.
“It is dark down here,” he whispered and it was almost a question.
“Yes,” Master Mattin agreed, his voice breathing out right behind his ear, making Ako flinch. “You must be brave now, Ako. You wish to serve the Library, do you not? It is the Greatest Service.”
“Yes, Master,” Ako agreed miserably.
At the bottom of the stairs was a large cellar, surrounded by tall candlesticks each glowing with flames of a different colour. From each of the candlesticks ran a gutter into the centre of the room, each line meeting in the middle, like an exploding star. Besides each candlestick was a Master. He recognised Master Ardro, who taught them chanting, and Master Hurvin, who taught them languages. He raised a hand towards them in a tentative greeting, and they smiled back encouragingly.
That helped a little. They never usually smiled at him in class. He was not a very good student, usually, but they clearly thought he had potential if they wanted him to join their ranks tonight.
“This is he?” wheezed the oldest Master. Ako had never seen him before. He was standing almost in the dead centre of the room, by that collision of guttering. Master Mattin bowed and hurriedly gestured to Ako to do the same.
“Yes. The scholarship child. Ako, move forwards and greet Master Uras formally as we taught you,” Master Mattin urged. Trembling, Ako crept forwards and knelt before the ancient master, down on one knee, his head bent, his three fingers pressed flat to his forehead. He glanced up at Uras, who nodded at him, but as he tried to rise, Uras pressed a surprisingly strong hand on his shoulder and forced him to stay down upon one knee.
It was very uncomfortable, for Ako had ended up kneeling right at the intersection of the guttering and the ridges were digging into his legs now. He didn’t think he ought to complain though. He knew he wouldn’t get another chance like this again. Not a friendless nobody like him.
“Tell me of the Library of Glass and Light,” Master Uras croaked. Ako looked uncertainly at Master Mattin who made a rolling get-on-with-it gesture with his hands.
“It is the greatest protection of our city and our lands,” he whispered, wondering why he had to tell this old man something he clearly already knew. “It is built on the sacrifice of its people after their deaths, to give power to the living.”
“Good, boy, you clearly listen well to your tutors.” He beckoned a hand and six masters stepped forwards, each carefully carrying the orbs. “These were sacrifices of wisdom, ruthlessness, strength, foresight, secrecy and longevity. Six sacrifices worthy of a master. And tonight, they will be awarded.”
Ako’s head shot upwards, his eyes wide.
Uras laughed. “Unfortunately not, child. You are too young to be a master anyway. Let the recipient step forwards.”
There were a couple of footsteps and Vernos stepped forwards, his head uncovered by the hood of his robes.
Of course it would be Vernos. He was wise and clever already. The perfect choice to be a master.
Ako tried not to let the disappointment embitter him. His time would come.
Vernos kneeled opposite him, also on the star of guttering. He did not return the tentative smile Ako offered him. Uras placed one hand on Vernos’ head and the other on Ako’s.
“What do we do here, brother Vernos?” he wheezed.
“We accept the sacrifices of the dead for the living.”
“Yes,” said Uras as the masters brought the orbs forth and pushed them, one at a time through Vernos’ chest. Vernos gasped and shuddered with each one going in, his eyes growing black, his breath jagged and fractured like glass shards, and Ako was suddenly glad that he was not being turned into a master tonight. It was frightening enough just witnessing such a thing. “But there must be balance, must there not? And in order to transfer the gift of the dead to the living, we must also give a gift of life to the dead,” he said.
Ako opened his mouth to ask him what he meant, but before he could get the words out there was a thump, and a thud right through the back of his chest,and then a wash of pain. He slumped forwards on to the cold stone ground and he was vaguely aware of something wet and warm gushing out of him, flowing down those channels towards the candle-sticks they led to. The ground was cold as it clung to his skin, but the pain was hot and throbbing. As the liquid reached the base of the candlesticks, the coloured flames atop them roared suddenly brighter, filling the room with rainbow light and then there was nothing left but darkness in the library of glass and light.