“Collecting for the library! Collecting for the library!” shouted Gretham as the shire horses rounded the corner into the biggest slum in Pannegul. “Come on, don’t be shy, any story or talent accepted. Collecting for the library! Human books wanted!”
Gretham lifted his scarf over his mouth and nose, but rotting market vegetables and rancid animal dung seeped through the fabric. His ears were assaulted by the chatter, the dogs barking, the slopping mud and the clanging of makeshift, metal doors.
A small boy approached the cart with his hands held out. “Please Sir, will you take me? My mam passed away last night, I’ve no one.” Only his eyes and lips were lacking a thick layer of grime, and he was clothed in a single rag. There was a hole cut in it for his head, the cloth tied at the waist with string.
“What skills have you got?”
“I can boil rice, sweep, and sing.”
“Sing then, let’s hear ya.”
The boy took a deep breath and widened his stance. He opened his mouth, and the most beautiful melody came out.
“The sun shone over the ocean of my life,
The day you were brought to my side,
And it set for the last time, forever went down,
The day my true love died.
I’ll never forget the touch of your hand,
The beauty of your voice,
With every memory of you,
My sad heart will rejoice.”
His voice rose and fell like a swallow in flight. The whole alleyway stopped chattering to listen. Even the dogs were quiet. By the time the child had finished, Gretham had forgotten to breathe for a full ten seconds.
“Get in lad, get in. We’ll make a book out of ya.”
The boy climbed the wooden ladder into the back of the cart and fell gratefully onto the dry straw inside. He didn't know that, for him, becoming a book meant becoming a castrato; and becoming one with no warning or explanation - probably no anaesthetic.
When the cart pulled up between the fountains in the library courtyard, there were four small children in the back. A song book, a cookery book, a gardening book and a story book. Gretham wasn’t entirely convinced by the story book, he’d heard better and seen prettier. More and more these days, kids would have to do. On the bright side, they were cheaper to keep and could sometimes be sold for a good price when they outlived their usefulness. But the library had rich members paying high fees, and they always wanted something new for their money.
Last week, Gretham had picked up two adults, a tattooing book and a beauty book. One of the perks of being the librarian at the Library of Lives was that he got the services of the books for free. He’d always wanted a tattoo of the library crest on his back. As for the beauty book, she should be cleaned up and suitably dressed by now.
Gretham snapped himself out of his lewd thoughts as a uniformed messenger approached. They always bothered him with details he didn't want or need. The messenger bowed and prattled off a few lines about something as the librarian opened the back of the cart and beckoned the new books out into the courtyard. He was still talking when the 'ostler took the cart to the stables. Gretham picked out a few words, but nothing of interest.
"I have four new books to shelve. I suggest ya find something useful to do too." The librarian pushed the messenger into the fountain and walked away laughing.
The ink and needle stung a lot more than Gretham had expected. But he knew the equipment was clean and the book was talented. After a couple of hours, he came away with a five-inch shield on his right shoulder. It showed an open book with a face on each page, looking inwards, one male, one female. Six stars surrounded the book. They represented Fiction, Fact, Fun, Faith, Favour and the Forbidden. The six themes of human book collected by the library. He had taken a Favour in getting the tattoo, now it was time for some Fun.
The newest beauty book hadn’t exactly volunteered. Gretham had spotted her picking roses from the palace hedgerow and, though that wasn’t strictly illegal, had decided that a citizen’s arrest was an appropriate way to detain her. She was lithe and blonde with sky-blue eyes and she smelled like summer. She never made it to the Law House. Gretham knew a talent when he saw one, and this book would make men happy. Very happy.
She was held in an individual bay in the east wing of the library, on the top level corridor, with the other seven. It was Gretham’s most visited part of the building. There was space for two more beauty books before he had to start choosing his favourites and letting others go. He looked forward to making those decisions – how hard would those from the slums work to stay in the library? Or how much would those from the cities give of themselves to get out?
Gretham strode down the east wing corridor, ignoring the shapely women in the first three pairs of cubicles and stopping between 7 and 8. A small, leather sofa faced the glass front wall of each bay. Beauty book 7 and Beauty book 8 had both appeared from behind their screens as Gretham’s footsteps echoed towards them. The librarian cast his eyes over each one. Until now, 7 had been his solid favourite, but this time he reached up and switched off the light in her bay. She retreated into the darkness with a look of relief.
Gretham took a seat on the sofa facing Beauty book 8, and switched off the corridor lights so that only her bay was illuminated. He ran his eyes across all of her best features. They were scarcely hidden under flimsy silk.
Instead of dancing for him, she tapped on the glass and cleared her throat.
“I think there must be some mistake, Sir.”
“Do you know who I am?” Gretham straightened up but did not stand.
“The librarian, Sir.”
“Yes, indeed. And do you know how I got to be the librarian?”
“Well, no Sir, no, I don’t.”
“I had several roles, in the country and the town, before I came here." he scratched his chin and relaxed back into his seat. "I can be very persuasive, I know when to request and when to demand. My tongue is my most valuable tool. I’m loyal, hardworking and I know this city, and the three closest to it. I know the gentry and the slums. I keep secrets. But most importantly, I understand the skills and the talents of others. Books get nothing past me.”
The librarian slid down into a slouch and slipped his hands under his tunic as the music started.
As always, Gretham found the dance unsatisfying. As his excitement failed to reach its peak, he took a key from a chain on his belt and stood, opening the door to bay 8. He grabbed the book by her delicate wrist and pulled her out into the corridor.
. . .
“Gretham! Gretham! What are you doing?”
It was the nightwatch, Berkley and Frog, running down the corridor towards him.
“We’ve been looking for you. There’s been a mistake.”
There were more footsteps in the corridor, two sets, heavy and deliberate. The lights above Gretham’s head clicked on. Gretham grabbed a handful of long, blonde hair, yanked the book’s head from his lap and rearranged his clothing. He pushed her back through the open door into her bay. She staggered backwards as he locked her in.
“That book is part of the Forbidden collection! She should have been sent to the King’s Corridor. How did you miss the messenger?” said Frog.
Gretham looked towards the doorway at the end of the hall. His heart stopped. His hands clenched. His eyes widened. The King and his aide!
Berkley and Frog turned to face His Majesty and took deep, low bows, their right hands extended, almost touching the stone floor. Gretham, a second behind them, joined the line-up and showed his respect too, though his clothing was untidy, and his cheeks were red.
King Nangan’s measured steps approached with painful slowness until they stopped a few feet away.
“Leave us.” Said King Nangan, gesturing to the nightwatch.
Berkley and Frog respectfully straightened to a stand and marched away towards the doors.
“Librarian! Explain yourself.”
Gretham remained in his bowed position. “Your Majesty, I am your humble servant.”
“Are you not the librarian? Do you not manage the books? That book is Forbidden. Were you unaware of this?”
“Your Majesty, yes, completely unaware. I was not advised.”
“Is it not your job to find out? Your duty to look after my interests?”
“I am so sorry, Your Highness, I am so sorry. It was a genuine mistake.”
“Haramath!” the King addressed his aide. “I have no time for this. Escort the librarian to the dungeons and have this book taken for questioning. She’s no good for my collection now. Find out what other skills she has. If it’s anything useful put her to work, otherwise dispose of her.”
. . .
The book found herself in a small, stone cell with a barred hatch in the door. She paced as she considered her fate. After some time, the door creaked open and Haramath, the King's aide, entered the cell. He brought a stool for himself to sit on, but nothing for the book.
“I assume you had a name? Before you came here?” said Haramath.
“Marlan,” replied the book, with a curtsey.
“And what was your skill before you arrived here? How did you make a living?”
“I had several roles, Sir, in the country and the town, before I came here.”
“How can you be useful in the Library of Lives? Given that the King will not touch you now.”
“I can be very persuasive, I know when to request and when to demand. My tongue is my most valuable tool. I’m loyal, hardworking and I know this city, and the three closest to it. I know the gentry and the slums. I keep secrets. But most importantly, I understand the skills and the talents of others. Books would get nothing past me.”
“Interesting. And, as librarian, what would you advise me to do with our friend Gretham?”
“He’s in the dungeon just now? Is that right?”
“That is correct.”
. . .
Marlan pinned back her hair, bared her shoulder, and allowed the tattooing book to start his work. The ink and needle stung a lot more than Marlan had expected. But she knew the equipment was clean and the book was talented. After a couple of hours, she came away with a five-inch shield on her right shoulder. It showed an open book with a face on each page, looking inwards, one male, one female. Seven stars surrounded the book. They represented Fiction, Fact, Fun, Faith, Favour, the Forbidden and Freaks. The seven themes of human book collected by the library. She had taken a Favour in getting the tattoo done, now it was time to visit the Freaks.
Making the dungeons accessible had boosted membership enormously. Marlan had proven herself to be a keen businesswoman and an excellent librarian. She had already won great favour with the King.
As she skipped down the stone steps, into the dim light of the underground bays, she recalled the story of how she got her job. A story that the Freak book in bay one would have told to the dungeon visitors, if only he still had his most valuable tool.