Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. First, they will come for the Library.
“Stand down Librarian!” Shouted the Commander.
“Power corrupts! Power corrupts! Power corrupts!” came the raucous chant of the purple-clad troops behind him.
16-year-old Cambermel spread her huge, feathered wings. They shone blue-green where the sun hit their iridescent blackness. She presented her spear in both hands, defiant and rebellious.
Cambermel’s wings stretched from pillar to pillar at the top of the white marble steps, concealing the arched Library door from the view of the soldiers. The sun glinting off the whitestone façade of the classic Northern architecture, with its colonnades and gargoyles, made them squint and shield their eyes. The Librarian held no fear of the light as she stared back, unblinking, across the quad.
“We have orders from His Majesty, King Rawchester, to remove all reading material and burn it in the square.”
“Power corrupts! Power corrupts! Power corrupts!”
The Commander took another step forward. The feathered plume on his helmet glinting blue-green as he did. Cambermel shuddered. Were those her mother’s feathers?
“It is not my Library that’s corrupt. It’s your King! His father, King Rentar, defended the Library when they came from the South. Why does Rawchester feel so threatened by his own books?”
“Do you insult the King?”
“If the truth is an insult, then yes, I insult your King.”
“Stand down Librarian.” The Commander raised his right fist above his shoulder and the nine rows of nine soldiers behind him took their attack positions. “We all know you can’t read those books. What good are they to you Cambermel? Or you to them? A Librarian who can’t read! You were surplus to requirements even under King Rentar!”
The wingless, elven, soldiers laughed through their chanting and stamped their feet. Not that they could read, either.
The Commander extended two fingers and twisted his fist towards Cambermel. With a flick of his wrist two archers from the back row of the company released their arrows. One hit the Librarian in her left shoulder. It travelled through far enough for the head to exit her flesh, splintering the bone as it went. The other passed cleanly through the metacarpus of her right wing. The primary section of the wing drooped, like a wilted flower, towards the ground. Cambermel faltered and dropped her spear, but stayed on her feet as the pain shot through her.
“You took my mother!” she yelled down the Library steps. “Power corrupts! And power has corrupted your King!”
. . .
Cambermel regained consciousness on a couch in darkened room. The scent of smoke was in the air, burning paper, leather and parchment. Her eyes were swollen and her limbs and wings were painful and stiff. It hurt to turn her head.
“Ah, don’t move, steady there.” The soft, gnomelike voice was accompanied by a cold compress held against the Librarian’s forehead.
“Where am I?” there were shelves of books on the walls and a desk with parchment and quills in the corner of the room.
“You’re safe, for now. In the townhouse opposite the Library. I’m Tassalan, the Bard. I saw you take a stand, and no one values your defiance more than I.”
“The Bard? You can’t stay here, you can read! They’ll kill you!”
Tassalan removed his conical green hat and placed it on the table in front of the fairy. “That’s the only reason I didn’t join you on the steps. I thought you would stand down, and I’d be no use to you dead.”
“Thank you for rescuing me. Thank you.” Cambermel put her head down on the arm of the couch and slipped back out of consciousness.
. . .
As dusk approached, a thin layer of ash was settling across the frontages of buildings, and over the cobbles. The remains of the city’s written art, research, and historical records became nothing but embers in a dying fire of knowledge and creativity. Smoke hung like a poisonous cloud in the air.
Cambermel stirred and Tassalan was there as her eyes opened, with balms for her wounds and a warming soup.
“I’m going to let them take me.” He said, as he smoothed a tacky substance over the break in her wing. “It’s the only way we’ll find out where they took your mother. Perhaps we can rescue her.”
“Do you really think that?”
“Look, I need to be honest with you about something. About the Library.”
“What about the Library?”
“I’m a Bard, I spent countless hours in the Library, countless hours with your mother. She was the only real scholar of the North. The truth is, that the Library could have been the end of the class system in our region. At one time it held everything required to offer free education and teach every child in the land to read.” He scratched his head. “Imagine if every child was taught to read. Your mother had the expertise and the materials to start classes. The people in the South call them 'schools', places where children go to get free education. But for some reason your mother never took the opportunity - perhaps she was too scared.”
“Everyone in the South can read?” Cambermel’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes, they learn from the age of five. Regardless of race, background, wealth or geography. Elves, humans, gnomes, fairies, they all read. They all have opportunities to get jobs, join guilds, advise government, even have the vote.”
“What’s the vote?”
“The South has a President, not a King. Someone chosen by the people to rule the region.” Tassalan rubbed his brow. “It’s a lot to explain, but the reason the South sent soldiers to the North two years ago was that the President was advised by his people to try to liberate us before King Rawchester came to power. You will remember that no one was killed except for the King’s Guard who attacked the Southern Army. We threw the first stone.”
“Then why did my mother and King Rentar have to defend the Library?”
“They didn’t. President Gravney sent messengers, not soldiers, to the Library. They came to negotiate and offer to diversify the collections, start classes.”
“But King Rentar had them killed.”
“Indeed, he did. Your mother’s Library was filled with Royalist propaganda by then, floors and floors of it. It perpetuated the myth that some beings are better than others, some deserve an education while others do not, some deserve jobs while others have to beg. It was all based on the idea that the monarchy, born into power, should always be human. All the other beings, depending on race and class, should be offered different opportunities. Every part of the system was designed to keep the monarchy in power and the people divided.”
They talked about democracy and politics, the gnome explaining the history of the North and the South to the fairy, until the sun splintered over the quad. Cambermel’s mind was opened, but her eyes were closing.
“I just need one thing.” Said the Bard. “I once overheard your mother say she had papers, hidden in the Library. When they took her, she wouldn’t have had time to retrieve them. I need to know where they are. Did she ever tell you anything about that?”
“I know my birth papers are hidden behind the clock on the third-floor corridor. But I don’t know how you can get to them. Maybe other things are there too?”
The Bard donned a cloak and left the house before the square was fully lit. When Cambermel awoke he was sitting opposite her with a book and some papers on his lap, and three deep frown wrinkles across his forehead.
“You found them?”
“Yes, but a cursory glance is all I need to know it’s bad news.”
“How can my birth papers be bad news?”
“They explain why she never taught you to read.”
“To protect me, so that I wouldn’t be a target of the South when they invaded.”
“Have you not understood anything I’ve told you? The South did not invade. The South came to liberate us. They want to promote reading and education.”
“Then why would she not teach me to read?”
“Because your father was half elf. Your impure bloodline wouldn’t allow you to read, especially as he had a commoner’s job.”
Cambermel felt the tops of her ears. “She said my father was a fairy, a banker, who was killed in an accident when I was a child.”
“Your birth papers say that he was half elf, a hatter. And I found her diary. Her diary says that he killed himself when she forbade him to see you and denied his entry to the Library.”
Cambermel exhaled through puffed out cheeks. “What does it say about the messengers from the South?”
“I’ll read it to you… ‘They came to dilute and poison my collections with nonsense about liberty and equality for all. I shut the doors in their faces and sent an errand boy through the secret tunnel to get the soldiers. King Rawchester brought his army and they swiftly removed the messengers from my marble steps. My cleaners swiftly removed the blood.’”
“So she was on his side? Rawchester’s? She helped him kill the Southern messengers?”
“Did she know he would burn her books? In the end?”
“Yes. In fact, it was her idea, she says: ‘When they come to destroy it, I will remind Rawchester that he couldn’t have done this without me, without my cunning. The South cannot expand and defile something that is no longer here.’ The diary stops when she plans to leave the Library for her own protection. It says: ‘I will go to the King and manage his private collections. It will see me kept in employment and also out of the way of his soldiers when they come. I cannot be seen to let them in, or risk that they will injure me.’”
“So, she wasn’t taken by them? She just ran away and left me.”
“I’m sorry Cambermel, that’s how it looks. She wrote: ‘I left her sleeping in the basement as I will tomorrow night. I must leave here with nothing. Anything I take will be confiscated by the soldiers. I’ll come back after the books are gone and collect my secrets when I have the King’s trust. The girl won’t know anything is missing, she’ll assume I was kidnapped.’”
“I cried for weeks over her. I…”
“I’m so sorry.”
“What will we do? We’re not safe here.”
“She left another thing of interest; her banking papers. Obviously she thought the King’s Guard would take her secret wealth, and she was right. She has a series of anonymous accounts which can only be accessed with these.” He held up several parchment scrolls. “There’s over a thousand fennicks here.”
“A thousand fennicks! You could build a town with that!”
“We'll be welcome in the South, and they'll protect us. If we cross the border at Avamar no one is permitted to stop us.”
. . .
Six days later, Cambermel and Tassalan arrived in Sarbon, just across the border. They were limping and hungry, and Cambermel was still nursing her wounds.
The Southern buildings were not as grand as those in the North. Wealth here was more equally distributed and while there were more houses, and no beggars, even the government buildings were mostly made from modest red brick.
“A hospital!” said Tassalan. “Let’s get you seen.”
“I don’t have enough money for medicine. I only have the purse I left the Library with, and my mother's banking papers, which I don’t think I should use for myself.”
“Medicine in the South is free to everyone. Put your purse away.”
Cambermel’s wounds were soon dressed, and she was given pills for infection.
“So,” asked the doctor, with a kind, gnome smile, “What brings you to Sarbon? You’re clearly not local.”
“Is there a Library here?” asked Tassalan. “We’d like to see the Library.”
“Well, of course. It’s two streets down on the left. Ask for Pentassa, she’s the Senior Librarian and will help you with whatever you need.”
The Library building was also modest red brick. It was set back from the road with a small fenced off play area in front. Children of all races were having fun together, gnomes and fairies, humans and elves.
Pentassa’s office overlooked a small park at the back of the building, and she welcomed them in with hot, sweet, tea. Her pointed elven ears twitching at the laughter outside. “How can I help you? You look like you've come a long way to see me.”
“Please, Pentassa, we have come from the North. I was the Librarian in the capital after my mother left me with the job. I understand you are the Librarian in Sarbon. But you are not a fairy, how have you come to be Librarian?”
Tassalan sighed and put his head in his hands. “Please forgive my companion. I have tried to teach her of Southern ways, but I have only had a week to do it.”
Pentassa smiled. “Do not fear, I am not offended. I'm here to educate and make information available wherever it might be required.” She turned to face the fairy. “What do you think it would take to persuade northern elves that they could be things other than soldiers, hatters and cobblers? To show them that they could try their hand at anything they wanted, and, if they found they had the talent, then they could make it their trade?”
“It would need the King to die!”
Pentassa held back a smirk. “How about free education? How about teaching elves to read? And then giving them access to all the information they needed to make informed choices? And not just elves. Humans, fairies, gnomes.”
“Would King Rawchester be King for very long if his soldiers could see a way to a better life?” asked Tassalan, looking deep into Cambermel’s eyes.
“But how can we educate the North? The very last Library, that stood in the capital, was raided and all the books were burned. If we start again it will be burned again.” Said Cambermel, tears forming and dripping onto her cheeks.
Tassalan told Pentassa the whole story, of how Cambermel stood, defiant against the soldiers and of how he had been educating her since.
“I’m so glad you found me.” Pentassa said. “I had no idea the last Library in the North had been destroyed. This is perfect timing.”
“You have a plan?” asked Tassalan.
“Yes, and an educated Bard and a brave Librarian from the North are just the people I need to put it into action. There is one safe place where people can cross the border without being questioned.”
“Avamar!” exclaimed Cambermel and Tassalan together.
“Avamar.” Pentassa smiled. “We will build a Library in Avamar. Open to those in the North and those in the South. We will offer reading classes, careers advice, access to a full range of cultural and educational materials. We will fill it with art and music, history and fantasy. There will be free childcare for those who are studying, and places to eat and drink. We will open it at night for those who cannot come in the day. We will make it accessible to all, scholars and paupers alike. We will allow people to borrow the books for a small fee and we will take donations to help with costs. I’m sure there will be some government funding if we can demonstrate that people will come from the North. And that’s where you come in.”
“What can we do?” Cambermel narrowed her eyes.
“A Bard and a Librarian must be very well connected. You will write letters, to well-chosen contacts in the North, get the word out, start the rumours, bring the people.”
Cambermel and Tassalan exchanged knowing glances.
“There's something else we can do.” Said Tassalan, nodding to his fairy companion.
Cambermel reached into her satchel and retrieved a set of banking papers for anonymous accounts to the value of over a thousand fennicks.
Pentassa took the papers and examined them in the light. A smile spread across her face, and her eyes danced as the numbers added up in her mind. “How did you get these?” She held them out to Cambermel.
“Let’s just say that the North has been more generous to education than they intended.” Cambermel took the papers back. “Are you sure people will travel from all the way up there to learn to read?”
Pentassa sat back in her chair and closed her eyes:
“Knowledge is power. Wisdom is liberty. First, they will come for the Library.”
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
When you write “wingless, elven, soldiers” or “hot, sweet, tea,” you can omit the second comma. The comma essentially means and in both instances. This sentence creates a beautiful image: Cambermel’s wings stretched from pillar to pillar at the top of the white marble steps, concealing the arched Library door from the view of the soldiers. The opening paragraphs are full of generic color descriptions, such as the purple clad soldiers, her blue-green wings, and the white stone. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it becomes so ...
Hi, Thank you for the well considered feedback, I really appreciate it. This wasn't one of my stronger pieces, for some of the reasons you mention - I came up with three ideas for the library prompts, I wrote two of them and the other one was much stronger to be honest but I posted both anyway. The comma thing is an age old argument across much of the English speaking world. Personally I prefer to use the Oxford comma, and have done here - but it's a matter of preference and I get that not everyone likes it. EDIT - I just reread your com...
As an introduction or an opening chapter to a book, it’s great. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing on plot, even for a short story. It’s just a matter of condensing it down without losing its impact. All trial and error.
Very strong beginning on this one, what with soldiers shouting down a librarian. The story hits on a lot of topics, all really circling around that "knowledge is power" theme. It's a fun read, but the topics are a little depressing :) I liked the line "Tassalan sighed and put his head in his hands." A week does seem like too short a time to deprogram someone. I also like the fact that the mother was pro-regime. It adds nuance and depth to the issue.
Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Yes, the topic is depressing, but I intended to have a little hope at the very end, did that come across? I'm glad you picked up on the difficulty of re-education, I wanted it be apparent that while the librarian changes her perspective it is a long, slow process to fully explain things to her and get her to understand. After all, she is her mother's daughter.
Oh, for sure, the ending is a hopeful note. It's too big a plan to go off without a hitch, and there's obviously people who want it to fail, but it's definitely an inspiring goal. And besides, some adversity just sets the stage for the next story :)
"Knowledge is power. Wisdom is liberty." A tale of fantasy with echoes of real-life in its poignant words. In today's world there are too many corrupt governments eager to deny education to its citizens. There are also one-sided news outlets deceiving the viewers that rely on them for truth. There are puppet governments installed in occupied towns and cities of Eastern Europe, repressing free people. Your story is wonderful fantasy and horrible truth. Well done Katharine for highlighting injustice.
Thank you Chris, for reading and for your thoughtful comments.
While I may be too late for feedback, I wanted to comment and let you know I enjoyed reading through the story. I really liked the fantasy aspect, with all the different races, and the politics to it and lore. I feel like you could definitely write more on this. I also thought how you tied the first and last line was pretty clever.
Hi Alex, thank you for this. I had intended to edit it more but the Library of Lives story kinda took over and I got so invested in that that this one took a bit of a back seat in the end. Maybe two in one week is too hard. I'm glad you read and enjoyed it. I do think my other library story is better, but you never know what might catch the attention of the judges...
Hi Katharine - I am so impressed with your ability to build a rich world in such a short piece -- this and your story "Fired!" are shining examples. This one in particular reads almost as a first chapter of something epic. Masterful sensory descriptions. Engaging dialogue. There are some really beautiful turns of phrase in your prose. Excellent story!
Thank you Jon, your encouragement means a lot to me.