Vaillart Library

Her heart was in her throat as she stood at the bottom of the flight of stone steps.  They spread out to either side of her, taking up almost a full side of the Vientaina Plaza, and rose to the stone portico that ran around the Syndicacy, the collective sprawl of buildings that housed the Syndicate.  She took a deep breath and tensed her arms and chest, determined that she wouldn't show how nervous she was, and started up the steps.  Each step was carved from hard white stone quarried not far outside Vaillart and showed no marks from either the passage of people or time.  Her hand kept twitching as she thought about the piece of paper in her pocket and wanted to check that it was there, but she wouldn't let herself.

At the top of the steps, she stepped into the shadows of the portico and waited a moment.  The day was slightly overcast, but any sunlight on the Vaillart stone seemed to dazzle the eyes.  As they adjusted she made out two small groups of people stood near the door she was going to, both groups talking animatedly but in low voices.  She recognized people in the first group; the Syndicate Secretary was there with his wife and they were talking to First Judge Senescara.  The people in the second group were dressed in the uniform of the Syndicacy staff but she didn't recognise any of them.  None of them looked up, or paid her any attention, and she knew that there was no reason for them to do so, but she couldn't shake the feeling that someone was going to rush out of the shadows and denounce her.

She made herself walk on, approaching the brass-studded wooden door in the wall and pushing it open with the hand that wanted to check that she still had the piece of paper.  Giving it something to do seemed to calm it, at least for now.  Inside the door was a short, terracotta-tiled hall, at the end of which was a stained-glass panelled door and a guard.  She stopped, and then made herself carry on, knowing that to the guard it would look like she'd just stuttered in her step.  As she reached him, noting the shiny brass buttons on the uniform and that his sword at his hip was buckled so that he couldn't draw the blade quickly, he looked her in the eyes and said, smiling faintly,

"This is a private library, Donna."

Now her hand was free at last to reach down into her pocket and pull out the piece of paper waiting there.  She handed it to him, her smile fainter still than his, and said,

"I have an invitation, Don."

One hand took her paper, the other appeared to brush dust from the epaulet on his shoulder, drawing her attention to the stripes there.  She thought that he was being surprising subtle for a guard, and reappraised him.  Now that she was looking with the eyes of a warrior she noticed that the buckles holding the sword in place were thin and frayed and would actually snap under the lightest pressure, and that there was a slight bunching of his jacket on the other side where a knife might be usefully concealed.  His boots, though shiny and black, bore jagged spurs that would make a kick or a stamp a dangerous attack.  Even the uniform, royal blue and gold with frogging in ridiculous places, looked padded and armoured when she looked at it properly.

"This seems to be in order, Donna," he said, handing her the paper back.

"My thanks, Arms-Captain," she said, pleased to see him look startled that she'd known the exact meaning of his stripes.  He unlocked the door for her, and held it open, and she felt his eyes watching her as she went through and looked around the library.

"Do you have a name?" he said abruptly, halfway through closing the door.  "I wonder if I should know you?"

"Lianna," she said, half-turning back to him.  "And before you ask, yes, that Lianna."

The End

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