By the time the lights on the ceiling of the Archives had returned to their former luster, Asher had still not slept. He had spent his first artificial night enveloped in the pondering of his existence; or was it the lack thereof? What was he truly searching for? What if Archie had been right about Arabella? Did our hero still have a purpose in this semblance of a life, and if so, how was he to find it?
He had not been altogether aware of when Rhoric’s faction had retired, but their snores had, on occasion, broken his trance-like concentration. At moments like this, he had taken some books off of the shelves to keep the fire going. He had found the flames conducive to his deepening thoughts, but now that there was no longer a need for their flickering light, he had let them extinguish.
After Siyada took her morning stretch, she found Asher in much the same state as she had left him, seated on a beanbag, his forlorn blue eyes now stuck on a pile of ashes.
In his quietude, he had managed to hear her soft approach. “What was it Rhoric called me? ‘Ashen Asher’?”
She crouched down beside him. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else says about you. It matters how you choose to see yourself.”
“Do I have a choice?” Asher spoke bitterly. “Because if what everyone says is true, I do not possess a will of my own. I am who my author wrote me to be, correct?”
“Will you please take me to see Archie again today?”
“Of course,” she answered. “But there’s something else we need to take care of today. I’m not sure if you heard last night, but--”
“Rhoric wants me to leave.”
Siyada nodded briefly. “We can ask Archie where he thinks you’d best fit in.”
Asher murmured something beneath his breath, but Siyada’s sharp hearing had caught it.
“It does matter, Asher. Finding where I belonged is what helped me come to terms with this place at a time I thought I never could.”
Asher heaved a sigh and rose to his feet.
“Moving day!” Rhoric broke in, heartily slapping Asher on the back just when he had found his balance. “I wish you the best, foreigner. And don’t take this personally. We don’t let any foreigners join our faction.”
“Of course,” Asher grumbled. He re-situated the plate of armor covering his shoulder, which had taken the brunt of Rhoric’s hit.
“Siya, this ought to go without saying, but you know as well as I do that the foreigner should journey to his new territory on his own. You belong here with your people. You may send him off at the hub, but I expect your return before long.”
Asher awaited an objection from his feline ally, but Siyada nodded slowly. “Yes, that probably is best for Asher. He can’t learn who he is if he never takes a journey alone.”
Asher’s eyes narrowed, but he was more irritated than afraid. What is that, some kind of Edge of Heaven-ly wisdom?
Siyada turned to Asher. “Are you ready, friend?” He could hear Rhoric scoff subtly at her calling him ‘friend.’
“Ready. Thank you for doing this, Siyada.” She nodded.
The pair of them wound through the Stacks again until the Archie Hub was in sight. Asher took a deep breath when he once again found himself standing before the imposing screen.
“Hello, Archie,” he called.
“Sir Asher.” The screen flashed white. “Did you sleep well last night?”
“Not at all.”
“Well. If it’s any consolation, neither did I.”
“Do computers require sleep?” Asher asked.
“No. But then, neither do you. And it is not for lack of passing time, as Siyada presumed. Rather, characters in the Archives are in constant stasis: neither tired, nor hungry, nor thirsty. Always in equilibrium. Without progression and without need.”
“And what about a need to feel worthy of existence and to have a reason for being?” Asher raised his voice.
“Existence is for those who dwell in reality. As a fictional character, you need not concern yourself with such things, sir.”
Before Asher had a chance to respond, Siyada broke in. “Asher needs to find himself a place to belong in the Archives. A home. I thought you might be able to find him the perfect place.”
"Certainly." A localized map of the Archives appeared on the screen. It panned over quickly in a blur and refocused on a different section of the Stacks. "This is a subsection of the English language Medieval Fantasy genre which is densely populated by lady-seeking knights and knight-seeking ladies. There are even a few dragons nearby, so it should feel familiar for someone like Asher. I can produce a hard copy of the map with a line along the fastest route for your use.”
“Please do,” Siyada smiled as a sheet of paper emerged from a slit in the thin divide between Asher’s screen and the adjacent wall of the hub. She presented it to Asher excitedly.
“That’s it? He just knows?” Asher blinked.
“Quite,” Archie answered for himself. “I had not yet placed the physical copy of your story in the Stacks, but you will now find it in the area you seek. You may read it if you like.”
Asher’s brows raised in interest. Perhaps the answer is in my book, he thought. Our hero was so excited at his new lead that he sought to cut the conversation short.
“That’ll be all, Archie,” he said.
Siyada’s ears laid back beneath her hood. “I thought you had more questions--”
“There’s plenty of time for that later, yes? I think I may very well find some answers in my book!”
“Technically, it’s a journal,” Archie added.
“Oh. Well, alright… I suppose this is goodbye, then.” Siyada looked down.
“I’m forever in your debt, m’lady,” Asher took a knee and kissed one of her fur-coated hands in gratitude. “May we meet again someday, under more hopeful circumstances.”
Siyada’s whiskers twitched slightly as she smiled. “Have a safe journey, Asher. And may you find every answer you seek!”
“I intend to do just that!” he lept to his feet and took off running, map in hand.
“Sir--” Archie started.
“What is it?” Siyada asked.
“The point is rather moot, but I was going to warn him about the route he is taking. He’ll see strange characters, indeed, and will even pass through a two-dimensional borough. Besides that, he could just as easily have read the digital copy of his story here and now, but I suppose such things do not occur to medieval characters like him.”
The furs on Siyada’s back stood on end as she fought the urge to take off after our hero. “He’ll sort it out for himself, Siya,” she said aloud.
“Indeed. Will that be all?”
“Yes, Archie. Thank you.”