The oak doors of the library were cool under Aoife’s palms, and with the winter chill in the air, she dared not touch the brass handle, for fear of getting stuck to it. The familiar scent of paper and worn leather washed over her like a wave of perfume as she made her way inside, and for perhaps the first time in her life, she thought perhaps she understood what people meant when they spoke of finding home. She wasn’t sure she would ever really have a home, but as long as she could find a library to immerse herself in, she would always have that comforting sense of familiarity and wholeness that she had always craved in her childhood. As she headed for the fiction section, she couldn't help but wonder if Niamh had found her own sense of home. If any of the other orphans had.
She sat herself down with one of the oldest books in the library, a great leather bound tome about as thick as a child's head is tall, cover encrusted with precious gems and gold leaf. It was kept in a locked crystal cabinet, more for display than anything given its value, but every now and then, certain patrons were able to read its contents, provided they were careful with it, and provided Elias found them trustworthy enough. The content, however, had meant Aoife was at the end of a very short waiting list. The book had no decipherable name, and over the years plenty of linguists and scholarly types had all tried their hand at finding one, and it contained all the fairy tales of old. The stories of wise men winning wars with little more than their words, of beautiful queens and handsome princes, of brave knights slaying foul beasts, sometimes even of foul beasts slaying cowardly knights. Aoife had heard there was a moment in everyone's life, no matter how trivial it might be, that would occur and allow them to die happy, whether they died that day or twenty years later. As she ran her fingertip along the first, crisp page of the nameless book, she was sure this was her moment.
She glanced around her at the few other patrons in the library with her, wanting to fully savour every detail of this moment if she were to truly die happy. Dotted around the outskirts of the building, picking at books on shelves were various scholars, dressed head to toe in black, save for a flash of white in the form of freshly starched white shirts. A young woman sat a few seats away from her and could be heard muttering to herself as she scribbled away feverishly on a well used piece of paper. There was soot on her face, and the strained veins in her eyes suggested she hadn't gotten much sleep recently, and Aoife could only guess she was some sort of scientist or inventor. Any other day, she might have asked what the woman was working on.
Seated at the desk across from hers was a stout old man, whose beard spread wider than his head, and whom Aoife couldn't help but think looked out of place in somewhere like the Great Library. His hair, while slicked back in the appropriate fashion, was wild and unruly, something that wasn't a common occurrence in the library. His posture was shrunken in on itself, and the way he sat hunched over the table meant Aoife couldn't see what he was reading. Whatever it was, he seemed suitably engrossed in it. Despite his overall scruffy appearance, the man did seem well dressed. His overcoat, while a little moth bitten, was made of silk, and his buttons were most definitely bronze, at the very least. Aoife wasn't sure her clothes even had all their buttons, let alone bronze ones. She could see, as was customary, a waistcoat underneath his coat, which seemed to also be made of a deep green silk with some sort of embroidery that she couldn't quite make sense of.
"I ought not stare too long, if I were you," a voice said from beside her, making her jump.
Aoife drew her attention away from the strange man to look at the owner of the voice, a boy about her age that seemed to have more legs than sense. He towered over her, and the rest of his limbs seemed to be equally too long for his body. A thick mess of black curls rested atop his head, blue eyes cast towards the strange man despite his warnings not to.
"And why is that?" Aoife asked, taking care to keep her voice hushed. Her new companion, however, did not seem to share her concern.
"That's Lord Trowbridge," he explained, gesturing lightly at the man, who seemed to nod in response. "He doesn't like when people stare at him. Says it reminds him of something he would rather not think of."
"I'm very sorry, sir," she said sheepishly. "I'm afraid I only knew Lord Mattheson's sons, and I didn’t know them very well at all."
Lord Trowbridge made no attempt to acknowledge Aoife’s apology, attention solely focused on his book. Were he not a Lord, and were they not in a library, Aoife might have sought to give him a lesson in manners, but she held her tongue this once, both out of respect and fear. After all, there was a lot a Lord could do to mess up an insignificant orphan's life, and Aoife had no intention of making hers any more difficult than it had to be.
"He means well enough," the gangly boy tried to reassure her. "Albert... I mean, Lord Trowbridge, is a distant, distant, cousin of my grandfather's. I'm Rinian, by the way."
Rinian offered a hand for Aoife to shake, but the orphan made no move to meet his gesture. Shaking hands wasn’t something ladies did, and she certainly considered herself a lady, not some common pub tart. Rinian pulled back his hand once he realised his advance had been rebuffed, scratching at the back of his neck awkwardly.
"Forgive me, I don't often entertain female company," he mumbled, eyes downcast, and Aoife couldn't help smiling.
"You're forgiven, Rinian," she said, smile still pressed to her lips. "In future, though, you might try offering to kiss a lady's hand instead of shaking it."
At least, that was how she thought it worked. That was how all the bold knights and brave men had greeted women in her stories, and she was sure Finni might have greeted her the same one day. Niamh had made no secret of the affections shared between herself and Adre—it was nothing too disrespectful, she had assured Aoife—but she and Finni had always been chaperoned whenever they met, and honestly that hadn't been frequently. Perhaps the embracing of one's hand was reserved only for lovers, then? Oh Maker, if she'd given him the wrong impression, she would never live it down.
"I shall keep that in mind," Rinian said after a moment of stunned silence, a flash of red colouring his milky complexion. "Would it be too impertinent to ask your name? I would hate to offend you twice in such a short time."
"It isn't impertinent at all. I'm Aoife. Aoife Olette."
A look of realisation flickered across Rinian's face, and Aoife half expected him to leave her be after that. That was the usual reaction, she'd observed. People, especially people that were as well spoken and, though she wouldn't say it to his face, posh sounding as Rinian was, didn't have the time for orphans, though perhaps their case wasn’t helped by the street orphans who were forced to beg. Despite convent orphans being really quite pleasant, the stigma applied to the group as a whole, and so they often found themselves in the presence of deaf ears and blind eyes.
But much to her surprise, Rinian stayed where he was standing. In fact, he looked as if he were going to sit with her. She studied him carefully for the few moments it took him to make up his mind, electing instead to occupy the chair opposite her rather than the one next to her. She was his equal as far as he was concerned, but it seemed in bad taste to sit so near a young woman he didn't know, when naked skin could so easily brush while they were unchaperoned. Not that they were courting, he reminded himself quickly, crimson tinging his cheeks once more.
“I’ve never met an orphan before,” he said, studying her with interest as he sank into the chair, elbows propped on the wooden desk in a display of terrible ill form.
Aoife’s brow creased into a frown. “Well, now you have, and I don’t appreciate being stared at. This isn’t a zoo, you know.”
"It would seem I have offended again," Rinian murmured, straightening his back as he sat upright in his chair. "Please believe me, Miss, that was never my intention."
In fact, Rinian's intention had been quite the opposite. He had quite often seen Aoife around the library, but had never quite managed to pick up the nerve to speak to her. Part of him almost wished he hadn't broken the ice that day, given the terrible job he seemed to be doing of it. In poor Rinian's defence, however, Aoife’s storybooks had caused her to grow expecting men to constantly be chivalrous, charming and polite when they were, in fact, more prone to offending others than her own sex
"Perhaps I might give you one more chance," Aoife mused, hoping perhaps her new acquaintance might leave her alone to enjoy her book, but luck didn't seem to be smiling too favourably on her that day.
"I greatly appreciate it, Miss. Might I... Might I be permitted to call you Aoife?"
"You can call me whatever you wish, if you leave me to my reading," she said, annoyance ripe in her voice, but still Rinian would not take the hint.
Truth be told, the young man simply didn't wish to part from the girl's company so soon after making himself known. The rules and regulations of social etiquette had always been lost on him, and as such he had never quite developed an understanding of when his presence wasn't wanted. Were she to spell it out for him, plain and clear as day, he would have given her all the time in the world, should it make her happy. But, as it were, Aoife considered herself too polite to tell him outright to leave her be. At least he was managing to be quiet, for now, she thought.
She had leafed through the first few pages, marvelling at the flowing handwritten words gracing the book, the ink almost perfectly restored given the three hundred year age of the novel. The paper was crisp against her fingertips, but it felt frail, almost as if it would crumple any second if too much pressure was placed upon it, like an old spinster decomposing in her favourite armchair. She recognised the first entry, or rather the first legend, as that of how Aostre came to be the first King. It told of the great war between the civilised people and the barbaric tribesmen, who had since been driven to extinction. She knew the story like the back of her hand, but that didn't make it any less exhilarating to read. She had just turned to the next story, and briefly spotted mentions of the first queen, Ashelia, when Rinian interrupted her again.
"If you're interested in Aostre and Ashelia, I know a much more interesting book you can read," he offered, leaning over the table ever so slightly once more, neck craned to get a better view of what she was reading. He'd known the book just from the sight of it, but he had wanted to make sure of it before he said anything.
"I don’t want to be rude, Rinian-"
"Call me Rin," he interjected, smiling.
"I don't want to be rude, Rin," she repeated, keeping a comment about Rin's lack of concern for the same thing to herself. "But this is the oldest book in the library. I fail to see how there could be anything better."
A smirk wormed its way onto Rin's lips. One of the perks of his job, which he consistently failed to mention whenever he bothered the library's patrons, was the unlimited access to the library's books. The better perk, however, was the unrestricted access to the books that had been banned, either by the church or the monarchy. Whenever a book was banned, there were always mass burnings, and the invention of the printing press had ensured controlling distribution could be done more effectively, but it was the responsibility of each library throughout the land to keep one copy of each book safe, in the event that the ban on it might be lifted. He was sure the other libraries didn't take this duty as seriously as his grandfather, Elias, did but just as he did with the rest of the books, Elias saw to it that each banned book was well cared for. He would always tend to them with the utmost care, restoring any pages that fell into disrepair, and rejuvenating the ink should it begin to fade. Elias would never admit to it, for fear of seeming prideful, but he was truly a master of his craft, and more than half the books in the Great Library owed their longevity to his skilled hands.
“No it isn’t,” he countered, a look of devilish glee in his eyes. “There is another book, it’s hidden upstairs with the rest of the banned works, but it really is quite enlightening.”
“And how would you know about the banned books?” Aoife questioned expectantly.
“My grandfather is the librarian,” Rin shrugged. It was half true, he just simply failed to mention that he was his grandfather’s apprentice, and was all but in charge of one half of the library himself already. He’d been entrusted with the non-fiction section, something about the books not needing to be handled with such care, though he’d never quite understood what that was supposed to mean.