He rose from his chair, offering Aoife his arm as he let the smirk fall from his face. He knew his behaviour was entirely out of protocol, and he could practically feel disapproval radiating from Lord Trowbridge, but he would indulge himself just this once. After all, if his plan worked and Aoife was impressed enough by the wonders he had to show her in the restricted section, she might allow him to court her, and then perhaps one day they’d even be married. And then he could take his beautiful wife’s arm whenever he pleased, social etiquette be damned. Or at least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, Rin was somewhat of a spineless boy, raised at his mother’s breast all his life and an instinctive fleer when things got tense. He could make all the bold and controversial claims he liked in the quiet of his own mind, but he knew all too well that when it came down to actually implementing them, he would fall incredibly short of his grandiose dreams.
Aoife glanced around, making sure the place was relatively empty, before getting to her feet, her hand resting carefully in the crook of Rin’s elbow, earning herself a smile from the older boy. She removed her hand from his for a second as Rin started to lead her away, turning back to grab the book she had abandoned on the table, clutching it to her chest with her free arm as she caught Rin’s again. She couldn’t be too careful, after all. If something like that was stolen under her careless eye, she’d never live it down, and would likely never be allowed in the library again. And, if Rin’s book turned out to be little more than a boy’s dizzy fantasy, at least this way she still had something interesting to read.
The two made their way through the library, traipsing past bookcase after bookcase, each one reaching as high as one could fathom. There was another floor above them that circled the outskirts of the building, with yet more bookcases that stretched as high as the giant domed roof. It was a little difficult to see from there on the ground, but were one to climb up to the next floor and look at the ceiling, whose highest point stood another storey or two higher than the tops of the bookcases, one would see the ceiling had been ornately decorated with baroque paintings. The paint was well faded by now, and there had simply never been the time nor the money to have it restored, but once upon a time one could look to the heavens and see the characters one had read about brought to life by brushstrokes. One could see dashing heroes and helpless princesses, one could see fearsome dragons and ogres and trolls, any monster that could spring to mind was likely up there, battling some valiant hero for the hand of a fair maiden.
It was harder to spot, tucked away in the far corner of the ceiling, meant more as a guardian than a true focal point, but in the furthest corner of the room, where the paint had begun to peel both from age and moisture damage, was a creature that had long since been written about. It had once been part of the holy scripture, but was inexplicably stripped from the records one day. It was long before Aoife’s birth, before her parents’, before even her grandparents’ birth, so the girl wouldn’t have recognised it even if she had seen it, but there in the corner was a creature almost as old as the world itself. It stood at the height of a man, and had a vague humanoid shape, but its limbs were covered in hundreds of eyes, all of varying sizes and colours. Behind its back sat four wings, swathed in gold leaf, that stretched out to almost the twice the width of its body. In its right hand was a sword clad in silver leaf, though most of it had worn off. The foe it had been pointing its sword at had worn off a long time before, but the scene had once depicted their scriptural idea of the devil, a creature only known as the Trickster. It was the Trickster that had caused the first great war, whispering sweet lies into the ears of the tribesmen and incited them to war. That wasn’t the sequence of events people remembered, though. Instead they were taught that the tribesmen had been selfish, or callous, or jealous, or any manner of unflattering adjective, and had wanted to take the mainlands for themselves.
All thoughts of the Trickster and the nameless creature were wasted, though, as Aoife and Rin passed right under them, slipping into a small room that had previously been barred by a secret panel in the far wall. Once upon a time, the restricted books had been kept in a storeroom at the back of the library, but Elias had moved them to his workshop to better keep an eye on them, and to better care for them. The scent of ink and lime hung in the air, and Aoife could see a herse tucked away in the corner, a length of calf skin pulled taught in the middle of it. The centrepiece of the room was an ornate mahogany desk, with books piled high on its surface. In the middle of the desk sat a book stand, with an old papyrus book resting on top of it. Aoife couldn't even begin to guess how old it was—she'd read about papyrus being used before the invention of vellum—but it looked almost brand new. The book's cover was neatly pressed and beautifully decorated with an etching of a great wolf, its jaws open and lips curled back in a snarl. Rin smiled as he caught her looking at it, nodding in confirmation of a silent question that hung in the air.
"What is it?" Aoife asked, edging her way towards the book as if she expected it to crumble away if she got too close.
"One of the oldest books known to mankind," Rin explained, donning a pair of delicate white gloves and tossing a pair to Aoife. Thanks to what she was sure must have been divine intervention, the usually butter fingered girl managed to catch them. "It details all the royal family's darkest secrets."
"I can understand why it was banned," Aoife laughed, slipping the gloves onto her slender hands.
Rin shook his head. "The Valenaras were quite happy to see it continue in circulation, but the church... some of the things in here are near sacrilege."
Rin wasn't particularly religious himself. He believed there was something out there keeping the universe in check—all of this couldn't have come from nothing, he'd say late of an evening when he and Elias spoke of more serious matters than their daily affairs—but he couldn’t believe that it was the all loving humanoid that the church made their God out to be. He couldn't believe one creature, one Maker, had created everything, every single speck of life, because no single being was that powerful. Talk like that was branded as heresy, though, and in this life there was only one thing worse than a heretic; a non-believer. So he went to church every Sunday, and he said his prayers and thanked his Maker when there were people to hear, but in the privacy of his own home, in the safety of his grandfather’s company, he would happily voice his doubts and disbeliefs.
Aoife, on the other hand, was a devout believer in the Maker, owing to her religious upbringing, and wasn't entirely sure she was comfortable reading something considered sacrilegious. Her curiosity won out, though, and she finally closed the remaining distance between herself and the desk. Rin flashed her an eager smile, allowing her a moment to look at the sketched cover before turning the page, exposing the words contained beneath it.
"We have to be careful with this," Rin warned as Aoife leaned in towards the book, hair cascading over her shoulder like water and brushing the delicate pages. “Grandad hasn’t finished restoring it yet.”
Aoife bit back a retort about the term of endearment seeming too lower class for Rin, not wanting to offend her new acquaintance. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, eyes scanning the page for a name she could recognise. When she couldn't find one, Rin turned to a page roughly halfway through the book, the name 'Charles’ standing out at the top of the page.
"I already know about King Charles and his family," she said, frowning.
Rin shook his head. "Not like this, you don't."