Not many people had time for the library these days, but it still stood out like a glittering gem in the middle of the city. Aside from the Cathedral's spire, the Great Library was the tallest building in all of Eturia, and the stained glass window at her front never failed to cast flecks of colour down onto the street below each sunset. Rumour had it that the library was the oldest building in the city, but both the Cathedral and city hall liked to argue that they were in fact the oldest building, the Cathedral arguing that religion was more important than fiction, and city hall arguing that order and democracy was of greater need to their ancestors. According to the librarian, Elias, it was written down in one of the many non-fiction books, but he had since removed it from the shelf for fear of disappointing either party.
Aoife stopped as she reached the entrance to the library, pausing long enough to pay her respects to the great marble statues that stood before her. They almost seemed to be guarding the entrance, though Aoife couldn't see what good two lifeless pieces of stone would do in a fight. Nonetheless, she paid her respects all the same, following the old custom of kissing the statues' feet for good luck. Unlike Aostre, the library's statues were far more well endowed, and unbeknownst to Aoife had received more than a fair share of complaints of indecency. The truth of it was, most of the city had forgotten who the statues even depicted.
The two gentlemen, clad in little more than light armour on their shoulders, with swords clasped at their sides, almost like a mirror image of each other, were Droga and Brethin, of the first King's personal guard. Half legend and half truth, Droga and Brethin were rumoured to have been able to smell Aostre's enemies from five miles off. It was this talent that owed to their ability to boast of never allowing a threat within more than a few feet of their King. If one dug far back enough in the storybooks, one might even find an account of them never having to bloody their blades in front of the monarchy, though what occurred behind closed doors is a different matter.
Ultimately, it had been the pair’s arrogance that had brought about their demise. If the legends were to be believed, while they could smell Aostre’s enemies, they could not smell their own, and all the would be assassins they had slaughtered over the years had, needless to say, won them more than their fair share of enemies. And so one night, when the brothers were drunk on victory and ale, and the two had slunk back to their beds for the night to sleep off their inebriation, someone snuck into their shared room—they had been adamant that they should share a room, despite being grown men and both married—and taken each brother’s sword, hilts engraved with their initials, and plunged them into their bellies. When the two were found the next morning, the room had been staged to look as if the brothers had fought and both paid the price with their lives, and thus instead of their legacy being told around mead halls and campfires, it was instead used to warn of the evils of alcohol.
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 Tralbridge," 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 Tralbridge 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 Tralbridge, 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.
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 Tralbridge, 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 store room 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."