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The Archive of the Forgotten

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The Archive of the Forgotten

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Author: A. J. Hackwith
Publisher: Ace Books, 2020
Series: Hell's Library: Book 2

1. The Library of the Unwritten
2. The Archive of the Forgotten

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

The Library of the Unwritten in Hell was saved from total devastation, but hundreds of potential books were destroyed. Former librarian Claire and Brevity the muse feel the loss of those stories, and are trying to adjust to their new roles within the Arcane Wing and Library, respectively. But when the remains of those books begin to leak a strange ink, Claire realizes that the Library has kept secrets from Hell--and from its own librarians.

Claire and Brevity are immediately at odds in their approach to the ink, and the potential power that it represents has not gone unnoticed. When a representative from the Muses Corps arrives at the Library to advise Brevity, the angel Rami and the erstwhile Hero hunt for answers in other realms. The true nature of the ink could fundamentally alter the afterlife for good or ill, but it entirely depends on who is left to hold the pen.


Excerpt

1

CLAIRE

This is my last entry in the Librarian's Log. I don't know why Brevity insists; I never wrote in here as often as I should have. I did, at first, and I have reviewed the entries from my apprenticeship to confirm how rotten they were. I was. I can't believe this damned book even kept them. There's no rhyme or reason to it. I'll be glad to be rid of this log: the nattering of the dead.

That's not true. I suppose I should aim for the truth, now that there is so very little worth hiding. Let us try again.

I am Claire Juniper Hadley, librarian of the Unwritten Wing. Like any proper storyteller, I have lied. I have plotted and hurt and lied, so many lies I can't even recall. And with those plots, lies, and little hurts, I tried to do right by the Library. However, the performance of my duties has been found wanting, so I hereby resign my post to my highly qualified replacement, Brevity. Who will, no doubt, blot out my troubled service with her brilliant care.

Treat her well, old book. Or I'll come back and burn you too.

Librarian Claire Juniper Hadley, 2019 CE

The Arcane Wing was a cabinet of curiosities. Libraries have a tradition of maintaining a curio, a house of mathoms, oddities, trinkets, artifacts of inquiry. As curators of obscure and sometimes undervalued things, librarians attract the unusual and misplaced. Hell's Library was no different.

If one was to be accurate, Hell's Library was slightly different. What Hell would find curious, others might classify as weapons of gibbering terror.

Claire, for one, found it a refreshing break from books and authors. The objects of the Arcane Wing each had their own story, in a straightforward way. This dented crown was part of a dictator's deal with a demon, with its spot where his blood rusted through the false gold, stained when his people came for him. These ruby seeds, held under the tongue of a desperate child as she braved the underworld to find her lost brother. One is missing, accidentally swallowed, and turned the child to malachite. A sliver of her pinkie finger is cross-indexed three shelves down.

Each item held a story, but the story was done. The End. The Unwritten Wing hummed with unstarted beginnings, while the Arcane Wing was sepulchral with artifacts of untold ends. It was quiet; terrible and quiet. And it left Claire feeling like one more artifact. Like her story was done and told. Here, the disgraced former librarian of Hell's Unwritten Wing. See her shadowed eyes. And here are the cracks in her soul, flaws in her craftwork where all the purpose has sifted out. See how she moves in endless circles to avoid collecting dust.

Claire could have settled, and accepted her ignoble denouement, if she were not constantly being reminded of her ending.

The newest reminder sat cross-legged in a puddle of lamplight between tables. She was in the back of the Arcane Wing, which had been Andras's prison for Valhalla's ravens. When Andras had been Arcanist, the back wall had been a row of cages. Because libraries reflected their owners, that had all been smudged out of existence when Claire took over. Now, instead, smart hickory drawers lined the wall, each identified with a shiny brass nameplate.

Most bore some variation of tea leaf. Even a dead woman was allowed her vices.

Beneath the tisane collection, a damsel girl sat cross-legged, a mop of dark curls curtaining her face. She was a spry and striking shadow, dark as teak and fragile as blown glass right to the tips of her pointed ears. The romper she wore might have once been a pale gothic dress but had been efficiently stripped and tied above her knobby knees. She was a ghostly creature of bony edges, as if peeled out of a nightmare softened into dream.

"Rosia." It was helpful that the latter half of the damsel's name was mostly composed of a sigh. Claire rubbed her forehead. "This isn't the Unwritten Wing. You shouldn't be here."

"I got lonely." Rosia didn't look up; all of her concentration was focused on prying the edge of her thumbnail along the dark varnish of the floorboards. Thin curlicues of flaking varnish next to her toe were the only sign of progress so far.

"How can you be lonely? You have an entire suite of other damsels. And Brevity. Talk to your friends," Claire said with as much patience as she could muster. She tried to keep her voice soft, a feat it wasn't used to performing. Once, she would have known how to handle a wandering character. A warning, a scalpel flick, and stories would fold back into the books that confined them. Back when they were simply that--books to be shelved--and she was simply the librarian.

Nothing was that simple anymore. Claire had been shocked out of her decades of denial when a runaway book had forced her to divert a demonic coup and face the cruelty she'd inflicted in the past. Books, and the characters that awakened from them, might not be human but were worth a little humanity.

Rosia's twin moon eyes blinked a momentary eclipse before she turned back to toying with the flooring. "I am."

Nothing could ever be that simple anymore. "I beg your pardon?"

"I am with friends. They're so hard to hear, though," Rosia went on without acknowledging the question. "We play hide-and-seeks. They always win."

Claire glanced behind her, but she was patently alone. Damsels were not typically solitary characters, even ghost girls like Rosia. They were the hearts of stories that had woken up and had been allowed to remain as they were in the Library, instead of being shelved into their books again. It'd been a small mercy that Brevity had persuaded Claire into allowing when she'd been librarian. Now, under Brev's purview, the damsel suite seemed to have grown to an annex. It was a suspicious population growth, even accounting for the number of damsels and books lost during the siege.

Claire couldn't say she approved. There was very good reasoning for keeping unwritten books asleep on the shelves. Woken up, personified, characters risked changing, and change was transformative to their books. They could warp away from the story they were intended to be, or just go a little funny in the head.

Claire suspected Rosia of the latter, but it was hard to be harsh with a girl who was part moonbeam. She crouched down, attempting to be less of a, as Brev put it, "boogeyman for books." "This is the Arcane Wing. Characters don't belong here--"

Rosia's face crumpled, and she rapidly turned from eerie ghost princess to plaintive child. "But you'll still take care of us, right?"

"I--" Claire faltered over the ache that knotted in her chest. Her voice was unsteady when she found it again. "I'm not the librarian of your wing." Anymore. It made the pain worse to say that, so she didn't.

Rosia, if possible, fluttered with even greater distress. "But you'll take care of them? You have to."

"Who--" Claire bit off the question as heavy footsteps creaked on the boards behind her. Ramiel came around the corner, clapping the dust off his work-hardened hands.

His rumpled trench coat was a shade grayer than normal, a result of a morning spent moving the heavier of the Arcane Wing's residents around in the archives. He stopped short as he spotted Rosia. The pepper-colored feathers peeking from beneath the collar of his coat bristled into a disgruntled ruff. He had the perpetual look of a toy soldier sent one too many times through the dryer. Rami frowned in a way that sent his stony olive-tan features rumbling to concerned peaks. "Again?"

Claire rose to her feet and ignored the judgmental tone in his voice. "Please help Rosia back to the Unwritten Wing."

"Will you be speaking with Brevity?" Rami asked.

"I don't think so."

Rami was an angel of few words but a whole catalog of looks. The one he sent her now was worth an hour of chiding in itself. His expression softened as he offered a hand to Rosia, crouching down so his broad shadow didn't seem quite so imposing. "Up, on your feet, little soldier."

Rosia took his hand and reached down to pat the floorboards fondly before allowing him to guide her out. Her fingers danced along the shelves as they passed, but it appeared even the Arcane Wing's dangerous artifacts knew better than to harm one of her damsels.

Brevity's damsels, Claire amended with sour impatience for her own brain. She followed Rami down the row and tried to amend his judgment. "I am sure Brevity has her own people in hand. It's really not necessary."

"I'm a people now? Why does no one tell me when I've been promoted? We could have thrown a party."

The voice was too droll, too full of self-amusement, to mistake. Hero lounged against a table, having shoved a jumble of half-assembled (now utterly unassembled) bone relics out of the way to make room for the tail of his velvet coat. Claire hoped they'd cursed his ass in the process. Out of habit, Claire's attention went to the light scar whorling across his left cheekbone. It was a new blemish that Hero tried to downplay in his vanity, but it was healing nicely into a feature that humanized his otherwise eerie perfection, much to Claire's disgruntlement. Hero's assessing gaze flicked toward her for only a moment before settling on Rami with a light of interest. "Well, look at you. So paternal and domestic."

Rami didn't respond, but Claire could imagine the pained tightening of his stoic face. Hero delighted in having that effect on people. She brushed by Rosia to shoo Hero off the table. "Book."

"Warden." Hero managed to stand and make it look like his idea. He picked imaginary dust from the velour of his jacket. This one was dyed a royal blue that matched the fine seams of his ridiculously tailored fantasy breeches and set the red tones in his bronze hair glowing primly. Hero always looked one breath away from delivering a bon mot or challenging someone to a duel. "Rumor has it you've borrowed a damsel. We're not a lending kind of library, as you would know."

" 'Borrow' is not an accurate term." Claire twirled her hand impatiently, but Rosia seemed in no hurry to let go of Rami's hand. "This is the fourth time in two weeks, Hero. Your stunt has obviously set a bad precedent for the damsels."

"I'm certain the women of the Library were fully capable of independent mischief before me, if your example is any to go by," Hero demurred.

"Yes, you just help it along," Rami muttered to the floor.

The smile Hero sent Rami was magnificent, shameless, and wasted, for Rami refused to look at him. "In any case, my many charms are not why I am here." Hero turned no less a devilish look to Claire. "Brevity's asked for you."

"No, she hasn't," Claire said automatically. She'd made a purposeful--painful but purposeful--withdrawal in the weeks following the coup that had led to the Library's shake-up. She'd stopped visiting, stopped answering questions, stopped having a say in the welfare of books. Brevity would never fully accept the mantle of Unwritten Wing librarian if Claire didn't provide the breathing room for her to do so.

Of course, Brevity, the best-natured soul in Hell, had wanted the exact opposite. Claire had been forced to use brusque methods and harsher words before the Unwritten Wing had gradually stopped trying to pull her back in. Brevity got the message eventually.

It hurt, the silence. But then Claire was very skilled at finding the most efficient ways to hurt herself.

"The Librarian has requested conference with the Arcanist," Hero said in a withering voice that capitalized titles out of spite. He leaned back in order to more properly look down his nose at her. "Is that formal enough for you, warden?"

Claire's cheeks heated, but she was well practiced at returning Hero's glare. "You don't have to be an ass about it."

"I was just about to say the same thing! How delightful." Hero easily snaked his arm through the crook of Claire's elbow. "And I couldn't help but overhear you ordering your gloomy feather duster in the same direction--"

"Feather duster?" Rami objected, half-confused but certain of insult.

"--so we can all go together! Just like old times. Except he's not trying to kill us," Hero amended. "Yet."

Claire allowed herself to be escorted out of the wing, if only to avoid impending bloodshed.

Claire had walked the path between the Unwritten Wing and the Arcane Wing countless numbers of times. She also hadn't walked it once in the last six months. She was almost grateful for the way Hero kept up an irritating patter of snark and asides, ribbing Rami endlessly and giving Claire something to focus on besides the familiar creak of boards beneath her feet.

The doors had changed, too, when Brevity had accepted the librarian mantle. They were cherry-stained now instead of buttery oak. It was a cheerier improvement, Claire thought, so like Brevity. The door was adorned with broad silver handles and a knocker that invited someone to come in, find themselves a book, stay awhile. Not that the Library had many visitors in Hell. Even fewer after the fire.

The Unwritten Wing had been quieter than ever after the coup attempt. Andras, the former demon Arcanist, had attempted the unthinkable--taking control of the Library. He'd failed but burned hundreds of unwritten books on his way down. It was a scandal, even in Hell, and prompted even demons to stay away. Somehow the ghost of Claire's failure had musted the air like mothballs, no matter how much Brevity wiped down the shelves.

"Look alive, you brute. Your favorite is back," Hero said, insults rubbed thin with affection as they passed the giant gargoyle that kept guard outside the wing. It was dozing in a span of false sunbeam in its alcove and barely roused with their passing. Claire caught a flash of flower petals on its brow before the familiar dimensional vertigo set in. Probably one of the damsels had done that, though who knew where they'd have gotten flowers.

"Hello," Claire just remembered to say before the pause became awkward. The gargoyle's arm was gritty and reassuringly solid under her fingertips despite his non-euclidean angles. At least not everything had changed. The gargoyle gave an eldritch hum that made everyone wince, but it was a fond kind of abomination. Not everything had forgotten her.

Hero quickened his step to jump ahead and pull the doors open, keeping up lazy commentary that sounded more artificial than normal.

Claire stepped through the entry and stopped. The doors had merely been a prelude to change. The stacks remained in their same general configuration--branching canyons of tall shelves, spoking out from the lobby space in the middle. There was still the librarian's desk, as large and anchored as ever. The desk was the eternal sun around which the celestial array of the Unwritten Wing turned. But everything felt shifted out of alignment. The woods were stained a cherry color, and the brass workings of Claire's preference were gone. Instead, tiny little faerie lights raced up and down the vertical surfaces of the cavernous wing, lighting everything in a diffuse kind of cheer. Instead of brass rails keeping books from falling off their shelves like jailers, delicate wood carvings hemmed each row, almost like picket fences making a garden of the books rather than a confinement. The Unwritten Wing was still as large and echoing as ever, but Brevity's influence on the Library left it feeling almost soft around the edges.

The emptiness in Claire seemed to have taken up residence in her chest. She had thought the complicated dull ache she felt couldn't be dislodged, but when she focused back on the librarian's desk, her heart did a painful lurch up her throat.

The chair behind the desk was occupied, back to the doors. Perched at the opposite end of the desk was a spritely figure, head bent in conversation. For a moment, it was a specter of the past to Claire. How many countless days had they spent in that arrangement? She worrying away at her busywork, Brevity keeping her company with a steady patter of reports and idle chatter intended to draw Claire into something approaching human conversation.

She blinked hard, twice, and returned to her senses. The figure perched at the end of the desk looked like a muse but was not Brevity. This muse had a pin-straight fall of lavender hair, not a teal explosion. Wore ruffles instead of neon straps and pockets. Hero cleared his throat, and the chair behind the desk turned, disgorging Brevity as she leapt to her feet at the sight of the new arrivals. "Claire! Oh, brilliant, you found them."

This last comment was directed at Hero, who sketched a sardonic bow that Claire would have grumbled at him for. But this was not her Library; Hero was not her assistant. Instead, Claire bit her tongue and drafted a smile onto her face. "Brev."

Brevity approached at her usual speed, and if she paused, hesitating on one foot long enough to flinch uncertainly before squeezing Claire in a hug, neither of them was willing to acknowledge it. It was a one-armed hug, the other stiff at her side. Claire tried not to miss it.

"Thank you for coming," Brevity whispered, and this, at least, seemed heartfelt. Claire smiled around the lump in her throat, and Brevity nudged her back toward the librarian's desk. "There are introductions to make. We have a guest! Probity is visiting the wing as an envoy from the Muses Corps," Brevity said, introducing the lavender-haired woman at the desk.

"And as a sibling muse," the other muse corrected with a fond tone. She looked like a porcelain shard. Her hair softened the effect, hanging around her pointed chin in sheets of silk. It contrasted with her too-smooth mint-tinged skin and silver eyes set above precise cheekbones. Muses were the couriers of inspiration and naturally attracted to color. She wore a layer cake of soft knits: white cashmere over blue lace and yellow tatter. The bubblegum pink ribbon in her hair was clasped with a tiny bird skull. The effect was as if a porcelain doll had escaped the tyranny of petticoats and discovered the pastel goth aesthetic as an act of rebellion. She had a detached kind of smile as she nodded to Claire, voice airy with politeness. "You must be the former librarian, then."

Claire had the grace not to flinch. "I am the Arcanist of the Arcane Wing. I expect to be pleased to make your acquaintance." She chose her words precisely, and it was petty, but Claire believed she could be afforded that much, all things considered.

"My mistake, Arcanist." Probity's head tilted as if she were about to add something more, but Brev interrupted with a cleared throat.

"And this is Hero. And Ramiel."

Their guest muse turned. "Master Ramiel, shepherd of souls, it's an honor." Her face reshuffled into a formal kind of respect as she nodded to Rami and spared a little wave for Rosia, who was hiding half in Rami's shadow. Her gaze didn't linger until it got to Hero. Probity's eyes widened. "Oh, this is the book? The book?"

"Yes?" Hero hesitated as Probity straightened attentively. "Or no. That depends what I'm accused of."

Probity drew up close, peering into his face for apparent confirmation. She only came up to Hero's chest, so she strained to her tiptoes. There was a little awe in her voice, and a limpid amount in her wide eyes. "You really are. Hero, the character that broke his own book. The book that's forgotten itself."

"Broken, that's me. Charmed." Hero cleared his throat, red in his cheeks. Evidently Brevity had not warned Probity that behind all the bluster, Hero was wary of strangers. He made to step back, but Probity clapped her hands abruptly around his face.

"Oh," Probity whispered with reverence. "You're amazing."

Hero made a noise of stifled discomfort. Claire was about to intervene when Probity withdrew her hands with a blush. "We heard so much about you, after the burning. The book so damaged to reject its own character. Do you..." She stepped into his space again. "Do you have it on you? I'd love to see it."

"A gentleman never tells. Quite forward, aren't you?" Hero didn't jump back, but it was a near thing. He stepped sideways, placing the desk between Probity and himself.

"Probity gets straight to the truth," Brevity explained, and Claire thought there was a graphite streak of protectiveness in her light tone. "You get used to it."

"Will I?" Only once Hero was certain that Probity would not pursue did he straighten his jacket. "I had no idea muses took such interest in lost causes."

"Those are the causes I have the most interest in," Probity said, smiling. "I would very much like to examine your book someday, if you would allow me. Nothing is truly lost. That's just where the brand-new opportunities lie. Brevity taught me that."

"I did? Oh, I did. Probity and I grew up together. Back"--Brevity made a purposefully vague gesture--"when we were younger."

Muses did not age, so much as they came into their innate nature. Young muses, from what Claire understood, often clustered and grew relationships around sympathetic affinities. A muse of Brevity befriending a muse of Probity made a certain kind of sense. Brevity did not like to talk about her past as a muse, and Claire respected that. It didn't keep her from eyeing Probity carefully. At least she'd drawn her attention away from Hero, who looked almost grateful for it. "The muses honor us with a visit."

A small crease appeared between Probity's brows, as if Claire had asked a question that troubled her. "Yes."

"Probity's an amazing muse," Brevity interjected. "Her skill with inspiration gilt is better than anyone's, and the way she can work with even old gilt--"

"You remember that," Probity said with a soft color to her cheeks.

"Why?" Claire asked, too sharp and too quick. Hell, her social skills had gotten rusty. "Why visit now?"

The blush curdled on Probity's cheeks and she frowned. Brevity rushed in. "Of course, I'm thrilled to see you again. But the muses haven't been exactly... communicative... with the Unwritten Wing in recent years."

"And we regret the breakdown as much as we're sure the Library does." Probity's eyes flicked once to Claire, wary as a cat's, but then were all warmth and kindness for Brevity and the others. "I am here because we thought, with the change of curatorship, we could make amends. Offer support to the Library and the books."

"Support." Hero repeated the word, and for once Claire was grateful for his prickly suspicion. He crossed his arms. "Everyone seems so interested in supporting us since the fire."

Rami grunted his agreement, and the sour look on his face said he was thinking of Malphas, the entirely terrifying demon general of Hell who had visited Claire in the aftermath and instigated all the changes in the wake of Andras's downfall. To be precise, the books of the Library had removed Claire as the librarian, but it was Malphas who had delivered the message. Probity's genuine interest was a thin veneer at best, so it was no wonder Rami and Hero looked on any new offers of help the way one would look on a rabid raccoon playing dead.

"Hero," Brevity said softly. "Don't be rude."

Claire opened her mouth with a reply but closed it just as quickly. There was a precise tilt to Brevity's shoulders, and her hands bunched at her sides, as if cradling a small and fragile thing.

Claire forced her jaw to relax, her tension to leak out. Probity seemed fond of Brevity, and if they were childhood friends she could imagine what hopes Brev might harbor about muses and the Library. And here her supposed friends were picking fights like alley cats. It was Claire's doing, and she should be the one to make the effort. She took a deep breath, swallowed her dislike, and held out a hand. "Of course. As the Arcanist, I hope we can build a cooperative relationship with the corps."

Brevity's smile was so grateful it made Claire feel even worse. Probity, for her part, considered Claire's hand with a doubtful hesitation. "That is kind but unnecessary. The muses have no relationship or business with the Arcane Wing."

"Probity!" It was Probity's turn to get scolded by Brevity's big eyes. "I invited Claire and Hero up here to introduce you. We're all members of the Library. Claire taught me everything."

Claire was watching closely, so it was possible that only she noticed the quiet anger that flinched across Probity's face, then was gone. "She did. Even in the corps we heard about the former librarian and her methods."

"Probity," Brevity said, a little bit plaintively, "Claire is a friend."

For her part, Claire held still, and all it took was a single finger raised behind her back to get Rami to do the same. She reviewed what she could surmise about a muse named Probity. A muse of probity would be a muse of rightness and moral justice, and, like all muses, would maintain a fluid identity influenced by the human world. Brevity had always been the domain of women, by matter of necessity--less air to breathe, less room to speak. Justice, at the moment, appeared to be a pastel-colored woman with the grit of judgment in her eyes.

When someone decided to hate you, for whatever reason, there was rarely any good in trying to convince them otherwise. Claire couldn't stop the old taste of guilt that rose, however. She hadn't been a good librarian. Not for many of the years of her service. She'd been miserable and cold and downright cruel to Brevity even, at first. Until Brevity had worn down her defenses.

Evidently her temperament had gone uncensored, but not unnoticed, by the muses.

There was no fault in Probity's observations. It was deserved, and defending herself would only make Brevity more miserable, so Claire forced her lips into an accepting grimace. "Yet I believe we can both agree that Brevity makes an excellent librarian."

Probity seemed caught off guard but nodded once. "That goes without saying."

It did not go without saying, judging by the way surprise slowly melted into a vibrating kind of happiness as Brevity looked back and forth between them. "I knew you two would hit it off. Brill."

Claire ignored the strain in that pronouncement. She could pretend, quite a lot, for Brevity's sake. She owed her that much at least. "Of course. I did have some Library business to discuss with you, as a matter of fact...."

Claire glanced pointedly at Probity, but judging by their faces it appeared neither of the muses understood common concepts like privacy and discretion. Brevity straightened imperceptibly, putting on her very best serious face. "Right. What's up?"

"We found a damsel wandering in the Arcane Wing," Claire said with as much patience as she could muster. "Again."

"Oh." Brevity's face fell. She craned around Claire. "Rosia?"

The shadow behind Rami was empty. He frowned at it, then nodded. "I told her she could run off to the suite when you two started... discussing."

Claire ignored the pirouette Rami had executed around the tension in the room in favor of addressing her concern straight on. "That's the third time this week."

Brevity studied her hands. "I know."

"If the damsels are unhappy--"

"That's a concern for the librarian, is it not?" Probity interrupted quietly. She offered a harmless smile when Claire frowned at her. "I mean, I am only a muse, but surely you have your own charges to worry about, Arcanist."

Claire's title slid off Probity's tongue of polite sympathy. A syrupy quality of kindness that made her stomach roil. Claire pursed her lips. "I did not cede my personal investment in the Library when I stepped down. If the damsels are not kept in hand, it puts the entire wing at risk--"

"Which is the sole responsibility of the librarian," Brevity said in a whisper. She was studying her hands, shoulders curved in like shields. "I appreciate your support, Probity, but Claire is right. If there's a problem, it's my fault."

"That's not true. None of this is your fault; if she hadn't as librarian--" Probity started when Brevity held up a hand.

"I'll speak to Rosia and the rest of the damsels. Maybe this time they'll tell me what I can do to rectify the situation." She hesitated, glancing at Claire. Her cheeks were flushed lavender. "Thank you for bringing this to my attention... and I'm sorry." Brevity abruptly walked past her desk toward the stacks.

Damn. There was no end to Claire making a social muck of things. She started forward. "Brevity."

Brevity stopped short and turned, anxiety ringing in every twitch of movement. Claire chewed on her lip and sought the right approach. "I know this falls entirely under your authority," she said slowly, "but the Arcane Wing would consider it a great favor if we could assist with the Unwritten Wing's investigation of this issue."

Brevity's shoulders sagged, if only a little. "Oh, right. Sure you can." A sliver, a ghost really, of the old Brevity was there, easy and warm for just a moment before skittering from sight. "Would you, um, like to... ?" Wiggling fingers gestured toward the depths of the stacks where the damsel suite was located.

Claire kept her nod businesslike. "Please lead the way."

It was a pantomime that kept them going. If Claire and Brevity had been intractable from librarian and apprentice, they had been forced to become someone else--something else--now. Arcane Wing and Unwritten. Duties instead of people. Claire, above all, knew how much easier it was to be a duty rather than a person. She also knew the damage it caused. She had worried at it but ultimately decided it was better than losing Brevity entirely. It was as much Claire's unwillingness to let go of the Library as it was Brevity's reluctance to step up, after all. They just needed time to settle. A quiet truce would eventually see them back to rights, or at least somewhere adjacent to it.

Claire followed Brevity down the canyons of wood and leather that made up the Unwritten Wing. Her mind continued to tick and twitch, impossible to not note all the hundreds of little things that had changed. The Unwritten Wing was supposed to be static, a place of preservation, but nothing overflowing with stories ever stayed the same. Claire could see the ways the wing had softened and shifted to suit Brevity, just as the Arcane Wing had for Claire. The biggest changes were immediately obvious; the blond woods and frosted-glass globes were gone, warmed to a ruddy cherry and curious silver starburst lights that had the impression of orbiting, ever so slightly, out of the corner of her eye. There were more subtle changes too. The ends of the stacks were capped with loud paintings that appeared to shift and vibrate with just as much life as the clutch of stacked books nested against the wood. It made Claire flinch to see books stacked on the floor--messy, loud, potentially damaging. Who knew what bad influence each story was having on others, fraternizing higgledy-piggledy like that? But Brevity never was as afraid of making a mess. Claire admired that, the courage to spill things, fix your mistakes, try again. Claire had never had the stomach for it. But then again, Claire's first mistake in the Library had been impossible to take back. A bit of murder had a tendency to make one gun-shy.

The hodgepodge tower of books seemed content, pages fluttering so lightly as to not even disturb the dust on the covers as they walked by. And content, stable books were all the Library hoped to achieve, Claire was forced to remind herself.

The entrance to the damsel suite, at least, had remained the same. The door was inset with frosted glass, behind which the low murmur of discussion, broken with occasional laughter, percolated. Brevity knocked twice before pulling open the door, leaving Claire to follow behind her. In the past, when Claire had visited the damsels as head librarian, the room fell into a curbed silence at her presence. Not so under Brevity's tenure, it seemed. Claire closed the door behind her on a clatter of buzzing conversation. Several of the women waved; one even whistled. The noise began to creep down by inches only when the damsels nearest the door caught sight of Claire. The energy fizzled out of the room.

"Need your attention for a minute!" Brevity said brightly, not seeming to notice the awkward lull. "I've brought Claire for a visit!"

The silence turned from a pause to a flatline. Claire kept her vague smile in place and thought that perhaps Brevity was a bit vindictive after all.

Brevity briefly scanned the cavernous room before frowning. "Where's Rosia?"

A slender scholar at the nearest table shot her a confused look. "We thought she was still with you. No one's seen her since last night."

"She didn't--but an hour ago..." Brevity sucked in a breath and turned, but Claire already had the door thrown open. Brevity sprinted back down the Library stacks, and Claire followed at a brisk pace.

At least, for once, they knew exactly where a runaway book was going.

Copyright © 2020 by A. J. Hackwith


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