“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
―Jorge Luis Borges
Euclavia glared down at the sweaty slip of paper crumpled in her left fist. She had managed to shut the door of her tutor’s office quietly behind her, managed to walk with soft steps all the way down the hall to the outside door, managed to pass through those great oaken portals (carven as they were with allegorical scenes in relief, involving trees and fauns and one very confused–looking centaur) softly and without force. She paused at the top of the granite steps, panting lightly with the effort of keeping her temper, and whispered under her breath, “One more source, Professor Harvey? One more source to read for my already–finished thesis? One more fucking source?”
She stared across the green lawns and pale gravel paths of the university campus, allowing the soft breeze to lift her hair. Morning light limned the roof tiles and rendered green leaves translucent. She forced her breathing to slow, her hand to unclench.
A centaur, much less confused–looking than the one disporting itself with the allegorical fauns, trotted up to the base of the steps. Sunlight—also shimmering on the appaloosa blanket across his shoulders—sparked red highlights off his glossy brown–black skin. He didn’t have to crane his head to look up at her, though she stood at the top of the steps to the Biomancy building, as he was the height of a tall man atop a tall horse.
His name was Bucephalus.
“Hey, Eu,” Bucephalus said. “What’s wrong?”
The paper rustled as her fist clenched again. “I’ve got to go to the library.”
If his face hadn’t been the color of an antique cherrywood escritoire, she imagined he might have blanched.
She held the slip of paper out to him. He took it, read it while his mobile eyebrows performed arabesques and oddities, and then said, aloud, “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy. By Frederick Accum.”
“I need to read a rare book.”
“I gathered.” His eyebrows said, but this?!
“There’s apparently,” she sighed, “a chapter on poisonous mushrooms. And since my thesis deals with the use of psychoactive plants in thaumaturgy…”
Euclavia decided that she needed pastry to take the edge off her irritation. Centaurs were pretty much always hungry, having two stomachs to fill, so the companions set off down the path to the buttery.
Bucephalus’s horsy tail flicked unhappily. His hoof clomped as he stamped. “That’s just the worst. I thought the whole thing was written!”
“It is,” she said. “Professor Harvey wants additional cites, and he thinks I need to rework my mushroom chapter based on some information in this particular text.”
His eyebrows were dubious. “Which is in the special collections.”
“Of course,” she said. She paused. He gave her a nervous sideways glance and sidled away. She was pitiless. “I want you to come with me.”
“Aw, Eu,” he said.
“Hey,” she said. “Who’d been helping you with your arcanology lab procedure and grading every week since last semester?”
He stopped short. He tossed his head. He snorted. He folded his arms, glared at her, and when she glared right back he shook out his mane and sighed like a gusty storm.
She didn’t drop her gaze. She said, “How dangerous can it be?”
His eyebrows scowled thunderously. “You’re an awful person.”
“You’re all–but–dissertation. And you’ve been ABD for how long now?”
He didn’t look at her.
She said, “How much thesis do you have left to write?”
That stopped him. “You’ll help me finish.”
“How much is left?”
“I’m stuck,” he said. And then, after a few moments, “Two chapters. Maybe. Just the conclusion really. And the bibliography.”
Desperation crushed her better judgment. “I’ll help you finish,” she agreed, regretting it already.
He glared at her, tail flicking. But, “All right,” he said.
Euclavia felt a twinge in her better nature, knowing that on some level she’d taken advantage of her predator stare to bully the herd animal. She stepped on her softer emotions ruthlessly. Pity never made a sorcerer.
“When do you want to go?” he asked. From the way he was studying the light touching the minarets of an ornate lecture hall on the edge of campus, she knew he was hoping he’d be able to come up with a prior engagement.
They had a study date that evening.
“After lunch,” she said. “Today.”
“Soonest begun,” she said. “Is first ended. Let’s just get this over with before we lose our nerve completely, shall we? Besides. Maybe Dr. Theophilus will be impressed by your initiative. We will totally find a book in the Special Collections on your topic, too. We’ll check with the reference librarians on the way in.”
“I don’t believe I’m letting you talk me into this.”
“The word you want is browbeat, old friend. Come on, let’s go eat before all the good stuff is gone.”
Euclavia was still chewing on an end of bread when they left the buttery the better part of an hour later. That was a short meal, by centaur standards (two stomachs, one inadequate human mouth to fill them with), and Bucephalus had done his best to draw it out for another hour. But Euclavia (again) had been pitiless.
Even inside her head, the phrase was starting to take on the sonorous quality of a refrain.
Bucephalus ignored her as they walked into the afternoon light, preferring to pointedly argue literature with Joseph, a bull–headed classmate who chewed his cud and contemplated the quadrangle with deceptively mild bovine eyes. They paused in the lavender shade of an ancient, bowering jacaranda tree. Euclavia waited with slowly diminishing grace, rocking from foot to foot, while they continued the conversation.
The shadows had moved a half–inch, and the centaur was saying, “Honestly, as far as poets of anguished masculinity go, I prefer Conrad to Hemingway, but they’re both operating from a very narrow construction—” when Euclavia thumped him lightly on the shoulder with the side of her hand and said, “I hate to interrupt, Bue, but if we’re going to do this while there’s still some daylight to work with, we ought to get a wiggle on.”
Bucephalus glared at her, but it was the right threat. Darkness would be worse, for both of them.
“What are you up to?” Joseph asked, and for a moment Euclavia almost hoped he’d decide to join them.
But—“The Library,” Bucephalus announced, as if he were informing Joseph of a death. “Eu needs a book. Says her advisor.”
Joseph shuddered. “You’re braver creatures than I. Do you have the list of supplies?”
Bucephalus said, “It’s in the student handbook.”
“Right.” Joseph whipped a rucksack off his enormous, humped shoulder–Euclavia hadn’t even seen it up there—and dug around in it with one horny hand. He stared off into space with a concentrated expression—or as close as a bull’s muzzle could get, while still absently cud–chewing—and then came up with a ball of string and a grin.
“Here.” He placed it ceremoniously in Bucephalus’s hand. “You might just need this.”
The Library was not a single building, but rather a complex of buildings on the edge of campus, with only one way in. It was said to have one copy of every book ever written. This was probably an exaggeration, despite the fact that it seemed to have a functionally infinite interior. The Library was bigger on the inside, and it iterated.
It certainly had a great mad pile of things shelved within it. Finding them was another matter: there was no card catalogue, and several attempts to establish one had met with madness, failure, and disappearances.
There were, however, Librarians. Librarians, with their overdeveloped hippocampi, their furled cloaks, their swords and wands sheathed swaggeringly across their backs. The university bureaucracy was nightmarish, Byzantine, and largely ornamental. But those caveats did not apply to the Librarians, an elite informational force second to none. They were lean, organized, and they knew when to turn left and when to turn right.
This one looked dubious, and a little concerned. “I recommend against this,” said the Librarian.
It did nothing to settle Euclavia’s stomach.
She held up the scrap of paper, with its scrawled note proclaiming: A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy. By Frederick Accum.
“My tutor wants me to read this for my thesis.”
With—she hoped—the outward appearance of calm, she added, “Special collections.”
“Hmm,” said the Librarian. She extracted the soggy scrap from Euclavia’s grasp and perused it closely. “Have you been sleeping with your tutor’s spouse or something? Any reason for him to want you dead? No?”
“No,” Euclavia said firmly, wondering. She was aware of Bucephalus falling back from her rear, very silently indeed for somebody with four hooves as big as dinner plates walking on a hardwood floor. She stuck a hand back and grabbed his mane before he sidled completely out of reach.
He snorted. He could have dislodged her easily and made a break for it, but other than leaning against her grip, he didn’t put up a fight.
“It has a chapter on mushrooms,” Euclavia said helpfully.
“I can’t imagine how it would be useful. It’s from an interdicted plane, you see. Nonfunctional thaumosphere. Very difficult to get books in and out of a place like that. But we’re committed, very committed. Still, that’s why it’s in Special Collections. The Special Collections Librarian is very interested in such works.”
The Librarian pronounced her colleague’s title with an upward flicker of her eyes, as if she expected it to make an impression. It was that expectation more than any prior knowledge that gave Euclavia the creeping chills.
“So tell us about this Librarian,” said Bucephalus.
The Librarian shook her head. “She doesn’t really like to be discussed.”
“Tell us about the labyrinth, then,” Euclavia suggested.
The Librarian smiled. “It changes without notice. Try not to get caught between the sliding stacks when they move. We can check you out a ball of twine.”
“We have one.” Euclavia held it up.
“Good,” said the Librarian. “Then you’re prepared. You’ll want three days of food. Pencils and notepaper—pens are not allowed. A sleeping bag or bedroll. No fires. Browse at your own risk. Urination and defecation in designated restrooms only. No shoes on the antique carpets. That goes double for horse–shoes. First aid stations and water are with the restrooms. We say, every five kilometers, but really they move around. Any questions?”
Euclavia and Bucephalus shook their heads.
“Do you need to go back for anything?”
“Please don’t feed the books. Some of them will beg.”
“Everybody wants something,” the Librarian said. “It’s the metric for a successful story.” She wrote something down and handed it to Euclavia. It was a number, and it glowed faintly. “Here. This will illuminate your researches.”
Euclavia took it and said “Thank you” automatically.
“In libres! In libres! Into the books!” the Librarian cried.
An archway did not so much open behind her as become apparent for the first time, as if Euclavia had suddenly noticed it. She glanced over at Bucephalus and found him staring, too, nostrils flared, eyebrows elevated. If his ears were mobile, they would have been pricked tip to tip.
Bucephalus held her gaze for a moment longer, then glanced over at the Librarian. “Say,” he asked. “What do you have on alchemically dissolving and later reconstituting skeletons in animatable form?”
“What kind of skeletons?”
“It’s always the quiet ones,” she said.
And then she issued them a second pass, with another faintly phosphorescent call number scribbled on it.
Bucephalus plucked the ball of twine from Euclavia’s palm and tied one end in careful knots, high among the ornate carvings on the archway. “There,” he said. “That should be out of the way.”
He seemed suddenly cheery. Euclavia didn’t trust it. She shouldered her pack and they set off into the stacks, falling into step with one another. Now his hooves clattered cheerfully on the floors, the flash of white stockings on mahogany–black legs showing bright in the gloom.
“Where’s the fatalism?” Euclavia asked.
The centaur snorted. His tail stung her shoulders as he gave it a particularly good swish. “This is fatalism,” he replied. “I’ve made the decision to die happy.”
At first, the shelves were wooden, widely spaced and low enough to see over. They were crammed with bright, slender, large–format books with hard board covers. Euclavia reached for one with a lavishly illustrated front, the image half–concealed behind its smaller neighbor. The colors were glorious and she itched to touch it.
Bucephalus caught her wrist. “Browse at your own risk,” he murmured.
“It’s the children’s section!”
His eyebrows were shaped like commas, but in their articulation they provided all the punctuation a novelist could desire. “Don’t tell me small humans are immune to nightmares.”
Euclavia still remembered a few so vividly it didn’t seem as if more than a decade had passed. “Point taken,” she said, and drew back her hand without stroking that jewel–toned spine.
She glanced down at the scrap with the call number on it. The scrawl still glowed with a faint, silver–violet light. When she turned to the right, she thought it became incrementally brighter.
She held her scrap up and swung from side to side so Bucephalus could see the effect. “Check yours.”
He pulled it from the sporran he wore slung around his human waist, hanging against the chest of his horse–part. “To the right,” he said after a moment’s study.
“Going my way?” she joked.
He snorted, but she thought he felt the same relief that she did. At least they wouldn’t have to split up, or make the decision to spend longer in the Library together, to track down both sources. Not yet, anyway.
A black thing, cat–sized—something with wings, or something like a black rag or sack caught up on a wind—flapped and tumbled from above. There might be vaults up there, a groined roof lost in shadows. There might be stars, Euclavia thought. She imagined she caught a glimpse of rectangles of transparent indigo speckled with shimmering lights, but it was like looking upward through water. Everything wavered, as if the shadows were veils of smoke or translucent silk lashed in a wind, half–obscuring.
The thing with the ragged wings—if they were wings—landed atop one of the shelves a few rows off and scuttled along it batlike, spiking elbows above its back. It lowered an indistinct head and sniffed, hard and frequently. It turned, then—just the head, rotating like an owl’s—and fixed Euclavia with a fiery green stare, flat and reflective as the glare of light off still water.
She froze and it hissed, or perhaps it hissed and she froze. A moment later, its glare was interrupted. Then it kicked off hard, wings—if they were wings—extended and flurrying, a slim emerald–colored folio depending from its back feet. Euclavia saw that it wore white cotton gloves over what were unmistakably birdlike talons.
“What was that?” Euclavia asked.
She turned to slap his shoulder, but he was staring after the whatever–it–was, not watching her for a reaction, and his expression looked earnest. Earnest, and concerned. So she patted him instead. His hide was wet already with nervous lather.
They walked on, taking turns trailing the twine behind them, long enough to become hungry and stop at a rest room for food and a nap. The rest was physical only: Bucephalus remained standing up, like an ill–at–ease stallion, and Euclavia managed nothing more than to drift and briefly doze. It didn’t leave her refreshed.
After a few desultory hours, they washed their faces, used the facilities, and drank some weak tea made from the hot water tap before continuing. Several more of the black flapping creatures flitted about overhead. Some bore volumes in their white–gloved talons. None of them, after the first, paid any heed to Bucephalus and Euclavia.
They didn’t run out of twine, which was a minor miracle. Consider the source, though: they had gotten the ball from a minotaur.
Euclavia was about to campaign for a break for lunch—she had apples and cheese in her bag, and saw the cheery red glow of a restroom sign off to the right—when something ahead rumbled softly, more a shiver through the floor than a real noise Euclavia heard with her ears. She looked at Bucephalus, who was already looking down at her.
“Your hearing is better,” she said.
His grin was more of a wince. “The stacks. They’re moving.”
So they were.
Euclavia and Bucephalus came to a railing. Below it was a drop of at least one story, down to an enormous, possibly boundless room.
As they paused on the edge of the Children’s Section, Euclavia strained her eyes to peer into the gathering gloom of Nonfiction. She saw before her serried rank upon rank of gray steel shelves, stretching into haze, dimness, and misty infinity. Even from the elevated height she stood upon, each stack was taller than Bucephalus, and she gave up trying to calculate the number of books that might be visible after a few moments of desultory math that nevertheless left her an ache between the eyes.
They were not in neat rows, but rather formed a sort of irregular pattern of right angles. Like the sort of maze you might draw with a pen, Euclavia thought. Trying to trace it with her eyes made her dizzy.
“So many books,” Bucephalus said.
“It’s a labyrinth, not a library.”
“The path to knowledge follows many strange turnings,” he replied. She didn’t know if it was a quotation.
The air had a faint, sickly, rancid odor. Something that made Bucephalus snort and stamp. She didn’t ask him to identify it.
“Down the stairs?” she asked.
He gave her a haunted look, and followed her along the rail.
But the stairs, when they found them, were spiral. No challenge for Euclavia, but Bucephalus would not be descending in that fashion. They stood there, side by side, frowning down at the wrought steel spiral.
“It’s only about twelve feet down,” he said at last. “I could jump.”
“You cannot jump,” she answered. “You’d have to go over the railing. That’s three more feet, and onto a hard floor. You’ll break your legs.”
“If only we had a block and tackle. I could lower myself.” He looked around. “This is a public building, right?”
“So it has to be accessible.” He paced off toward the nearest side wall, visible because of the glow of yet another sign indicating a restroom.
Euclavia dug out her scrap and glanced down at it as she followed. The silver–violet glow was dimming. “We’re going the wrong way.”
“Says you. Hah, there it is!”
He gestured. Her eye followed. She blinked. Picked out in cheery red symbols over a filigreed cage door was the word “mezzanine,” and through the cage the interior of a lift was just visible.
“You’re going to trust that thing?”
“Can’t get down the spiral stair,” he remarked with casual bravado. “If you’re too chicken I’ll meet you on the ground floor.”
She probably would have taken him up on it, but she could see the foamy white lather worked up in the creases of his joints, and she knew he wasn’t any less scared than she. So she tossed the ball of twine over the rail and then followed him in to the lift—he raised and lowered and locked the grate—and waited while he pushed the button marked ground. The thing hesitated for a moment and then started up with a shudder that left her clutching the centaur’s arm with both hands. But then it smoothed out, and by the time it (gently) settled level with the ground floor, she was shaking out her robe and trying to pretend to both of them that she was entirely nonchalant.
He raised the grate, and they both stepped out briskly. He left it open behind them, she noticed, and she figured that was a sensible precaution in case they had to leave in a hurry.
“Ugh,” he said. “Stinks even worse down here.”
“It smells like something rotten,” she said, turning to find the string. She handed the ball to him.
He gave her a look that made her wish she hadn’t commented. “It is.”
They entered the maze. There were more of the ragged black things here, flitting from place to place overhead, occasionally perching atop one of the stacks to glare down at them balefully with their flat, reflective green or gold or orange eyes. Three different books tried to seduce Bucephalus, and two more made passes at Euclavia. They stayed strong, though she admitted to herself that if she’d been alone, she might not have been able to resist running her hands over the one with the copper–tooled limp leather cover.
But Bucephalus caught her looking, and she drew her hand back in time.
“Looks like it might be illuminated,” she said, in apology.
He snorted his horsy laugh. “My mother always did say books would be the death of me.”
He handed her back the ball of twine to keep her hands busy. It didn’t seem much smaller.
They walked on. They chose their direction by the gleam of the call numbers, though Euclavia admitted to some misgivings. What if the papers would try to lead them in a straight line? What if the route through the labyrinth of the stacks was circuitous? What if they starved before they found a way out?
They were quickly out of sight of the mezzanine, and after a few more hours, Euclavia couldn’t even be certain she knew what direction it lay in.
But they only found themselves retracing their steps out of dead ends when they tried to second–guess their simple guides, and in the end they shrugged and decided maybe the Librarian had known what she was doing.
They were actually starting to relax a little bit, and were debating how far to push on past the halfway point in their supplies, when they stumbled across the body.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected. The stench had been growing stronger and stronger, and was now gaggingly heavy. When they rounded the corner and found the corpse, though, Euclavia was unprepared for how much worse it was than she’d been braced for. It was humanish, human–sized, but—a small blessing—not really too distinct in the gloom. A flock of the black wing–things perched along it in a ragged single line, their heads bobbing as they gorged.
One looked up. Then another.
Euclavia glanced down at her scrap. Their way led forward.
Bucephalus’ tail swished dramatically. His eyes were rimmed with white. Euclavia agreed wholeheartedly.
But Bucephalus said, “We have to go past.”
So they edged. The space between the stacks was narrow—three feet or so—and the corpse sprawled across most of it. They got within an arm’s length and the biggest wing–thing hissed, reared back, and began to beat its wings aggressively. It wasn’t large—the body between the wings was the size of a large house cat—but the teeth in its indistinct shadowy snarl were as long and white as bone needles.
Euclavia wondered if the person on the floor had died of hunger, or of some more direct means.
“Aw, bugger,” Bucephalus said. He grabbed her wrist and lunged forward.
Euclavia lost hold of the twine. She found herself dragged into the air, dangling beside his broad, lathered shoulder. The centaur leaped. She swung against his side, arms wrenched, splattered with voluminous horsy sweat. He landed with a jarring thud. She cried out; they had hurdled both the bat–things and the body. Her arm twisted as she spun, and her other side collided with the centaur’s barrel.
She threw her other arm over Bucephalus’ withers and held on for dear life, facing backwards, her knees drawn up before her in an attempt not to swing under his belly and get trampled or disemboweled. She had a great view backward as the bat–winged things began to rise up, screeching, from their meal.
“Run,” she yelled at Bucephalus. “They’re coming!”
Her arm slipped off his shoulders as he sprang forward again. Euclavia felt a sudden trembling—strong, now, not the almost subliminal vibration of before. But still nearly silent. The narrow corridor between the stacks on either side, she saw, was tightening.
Euclavia half–expected Bucephalus to pick her up and swing her over his withers, but perhaps centaurs simply didn’t think of themselves as beasts of burden. Instead he dragged her—still—by the wrist at a near–gallop, and she bounded along beside him, pulled into impossible leaps, keeping her balance only because he steadied her with his powerful arms. The stacks rolled, closing behind them. Euclavia swore she could feel them clipping Bucephalus’ heels, but they were menacingly almost–silent in their well–oiled motion. Only the precise, heavy clicks with which they slid flush and locked together gave away the mass and power of their closing.
“I lost the string!” she yelled.
“Least of our worries! Hang on,” Bucephalus called. She wrenched her gaze around and saw that the wall of books had closed in front of them. The stacks were sealing themselves. There was no way out.
Bucephalus coiled himself like a tremendous spring and leaped into the air, hooves reaching spasmodically. She got a fistful of his mane somehow and clung, feeling her body fly out behind him like a banner. He struck the book–case halfway up, banked off it, and somehow twisted in midair to leap even higher. And then they were cantering along the top of the book cases, a path no wider than the length of Euclavia’s forearm, with the bat–creatures flocking in hot pursuit, throwing themselves down to pull Euclavia’s hair and try to blind the centaur.
She’d either dragged herself onto Bucephalus’ back, or he had tossed her there. She clutched across his chest, fastening her hands together, as book case after book case slid into the sides of the long rank they ran along and locked there. At least it had the effect of making their path wider.
They came to the end. “Hang on,” Bucephalus called again—she would have dinged him for repetition if she’d been able to get half a breath—and he leaped. Down, all that distance to the hard wooden floor below while the ragged wings of the bat–creatures fluttered and jostled and squealed around them.
She’d been wrong. It wasn’t too far for him to jump. He landed running, hooves plowing long splinters from the boards, and the shock of it nearly knocked Euclavia’s pelvis into her sternum. If she hadn’t been gritting her teeth, she suspected she would have bitten her tongue off; as it was, she chipped a tooth and swallowed the sharp shard that resulted.
Then she chipped another, and nearly busted her nose as Bucephalus set his haunches, slithered to a halt, and she smacked into the back of his skull face–first.
“Shit!” she yelled, letting go of him to grab her stinging face. “Shit!”
“Eu,” Bucephalus warned, not turning.
She lifted her gaze over his shoulder. He still crouched, half–sitting, weight as far back as he could lean it. His front hooves teetered on the edge of an open lip, a drop down into a pit some thirty feet below. The air was pleasantly dry, cool—the perfect environment for old books. A sign hung above them, in illuminated letters.
The pit was full of books, books housed in an immense spiraling labyrinth of curved cases. And at their center, head bowed over something minuscule, was a creature so gigantic that even from this distance and height, she seemed to tower over them. She had enormous wings like a bat’s, folded tight, and she seemed to be holding whatever she was looking at in their two forward–reaching fingers. Her long tail curled around her hind feet, and her crested head was set in a long neck, which she had curved into a serpentine. She was a silvery violet–gray, scaled all over except for the furry patches at her cheeks and along her underbelly. As the bat–things settled on the rim of the pit beside them, their pursuit and harassment forgotten, Euclavia could now see a kinship between them and the giant dragonish thing under the illuminated sign that read Special Collections.
“The Book Wyrm,” Euclavia said, awed. “I didn’t think she was real.”
Bucephalus held up the slip of paper in his hand. The call number scribbled on it flamed star–brilliant, achingly silver. “I think we’re here,” he whispered. “I guess that’s the Special Collections Librarian.”
The enormous wyrm lifted her head from the tiny book balanced delicately upon her wing–talons. She raised what could have been an eyebrow behind her horn–rimmed glasses.
She said, “Shhh!”
They stood silent for a moment, staring across the space to the Librarian. The Librarian stared back. Euclavia felt Bucephalus’s frozen, quivering shock between her knees. She felt the slow drip of blood, thick and sticky, from her nose. She watched the dragon’s velvet nostrils flare as if it scented them.
She couldn’t look it in the enormous, variegated silver eyes. She looked down, and realized that it was crouched on a pile of bleached bones.
“Why,” Bucephalus whispered, “didn’t I finish my dis six years ago, when I should have done? I could be tenure track by now somewhere.”
“I see you have pull slips,” the Librarian said conversationally. “Hand them here, would you?”
A bat–thing swooped down and plucked the paper from Bucephalus’ fingers. Another circled, descending toward Euclavia, and she dug hastily in her pockets to find her pull slip before the monstrous little cannibal reached her. She shuddered when the white–gloved talons brushed her flesh.
The wyrm accepted both bits of paper with a delicacy of touch Euclavia, despite herself, found astounding. If she were on the scale the Librarian was, she wouldn’t have been able to manage that task with a magnifying glass and tweezers. The Librarian, though, seemed to read both slips without difficulty.
She tapped a pile beside her and said, “Yes, we have these. You can’t take them away from here, though. Special Collections don’t circulate.”
“Oh,” said Euclavia.
The Wyrm said. “And this one—the food science one—well, it’s in my personal to–read pile. Re–read, actually, as I read it when we got it in, but there are never enough new books, are there? I don’t suppose you’d mind waiting until I finish?”
“Not at all,” said Euclavia, with a sinking feeling. “When do you think you might get to it?”
“Oh,” said the wyrm. “Right now it’s about five hundred thousand and eleven. Wait, no! Five hundred thousand and four. I forgot—three of those ahead of it are in multiple volumes.”
Euclavia laid a hand on Bucephalus’s shoulder. To steady herself, not him. He was like a rock. Maybe they could go out and come back later? She shuddered to think about it, and shuddered worse when she remembered that she had lost the twine and they didn’t know their way out unless they found it.
She said, “How long might it take you to get through those others?”
“No more than a century,” said the wyrm. “I read quickly.” She tapped the pile again. “The alchemy book, though. I can pull that one for your friend right now. I just finished rereading it a few years ago and haven’t put it back in the hold list yet. Then maybe you and I can have a nice chat while he reads it. It’s so seldom that I have interesting visitors.” The bones rustled under her weight as she resettled herself. “And they never stay long enough once they get here.”
“They leave again?” Bucephalus asked. His voice was steady but Euclavia knew it was an act. She could feel the shivers running through him.
“They usually starve,” the wyrm admitted. She stirred her bones.
One of the bat–wing things fluttered down before Bucephalus. It dangled a thin, black–bound quarto in white–gloved claws.
He hesitated and it warbled at him, a funny sound almost too high to hear. He reached out gingerly and accepted the volume. The bat–thing released it and fluttered away, long tail lashing.
Euclavia nerved herself and said to the dragon, “You don’t suppose I could just jump ahead of you? I only need to read one chapter. It won’t take more than a half hour, I imagine.” She held up a pencil. “I won’t get any ink near it.”
“Well,” said the Librarian thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think so. I’m ahead of you on the hold list, you see. That wouldn’t be fair, would it?”
“No,” said Euclavia. “I suppose it wouldn’t.”
The wyrm raked again at the piles of bones. Euclavia thought of being trapped here forever, too big to leave, for so long that you’d already read every book in an infinite library multiple times.
She thought about what it would be like for her and Bucephalus to sit here and entertain this dragon with conversation until they starved, and then were skeletonized by her—Offspring? Symbiotes? Hench–things?—and were added to the comfortable rakings of her nest.
She said, “What if I traded you something to let me take your place on the hold list? Then you could add yourself again.”
“Irregular,” said the dragon. She pushed her spectacles up her snout with one hooked talon, though, and frowned as if interested.
“Still,” Bucephalus said, who was obviously not as fear–stupefied as Euclavia had thought him.
The dragon said, “What do you have in mind?”
“Well,” said Bucephalus, and Euclavia could have kissed him, “Euclavia and I are both writing books, it happens. We need these sources to finish them.”
“Hmmm,” said the dragon.
“But we can’t finish them if we stay here and entertain you until we starve,” Euclavia said, picking up the centaur’s thread when the wyrm turned her silver eyes on him and he began to stammer. “Let us use the sources and take notes, and show us the way back—and we’ll bring you copies of our books before anybody else has read them!”
The dragon settled, folding her wings one over the other. She directed at the both of them a speculative, skeptical look. “You’re asking me to trade something that I have, here, today—for something entirely hypothetical. Something that you may never complete.”
“But I have,” Euclavia said, desperately. “It is completed. That’s why I’m here. I gave it to my tutor and he said I needed one more source.” She pointed to the pile the wyrm had tapped with her fore–talon. “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy. By Frederick Accum. That’s it; that’s all I need. One cite, and my book is finished.”
She waited. She didn’t speak. The wyrm didn’t speak either. Bucephalus held his breath, his knuckles white on the covers of his alchemy text.
They could try to run. But Euclavia remembered the festering body in the stacks, and guessed in her heart how that would work out.
“New books,” Euclavia said, temptingly.
Behind her, one of the bat–things giggled and chittered.
“Two books,” said the dragon. “New books. Books nobody else has read before me.”
“Just us,” Euclavia said. “My tutor, but he won’t have read the new material. Not until after you do. And nobody’s seen Bucephalus’s book yet. Have they, Bucephalus?”
He shivered. She squeezed his shoulder. “No,” he said. “No, they haven’t.”
The dragon blinked, slowly, and fluffed her frill. Then she said, in a sonorous tone, “We have a bargain. But if it goes unfulfilled in prompt fashion, I do charge thee, small creatures. Remember that a Librarian makes a very bad enemy.”
They read under the dragon’s watchful eye.
Then, the bat–things led them back to the twine, which was still whole and, miraculously, waiting for them. And the twine led them out: hungry and exhausted, footsore, leaning on one another, but giddy with the luck of being alive. They clutched their pencil–scribbled notes against their chests. They walked and slept and walked again.
When they came at last through the warrens of the far–flung Children’s Section, within sight of the great archway to reception and the eldritch glow of the EXIT sign, only then did Bucephalus turn to Euclavia and say to her in a confiding tone, “You owe me.”
And Euclavia, light–headed with giddiness, said, “You mean, you owe me.”
“Well,” she said, and grinned. “You pretty much have to finish your dissertation now.”
(Editors’ Note: “In Libres” is read by C. S. E. Cooney in the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 4B.)
© 2015 by Elizabeth Bear