It’s been about two months and somehow I find myself wandering back to the Arrondissement. I knew that I would return but not so soon. The metaphorical pen goes where it will. One of the wonderful things about creating a world is filling it with interesting characters, at least interesting to me. The sad part is not all of them get as much love as they deserve.
I was musing, as I am prone to, and I thought about my favorite fictional librarian, the lovely and talented Zsófia. What sort of challenges does she face in the world she lives in? Below is what occurred to me. I enjoyed spending more time with her and I hope you do too.
Zsófia knew that most books are content to sit on a shelf, eager to be read. It is an arraignment that both parties have agreed to, if informally. At least in the case of Academy Library, as there was a steady flow of those who wish to read, and those who wished to be read.
However, some books were less patient. Those were kept in the protected section. This was as much for the preservation of rare volumes as it was to protect the unwary. The Chronicle of Allurement desired to be pored over and would open when those of an easily influenceable nature passed by. It had led to countless distractions until it was placed in a steel case under thaumaturgic lock and key.
The Book of Blades fed on blood, in the form of paper cuts. Not as deadly as swords or daggers but it made for a challenging read. Heavy gloves are advised. So many nibbles had been taken from the Culinary Compendium’s binding that a full three-course meal had to be eaten before any scholar could consult it.
All of these were troublesome but manageable, they just required some extra precautions. There was one that caused more trouble than the rest put together, and Zsófia was looking right at it. Or more accurately, she was looking at where it should be.
The Unbound Anthology, a collection of the techniques created by the Arrondissement’s greatest escape artist, Manon Aubert. All her secrets, in one bound volume, printed only once, after she disappeared.
Famously, she once was shackled, manacled, then blindfolded, and sealed in an oubliette in the lowest level of the Vicomte DuSanglant’s tower which was guarded by three Chevaliers. Aubert appeared at the First Minister’s gala one hour later to the delight of all that attended.
While Aubert loved to thrill crowds, the Unbound Anthology seemed to take a perverse pleasure in liberating itself from the protected section. For Zsófia, who delighted in keeping the library in order, it was particularly vexing.
She slid out to the front desk where her colleague, Madame Flagel was sorting returns.
“Did anyone request something from the protected section today?” whispered Zsófia.
“Yes, Professor Berteau took out the Volume of the Void,” replied Madame Flagel.
“The Unbound Anthology has escaped again.”
“Oh no! I was very careful.”
“It’s not your fault, that book was made to avoid being shelved.”
Madame Flagel took a look around to see anyone was listening, then leaned close to Zsófia and murmured, “Sometimes I just want to let it escape.”
“Me too,” she replied and they both laughed. Very quietly.
“I’m going to pay a visit to Professor Berteau and see if I can capture our wayward tome,” said Zsófia as she straightened her jacket.
Berteau’s office was on the third floor of the East-West wing, at the end of the hallway. She took a deep breath and knocked.
“Come in!” could be heard behind the wood and frosted glass door.
She entered the cluttered and narrow office. Professor Berteau’s area of expertise was the theoretical space inside solid objects, or at least that’s how he had explained it to her at the Academy holiday party several years ago.
Piles of books made a path to a smallish desk at the far end of the room where the scholar sat.
“Librarian Zsófia! Have I an overdue book?” he said with a smile.
“No Professor, your account is not in arrears.”
“Good, good, good.”
Zsófia smiled while looking at the stacks of books, hoping to spot the truant volume.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” asked the Professor.
“I’m afraid we’ve had a breakout,” she admitted.
“Ahh, the Unbound Anthology! Someone should really keep an eye on that,” he unhelpfully suggested.
“Thank you,” she replied with an outward sincerity, “But it excels in escape, which is it’s nature.”
“I suppose so.”
“You haven’t seen it, have you?”
“No! Do you think I aided and abetted?” he asked with a smirk.
“Of course not Professor. It’s just that it seems it may have slipped out when the Volume of the Void was pulled for you earlier.”
“I’m sorry to hear that though-”
“-Naturally no one thinks you’re responsible,” she interrupted, “I had hoped you might have seen something. I’m afraid that our services may be curtailed while that book is at large.”
“Oh, dear, there are several texts I need pulled!”
“A shame. If you’ll excuse me, I must try and find my quarry,” sighed Zsófia as she turned to exit.
“Please wait! I believe that that the boy who was pushing the book cart said he was headed to the Phlogiston Department.”
“Thank you so much professor, I’ll head there right away.”
“Those books I need?” he asked
“I’m sure the library will accommodate your requests,” she said as she left.
Deep in the lower levels, the Phlogiston Department studied the nature of fire in a ceramic vaulted room filled with flame pits of varying sizes and heat levels. Because of the nature of their research, all their books were made of thinly hammered steel. They used to be clay but inevitable clumsiness made that impractical.
Removing her specially treated hood and visor to reveal a sooty and sweaty face, Doctor Enfer spoke to Zsófia.
“I haven’t seen any stray books. Paper doesn’t last long around here,” said the Phlogistonist.
“Self-aware writings tend to avoid this part of the Academy.”
“I thought you might have seen something.”
Doctor Enfer scratched her nose and pondered this.
“Well, the book cart was headed towards the Acoustic Engineering lab.”
“Thank you,” said Zsófia.
Much of the morning and part of the afternoon was spent following the trail of the book cart. She considered returning to the library for the list of stops the book cart was going to make but she didn’t want to miss a chance to nab this runaway lexicon. For all her efforts, all Zsófia succeeded in was an erosion of her temper and fatigue.
She took her mid-day meal (a bit later than she normally did) in a secret room above the main library. Zsófia had discovered it years before, it was a small garret chamber just off the topmost level of the stacks. Spending time there let her think and, right now, cool her temper which had been sorely tried.
As she nibbled on her lunch, she stared out the window and thought. Usually, she could find this wayward book, though it would take some effort. That was the issue with self-aware books, they would inevitably act according to the nature of their subjects. The Unbound Anthology was not only acting as its essence demanded but it seemed to be learning. That would increase its value but also its propensity for mischief.
Wiping crumbs off her mouth, she gazed out the window at the many towers, platforms, balconies, and walkways that crisscrossed the Academy’s campus. Students and faculty moved about. It was a brisk, clear autumn day so there was little dillying or dallying going on. One unfortunate student tripped and the folder he was carrying exploded in a flurry of paper. He desperately attempted to recover as many as he could but the cold wind was not in a generous mood. His work escaped as he watched.
Zsófia sighed, it seemed to be that sort of day. One moment later she smiled.
Standing on the tallest tower of the Academy, the Tour Du Ciel, Zsófia scanned, using the opera glasses gifted to her by her drágám, the multitude of roofs that covered the grounds. A lost book more times than not would be found on the floor, so if it’s not down, it very well might be up. For an hour, she got to appreciate another point of view of the Academy. Some came up for experiments, others to be alone, a solitary kite pilot, and more than a few trysts.
Her patience was rewarded. Sliding along a nearby rooftop was the Unbound Anthology. With a wild grin, she attached the rope to the crenelations of the Tour Du Ciel, borrowed from the Department of Orology, and swung out and around towards the errant book.
Landing about ten meters behind it she moved as fast as she could while Unbound Anthology headed for the edge. She grinned as it was stopped by the wrought-iron filigree at the edge. Just then, the book flipped over, aided perhaps by a gust of wind. Perhaps not. There was only one thing she could do.
Pierrick Aubertin sat in an empty classroom, working on his thesis. Being alone helped him think; or more accurately, he was easily distracted. This was the dullest classroom he knew about, the walls were painted a grey that didn’t suggest a mysterious fog so much as a numbing void where nothing was likely to leap out and make things interesting. Perfect for getting work done.
Until he heard a tap on the window, one that only showed the bricks of another building, nothing to catch the eye. He reluctantly looked at the window. Nothing. Back to work. Yet another tap. Feeling his focus slipping away, he moved to the window.
“Could you please open the window?” asked Zsófia, who was holding onto a rope with one hand and the Unbound Anthology clasped tightly by the other.
With some effort, he was able to help her inside. Using one hand, she straightened herself out and said, “Merci young man.”
Feeling more distracted than he thought possible, Pierrick inquired, “What the hell were you doing out there?”
“Library business,” she replied with a smile.