When we were bowed through the heavy oak doors to the library wing, and I stepped beneath the gilded dome for the first time, I thought my heart might stop.
Hundreds of oak shelves, polished and carved with the faces of the Spirits, lined the hall, stretched to the ceiling save for where the dome arched over us. Packed face to face, spines out, were hundreds of thousands of books, bound in leather and names written in gilt.
It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Hession stepped up beside me and let out a whistle. “Wow.”
Alistair grunted and touched the crackled pages of an enormous tome laid flat on a nearby table. “Where do you suppose—”
“Excuse me!” A head appeared over a nearby table. It was a woman—an elven woman—all narrowed eyes and messy hair. “Please, keep your voices down. You are aware of where you are, yes?” She straightened and tucked flyaway curls of bown back into the tight bun at the back of her head. “Who are you? I wasn’t expecting students today.”
Father let out a short sigh. “No, we aren’t students—”
“No?” She rolled down the loose sleeves of her dark dress and gave Alistair a severe stare. “Do you have guest credentials for the day, then?” Though she continued to glare, she reached up and lightly scratched the corner of her eye.
“Er, no, I didn’t know—”
“This is the largest centre of learning not only in Cyril, but the known world. You do know that, right? We can’t just let anybody run amok, especially”—her gaze shifted to me, then to Sophia behind me—“fool bloods and ruffians.”
Alistair pressed a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. I hid a smile as he straightened his back. “What is your name?”
“I am Scholar Saraid of Oakspring, the librarian here,” the woman replied curtly. “Had you actually taken the time to get guest credentials, I would not have to ask who you lot are.”
A pleasant smile crossed Father’s face, but it was so painfully obvious that it was forced it was a wonder the woman didn’t force us out right then. “Well, let me do the honours of introducing myself, then, since I don’t have these credentials. I am Alistair Wymer of Nallis.”
“Y’know, the king,” Hession helpfully piped up.
One eyebrow arched up. “Fascinating.”
If he was fazed at all by her attitude, Alistair didn’t let it show on his face. “This is the Baron Lord Benson Hession. My son, Prince Logan. My scribes, Aisling and Riane. And this, of course, is Sophia Henson.”
The elf reached up and rubbed her eye again. “Half-breeds aren’t allowed in the library,” she said, barely glancing at me.
My stomach dropped. I should have expected this. I was only allowed in the bookstore in the bazaar near our home in Augustine because it was Augustine, and it would have been impossible to police the people who went in and out.
This was the Royal University of Auber. The brightest minds in the world studied and taught here.
It was too much to hope I would be allowed in, even for an hour.
Alistair’s smile remained, but grew tight around his eyes. “Well, I’m sure that would be standard procedure on a normal day, but as the Lord Hession so kindly stated, I am the King of Nallis. I require both my scribes present because, as a slobbering drunk, I can’t write without making a mess of myself. So with your permission, scholar, I would ask that Mistress Aisling and Mistress Riane join me today.”
The librarian was silent for a long moment, simply sizing up and staring down the King of Nallis. As she scrutinized him, her hand went up and touched her eye. “I will allow it today,” she said stiffly. “But only today. You do not get special dispensation because you are a king. You aren’t my king,” she added, lifting her chin, “and even Her Majesty must behave herself when she visits.”
“You have no king,” Mama spoke up from the rear of the group. My shoulders hunched around my ears instinctively.
The librarian turned her dark gaze on my mother. “Don’t I?”
I could almost feel my mother’s cruel smile on the back of my neck, making the downy hair stand on end. “The Archon is no king, scholar, no matter the power he holds.”
Scholar Saraid’s expression went almost comically blank, and for just a split second I thought I saw a flash of flickering orange on her fingertips. “Make your research quick. And do not disturb the peace of my library, or I will have you removed, king or no,” she snapped, glaring once more at Alistair. With that, she brushed back more loose curls and turned away, silent and graceful as any elf.
Everyone seemed to hold their breath until she slipped behind one of the massive shelves.
“Spirits save me,” Alistair muttered, clapping his hand to his forehead. I smiled to myself and patted his arm.
“She just appreciates books, Father,” I whispered.
He squinted at me and lifted his lip in a grimace. “What?”
“People who like books get very odd around said books,” I explained, dropping my hand. “Trust me.” I shuffled past him to admire the open book he had foolishly touched.
“It’s true,” I heard Mama mutter, then she walked through the main foyer and wandered up to the nearest shelf to admire the spines.
Alistair let out a heavy sigh that was nearly a groan. “Am I—”
“Shush!” Green eyes glared at him from over a shorter shelf nearby.
“Oh, fucking kill me,” he hissed.