One hundred eighteen

One hundred eighteen

Storisende, Jeanette discovered, was not just sleek and ultramodern: there was a touch of everything. There was a sector of narrow winding streets with stone houses that nearly touched two stories above; a floating city on the bay with rope bridges and varnished wood boats and gaps where you could see another undersea city beneath, a large area of parks with cute treehouses surrounding a greenhouse with a thousand glass panes; and a strip of many miles of wild Art Deco signs in unknown alphabets with lots of neon and enormous cars.

Jeanette was enjoying herself, especially since Lieutenant Octavian had survived the floating platforms they traveled on, along with guard of dazzlingly uniformed and wickedly armed soldiers, courtesy of the Ecbatenophore Trade Delegation. The one exception was that she was unable to walk around in her usual clothes, which she regarded as her combat clothes. Instead she was walking around in a tight black dress with white floral bursts at the wrists and a tall collar that came right up to her ears. It wasn’t something she would ever have chosen for herself, but Dada loved it and said it made her eyes look huge and beautiful, and when she finally saw herself in the side of a glass building she admitted it made an impression.

The guided tour also happened to include visits to the envoys and corporations who might have been responsible for the previous night’s attack. For the most part they seemed both without motivation and/or completely lacking in magic. (One of the envoys was a hominid cat with striking magenta fur who looked at Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone so hungrily that Jeanette would have understood if the Earl of Maurya had said he would catch up with them later.)

But in the end there was only one left: Tshen Loess Export/Import, with the address 17 Library.

Library seemed like a very Earthlike city square, and of Jeanette’s time period too. There was a big central square with abundant trees and manicured grass, surrounded by a black cast-iron fence, and all the buildings facing it were dignified stone buildings. Not a store to be seen, nor a food cart, which seemed to be everywhere in Storisende. In the center of the park was a building, dignified but not very big.

“In some ways Library is the center of Storisende, except that it doesn’t really have a center,” the lieutenant said. “The legend is that this was the first building to be built, hundreds of years ago, if not thousands, after the original inhabitants abandoned the world. The only problem with that is--well, let me show you.”

The building was built in a familiar style common to banks and courthouses in her world--with the exception that there were no windows, nor any place for them. And although there was a low staircase in the center that led to a pair of large columns, there was no doorway between them.

Jeanette had her hand to her breast, because the key on the chain around her  neck was throbbing like a living thing.

The Lieutenant said, “Watch.” And he walked up to the wall of the building--and through it. A few moments and he reappeared.

“Everybody agrees on what they see. Painters have painted it and photographers have photographed it over the centuries. But when you walk through, it looks like the park is empty. Go on,” he said to the Queen, “Put your hand to the wall. It looks entirely solid, doesn’t it?” The Queen extended her white gloved arm and went right through. The others--even a couple of the soldiers--followed. All went through.

Jeanette stuck out her hand very carefully--and then pulled it back. She hoped it looked like what everyone else had done, but she had felt a solid wall. The key jumped like an excited heart when she made the contact.

She knew what this building was, all right.

“All right, now it’s time we made the last visit of the day. Guards on the alert, weapons at the ready,” Quintus Octavian said. He really did look splendid when he worked at it.

Jeanette’s voice cracked a little when she spoke. “So why is this called the Library? I mean, it might be one, but…”

“That’s a bit of a mystery, too. The original developers of the square decided it was going to be called Library Square, though no record of why they made the decision has come down to us. One theory is that the building wasn’t a phantom at the very beginning, but there’s no record of that either.”

“I suppose that Spooky Phantom Building Square wouldn’t be good for property values,” Dr. Ransom said, and the Queen and the capybara laughed at that.

17 Library was an august grey stone building like the rest, and there was a touchplate by the door that said Tshen Loess Export/Import, with a few Chinese-like (or maybe actual Chinese) characters underneath. The door was opened by a mouse a little bit taller than Jeanette in a silvery satin robe pinned up with a white chrysanthemum.

“The Queen of Hearts,” said Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone.

“Of course!” The mouse peeped. “Come in, and I’ll tell the master you’re here.”

The receiving hall was tall-ceilinged, with comfortable fat leather armchairs and freestanding lamps. Nobody sat down, and it was only a couple of minutes before the mouse returned. “He’s most eager to see you, your Majesty,” and she bowed decorously.

She led them into a big library all in dark red cherry wood with tall well-stuffed bookshelves. There was a desk, a number of chairs, and a glowing sphere in a cherry-wood armature. The master was an old Yahoo human, with long white hair and beard, clad in a black kimono-like robe with embroidery of red flowers.

“I’m both surprised and pleased beyond measure that Your Majesty has made this visit! The House of Tshen Loess has a long record of facilitating wide-ranging and sensitive commercial ventures. There are few that can match the depth of our experience,” he said silkily.

“So I am given to understand,” the Queen said. She let that settle for a moment, then added, “I’m also given to understand that you know of me personally.”

The jump was suppressed almost instantly, but Jeanette caught it. So did the Queen and the Lieutenant.

“Ah, I am discovered,” he  said in a different voice. “I am notorious in some circles for collecting you. I dare say that I possess a comprehensive collection of your novels, as well as the movies made out of them. You may be referring to the collector who approached me recently for access to some of your harder-to-find works, and let slip some of the obsessive nature of his interest. I hope he didn’t embarrass himself.”

“He is dead,” said the Queen.

This time the jump was obvious. “I hasten to assure Your Majesty that I’m a collector, nothing more. If I presume to ask anything of you, it’s nothing more than a few autographs.” He all but ran over to a bookshelf and pulled out a volume. He came over by the desk and placed the book, open, on a lectern. “This is one of the prides of my collection, and I would love to have you autograph it.”

The Queen walked over to the lectern and bent down to look at the book. Jeanette saw the expression on the man’s face and ran over to the Queen. “NO!” she cried and knocked the book away from the Queen.

“That’s no ordinary book, Your Majesty! That book’s the Book of You, and if you read anyway, you would softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be heard from again! It was one last try to destroy you!”

The guards grabbed the man, and put him under glowing restraints. The Queen walked up to him. “I saw the obsession in your eyes the moment we met. That all-consuming desire that can only be lit by bad fiction, coupled with the certainty that you could never have me. In that you are wrong too, but that’s too late. I’d dismiss you, but you poured your obsession into a poorer fool, and thus killed him. Take him away.”

“Wait,” said Jeanette.

She realized that she’d shown knowledge that no one knew except the crows, and she had a lot of explaining to do, but that was for later. “He has to have something here that gives him access to the Library.”

That plain astonished Quintus Octavian and the guards, but the Lieutenant didn’t let any grass grow under his feet. “Find it. Tear the place apart.”

“NO!” The prisoner shouted. “No….!” He pointed to the desk. “Bottom right...secret drawer,,,”

The guard pulled off the side panel with a heavy knife. Toward the back was a small wooden case. Jeanette took it and opened it up.

Ensconced in velvet was a crystal form that had bright lines strung throughout it. But the principal contents were three fragments of a broken key.

“The great mystery of Storisende,” the Lieutenant said furiously, “And you used it for this.”

Jeanette was now holding the Queen’s Book (New Revised Edition! it said on the dust jacket) and was looking at the bookshelves. What might she find there?

Then she stopped. Her hand reached up to a binding.

What’s Been Did And What’s Been Hid.


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