The Lost Books: The Scroll of Kings

by Sarah Prineas

Clock Icon 43 minute read

1

The pages were bothering Alex.

The pages, of course, were the magical pieces of paper that acted as the librarian’s servants. They floated around doing whatever Master Farnsworth ordered, as long as it was something simple, like “Fetch me a cup of tea,” and not something complicated, like “Go alphabetize the encyclopedias.”

Alex, as the librarian’s assistant, or apprentice, or whatever he was, did not have pages of his own.

So when his master’s pages fluttered around his head like giant anxious moths, he tried to ignore them. He had work to do. Librarian Farnsworth had ordered him to compare two alphabetized book lists. Alex had his elbows on the table and his hands gripping his hair, forcing himself to concentrate. He was on the letter R. Just eight letters to go, and he’d be done.

Gritting his teeth, he started on the letter S.

A page flitted past him.

“Go away,” Alex said to it, and kept his eyes grimly on his work.

Another page floated past. Then another one.

Master Farnsworth’s pages were made of paper that was wrinkled and yellowed and tattered around the edges, and one of them had been torn nearly in half and then pasted back together again so that it was sort of scarred down the middle.

The scarred page rustled, trying to get Alex’s attention.

“All right, all right,” he muttered. “Just a moment.” Carefully he marked his place and was about to look up when the page rolled itself into a tube and bonked him on the head.

“What was that for?” Alex protested. It hadn’t hurt, but it was annoying.

The scarred page unrolled itself. Alex saw a single word written on it in faint, almost illegible letters.

[defunct]

“What?” he asked.

Another page darted closer. A jumble of letters stuttered across its surface and then disappeared. Then four more pages clustered around Alex, shivering. That was six total—all of Master Farnsworth’s pages, as far as he knew. This was not normal behavior.

“Defunct?” Alex asked, getting to his feet. They were trying to tell him something, but the pages were simple creatures. They didn’t always make sense.

The scarred page—the boldest one—floated closer. Shaky letters took shape on the yellowed paper.

[expired

overdue

off the shelf]

All of the pages were trembling, and crowding even closer. Alex felt a sudden jolt of worry. “It’s all right,” he tried to reassure them. “Do you want me to come with you?”

At that, the pages whirled around him, then streamed toward the door at the end of the reading room.

Feeling suddenly certain that something awful had happened, Alex followed them, hurrying between looming bookshelves until he reached the quiet corner where the librarian sometimes napped. His cot was surrounded by stacks of books. Like any proper librarian, Master Farnsworth did not fold over a corner of a page to mark his place, so his books were bristling with torn-off bits of paper used to mark where he’d stopped reading.

With the pages hovering at his shoulder, Alex stood beside the cot, looking down at his master. The old man lay with his gnarled hands holding a book that was open, facedown, on his chest.

He must have fallen asleep while reading. The librarian, being ancient, slept a good deal, and didn’t move around much at the best of times. It was a shame to wake him. He looked so peaceful, lying there.

Too peaceful. Alex leaned closer. Oh, no. The librarian wasn’t breathing.

“Master Farnsworth?” Alex went to his knees beside the cot. “Sir?” He reached out to shake the librarian’s shoulder to wake him up. But his master was stiff as a board and pretty solidly dead.

He’d probably been gone for hours.

Alex swallowed several times, blinked several more times, then scrambled to his feet and stood looking sorrowfully down at the body.

The librarian had been a creature of dust and paper; a strong wind could have blown him away. He’d been skinny and bent, his face a mass of wrinkles, his hair spun-white cobwebs. To read, he peered through a pair of spectacles that had inch-thick lenses smudged with fingerprints.

Alex frowned. There was something strange.

The book rested on the librarian’s chest, as if the old man had been reading it when he died. But he wasn’t wearing his spectacles.

Crouching, Alex gently pulled the book from under his master’s folded hands. The first thing he noticed about it was a symbol burned into the leather cover.

Below it, the title.

VINES:
PLANTS OF WONDER

That was odd. As far as Alex knew, his master had no interest at all in gardening.

The second thing Alex noticed was that his master’s pages had fled from the room. Or maybe, now that they’d delivered their message, they had disappeared forever. He didn’t know what happened to a librarian’s pages after their master had died.

He wondered why Master Farnsworth had been reading about vines. Without thinking, he flipped open the book.

He turned to the first chapter. His eyes were drawn to the words at the top of the page, and he started to read.

The vine is a quite wondrous plant. It seems simple, yet it can grow at astounding speed. It can cling, twine around, climb, and in the case of some species, it can strangle.

Alex kept reading. He turned a page.

And realized that the tips of his fingers had gone numb.

And that he couldn’t look away.

The numbness was spreading to his hands, which were clenched around the edges of the book. His heart pounded.

And then, the merest sliver of a pale green tendril emerged from behind the next page, which he hadn’t turned yet. It quested about, almost like it was sniffing.

It was just a tiny vine, no bigger than a pea shoot.

Alex watched his own hand reach out and turn the page.

Exposed, the little vine uncoiled itself and nosed toward him. A second later, it had curled around his wrist.

“Gah!” Alex shouted. He shook the vine off his hand and dropped the book. It lay open on the dusty floor. As he watched, the tiny vine sniffed about. Then it fixed on him again. It twined from the book, growing longer and thicker, a green rope studded with shiny leaves. Like a snake, it crawled over the floor toward him.

Alex backed away, looking for anything he could use to fend it off. A second vine erupted from the book and slithered across the floor. Before he could dodge it, the first vine had wrapped itself around his ankle.

And then it was twining around his leg, and it had grown thorns, which bit into him.

With sudden horror, Alex realized what had happened to Master Farnsworth. The librarian had opened the book, started to read, and then . . .

His hands shaking, Alex ripped the vine off his leg. Its thorns tore at his skin, and he left blood spattered around him as he stumbled back.

He had to get the book closed—or he’d end up just like his master.

The vine sniffed at the drops and then sent out little rootlets, which poked into the blood and sucked it up. Then, its strength renewed, it surged after him again.

Alex grabbed up a book from his master’s reading pile and flung it at the vine. It dodged it and struck at him like a snake. The other vine was growing up the wall and sending out more tendrils that reached for him like long, green fingers.

He ducked and hurled another book as a thick, ropy, almost muscular vine reached for him. Looking wildly around, he saw the vines book lying open on the floor. At the same moment, all of the vines hissed through the air, coming after him. Fighting through the clinging tendrils, Alex lunged toward the book. He reached for it, but the vines pulled him back, dragging him over the stone floor.

He clenched his teeth. “I don’t think so,” he told the vines.

A tendril looped around his neck and tightened like strangling fingers. Black spots appeared in his vision, and he gasped for breath.

With an almighty effort, Alex lunged toward the book, grabbed it, and slammed it closed.

The vines evaporated like smoke.

Panting for breath, Alex got to his feet and stared down at the book. He rubbed his neck.

Well. That had been interesting.

He knew what a librarian was supposed to be. Master Farnsworth had been a cataloger of books—books that sat tamely on their shelves gathering dust—and a keeper of the keys that kept books safely locked up. If anyone had a question that could only be settled by looking at a book, they would go to a librarian, who would consult his or her collection and come back with an answer.

But Alex had reasons—very good reasons—for suspecting that librarians had once been much more than just catalogers and keepers.

And that books were much more than they seemed.

He wished he could ask his master about it.

But he couldn’t. Because the librarian was dead.

The library was owned by Dowager Duchess Purslane, who was obsessed with two things.

The first thing was genealogy. The library in her castle was stuffed with tediously boring family archives, insipid family letters, and crumbling diaries written by ancestors who had been dead for three hundred years. That kind of thing.

As far as Alex was concerned, barely any of it counted as real books, and almost all of it could be burned to the ground without any loss.

The second thing was roses.

Alex found the duchess in the castle’s extensive gardens, bent over a bush with pruning shears in one hand and a bunch of late-autumn blooms in the other.

“Duchess Purslane,” Alex began, “I have some bad news.”

The duchess was tall and rather bony, and had the rich brown skin of the old nobility. She peered shortsightedly at him over her shoulder. “Who are you?”

He gritted his teeth. “The librarian’s apprentice.”

She turned back to the roses. “The librarian doesn’t have an apprentice.” Snip, snip, snip went the garden shears.

“Yes he does,” Alex corrected her, keeping a grip on his patience. “He did, I mean. I’ve been here for months.”

More snipping. “Well, what do you want, boy?” She cast him a frowning glance, from the top of his dusty blond head, to his inky fingers and shabby clothes, to the tips of his worn shoes. “Bad news, I think you said?”

“Yes.” Alex nodded. “The librarian is dead.”

The dowager duchess straightened and blinked rapidly. A hand went to her chest. “Oh dear. Dead, you say?”

“Yes,” Alex answered. “He was very old, as you know.” Before she could comment, he went on. “He trained me well.” That was a complete lie, but she’d never know it. “I’ll take over as head librarian. I can begin immediately and set things to rights.”

“Wait a moment,” the duchess said slowly. “Now I remember you.”

Oh, blast it, Alex thought. Into a million tiny pieces.

The duchess pointed at him with the pruning shears. “You’re the one who wanted to destroy my library.”

“Not destroy,” Alex insisted.

“Destroy,” repeated the duchess. “You wanted to throw away the castle records!”

“Not all of them,” Alex said. “Just the useless things. After all, who needs copies of two-hundred-year-old laundry lists? Or,” he added, because he couldn’t help it, “a crumbling diary written by a soldier stationed at an outpost where nothing happens for twenty years?”

“That soldier was my great-grandmother’s second cousin once removed!” exclaimed the dowager duchess.

“Twenty years of It was foggy today,” Alex scoffed. The sergeant-at-arms got drunk again. Chicken stew for dinner. Why even bother with it?”

The dowager duchess gasped. “Why . . . even . . .

Relentlessly, Alex went on. “Papers like that don’t belong in a library. You might as well use them for wrapping up fish guts in the kitchen. Or for lining a birdcage. Or in the privy.”

“You dare suggest such a use for my family papers! You horrible, horrible boy!” She waved her roses in the direction of the castle, scattering petals around them both. “Out!”

“What?” Alex asked blankly. “You can’t throw me out. You’ve got a problem in your library. A big one.”

“You!” cried the dowager duchess. “The problem is you.”

“No, wait,” Alex protested. “Something snaky is going on in there. You need a librarian to deal with it.”

“Then I will get one.” The duchess brandished the pruning shears, and Alex stepped quickly back to avoid getting poked. “But not you. Get out. Pack your things and get out of my castle. You are no librarian, and you will never set foot in my library again!”

2

“No librarian,” Alex grumbled to himself. “What does she know about it?”

He was in a hurry. When he’d started back toward the castle library, the dowager duchess had gone in the other direction, and he knew where she was headed—to get her castle steward to toss him out the front gate.

But there was something he needed to do before he let that happen. It wasn’t pack his things, either. He didn’t have any things.

What he did have was plans.

Almost four months ago, when he’d convinced the librarian to take him on as an apprentice, he’d had good reasons for coming to Purslane Castle.

For one thing, anybody who might possibly be searching for him would never think of looking for him here. He was as good as dead and buried in the dowager duchess’s moldering, rose-encrusted castle.

For another thing, he’d suspected that Farnsworth, being ancient, knew secret librarian things and could answer some questions. Questions that had been eating away at Alex the way a biscuit beetle nibbled through the pages of an infested book.

One day he and the librarian had been drinking their weekly cup of tea together, after which the old man would show Alex things, like how to restitch a binding, or stop the damp from making a book turn moldy. These were important things for a librarian to know, but Alex was curious about something else.

“Sir,” he’d asked, when the librarian had finished showing off forty-two different kinds of frass.

Frass was bug droppings. By looking at what frass was left behind, you could tell what kinds of bugs were infesting the books in a library. Definitely not what he really needed to know.

“Master Farnsworth,” Alex had asked, “is there something strange about books?”

The librarian had been examining a little bottle of frass from a biscuit beetle. Deliberately, he’d slotted the bottle back into the box that contained forty-one other tiny jars of frass, all labeled in the librarian’s spidery script. Then Merwyn Farnsworth stroked his beard. When he spoke, he had a high voice, birdlike. “Books, strange? No. Certainly not. What an odd question to ask, ah . . . uh . . . boy.”

As usual, he’d forgotten Alex’s name.

“Not just strange,” Alex had persisted. “This is serious. Books are . . . they’re not just books, are they?”

The old man had shaken his head. “Books are not books? Whatever are you talking about?”

But he’d had a gleam in his eye when he’d said it. So Alex pushed. “You know,” he’d insisted. “Librarians keep books locked up and hidden away. There must be a reason for that. You know their secrets.”

“The only thing books do,” the old man had said, shaking his head, “is gather dust. Speaking of which, you’d better dust the duchess’s collection of her great-uncle’s letters.”

But Alex felt certain that his master knew a lot more than he was telling. Because at the very center of the castle library, he’d found a door to a room.

The door was made of thick ironwood. Banded with metal. Doorknob in the middle, and under it, a keyhole. It was pretty much impenetrable.

Something was in there, Alex knew it. Some kind of dangerous book.

Merwyn Farnsworth had the only key, and he’d kept it on a chain around his neck. Alex had asked him a thousand times to let him into the locked room.

Just to do some dusting, Alex would say. I won’t even look into the books. A total lie, that. The very second he got in there he would have pounced on them.

But it didn’t matter, because Master Farnsworth had just shaken his old, white head and put a knobbled hand over his chest, where the iron key to the room hung on its chain.

Well, Alex would get into it now.

He hurried into the castle library, and made his way to the remote corner where the librarian’s body lay.

He stood, surveying the small, dusty space, looking for the book called Vines: Plants of Wonder. Nobody, he was absolutely certain, had come into the room while he’d been telling the duchess about the librarian’s death, but the vines book was gone. Blast it, he’d missed his chance to examine it more carefully. There had been that odd symbol burned into its cover.

Alex knelt next to the cot.

“Sorry, sir,” he said, then pushed aside the old man’s wispy beard and felt around his neck for the chain that held the key.

It wasn’t there.

Alex sat back on his heels.

Had the key been left in the door?

Possibly.

Getting to his feet, aware of the passage of time, Alex hurried to the locked room. But the key was not there, either. Alex twisted the knob in the middle of the door, but it didn’t turn.

Maybe the librarian had left the key in his desk.

Alex made his way through the corridors again, knowing the steward would be along shortly to deal with the librarian’s body, and to kick him out of the castle for good.

The librarian’s desk was just as untidy as the library.

It bothered Alex. Like an itch. A librarian needed to keep things in order, not all jumbled on the shelves. Maybe the librarian had been too old. He’d been so obsessed with bug droppings that he’d let the books get away from him.

The desk was in a poorly lit corner near the main door of the library. Keeping an eye on the door, Alex began searching the desk for the key.

There was no method to any of it. Papers were piled a foot deep, along with books, pens, dried-up bottles of ink, scraps of paper with illegible writing, and enough dust to choke a camel. At the back of the desk were rows of cubbyholes that held nubs of pencils, balls of twine, a nose-hair clipper, and plenty of dead spiders.

With a growing sense that he needed to hurry, Alex went through all of it.

No key.

“Blast it,” he said, sitting back.

His eyes fell on the in-box, almost buried by papers at the edge of the desk. It was a hinged box where the librarian kept all of his letters. The librarian hadn’t gotten many letters, but he had answered them all. Eventually.

Lifting the lid, Alex found that the box was almost empty.

The single envelope had been sealed with a thick blob of black wax with some sort of seal stamped into it. The paper was creamy and thick. Expensive, Alex thought. He rubbed it between his fingers. He was sure it was from the paper-makers at Barrettim. The finest paper available anywhere.

He pulled out a two-page letter. The top edge of the paper was gilded. Below that was a crest that he recognized, a bear holding a garden spade in one paw, a sword in the other, in black with accents in gold.

The royal crest. Black for the rich dirt of the Kingdom of Aethel, gold for ripened wheat. He wasn’t sure what the bear had to do with anything.

Alex checked the second page to see the signature.

Q. Kenneret III

The letter was from the queen!

Before he could start reading it, there was a bustle at the door of the library, and it was suddenly flung open.

In the doorway stood the Purslane Castle steward, with one of the stable grooms at his back.

Jumping to his feet, Alex shoved the royally crested paper and envelope into his jacket pocket. He’d had a run-in with the steward before, when he’d searched the castle, trying to find an extra key to the locked library room. The steward didn’t like Alex. The feeling was decidedly mutual.

In the doorway, the steward’s beady eyes darted from bookshelves, to dark corners, to the desk. Like any normal person, he was reluctant to enter a library. “Well,” he complained, “where is he?”

Alex felt a pang of sorrow. Merwyn Farnsworth had not only refused to reveal any librarian secrets, he’d refused to admit that there even were secrets. Mostly he’d known way too much about bug poop. But the old man was rather unexpectedly dead, and that was a sad thing. “In the back,” Alex said, pointing.

The steward scuffed through some scattered papers. “Are Farnsworth’s magic page thingies lurking about?”

Alex shook his head. “They’ve disappeared.”

“And what about you?” the steward asked, eyeing Alex. “You don’t have any of those pages, do you?”

“No,” Alex had to admit.

“Good.” The steward shoved aside a tottering pile of papers and came farther into the library.

Alex knew that most of the duchess’s papers were worthless, but still it made him cringe. “Careful,” he warned.

The steward paused, then turned. “Careful, is it?” He folded his burly arms. “Jock, come here.” He summoned the hulking groom from the doorway, then pointed at Alex. “Duchess’s orders. Toss this annoying scrap out the front gate. Give him a good kick, while you’re at it, to send him on his way.”

“Will do,” said the groom, and grinned widely, exposing a missing front tooth. “Come along, you.” With a long arm, he reached out and grabbed Alex’s shoulder.

“Kick me and you’ll regret it,” Alex threatened.

“Oh sure.” The groom shoved him toward the library door. “Let’s go.”

As Alex stumbled out into the hallway, he bumped straight into the duchess, who had two more servants with her. “Make sure he hasn’t stolen anything,” she ordered.

“There’s nothing in your library worth stealing,” Alex shot back.

The duchess’s face turned dusky red, and she made a gabbling noise like a chicken. “Throw him out!” she managed to say, pointing at the stairway that led down to the main part of the castle.

The groom grabbed Alex by the collar of his jacket. “Come along, annoying scrap,” he said cheerfully, and dragged him away.

The castle was built on traditional lines, with a main gate through six-foot-thick walls and a drawbridge that was never closed, leading over a moat filled with muck and dead leaves. When the groom reached the road on the other side of the bridge, he planted a heavy foot in the middle of Alex’s back and gave a mighty shove.

Alex stumbled forward, tripped, and landed with a splut on a pile of horse dung, right in the middle of the road. Sitting up, he shot the groom a venomous look, and spat dust out of his mouth.

“And stay out!” the groom yelled.

Climbing to his feet, Alex turned away, just so he wouldn’t have to see the groom’s grinning face. Fine. He was going.

Then he thought better of it. He turned back. The groom was still standing on the drawbridge, arms folded. Behind him, the castle loomed. Thorny rose vines grew up the towers and spilled over the castle walls.

“Hey, Jock,” Alex called.

“You’re not coming back in,” the groom answered. “So don’t even bother asking.”

“Yeah, I know.” Alex glanced at the sky. Late afternoon—almost evening. He needed to be getting along. But first he had to warn them. With his chin, he pointed at the rose-encrusted castle. “Tell them if they find the key to the room in the middle of the library, they shouldn’t open it unless they’ve got a librarian or two with them who knows what they’re doing.”

Jock rolled his eyes. “Key. Room. Right.”

“Right,” Alex repeated. “And if they find a book about vines, they absolutely must not read it.”

Jock pretended to yawn.

“It’s important,” Alex warned him.

“Oh, sure it is,” the groom said. “Now quit stalling. Get going.”

“Idiot,” Alex muttered under his breath. But he couldn’t go yet. He had to lay a false trail. “Listen, if anybody comes looking for me, tell them I’m heading . . .” He paused and looked around, then chose a direction at random. “. . . west. Toward the border. I’m going to get a ship to go to Xan to study in the great libraries there. All right?”

The groom shrugged. “Sure. What name?”

“Alex,” he replied. “Alexandren.”

“Right. Traveling west. Now off you go.”

Turning his back on the castle, Alex headed out.

He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he knew one thing for sure. It wouldn’t be west. It would be anywhere but west.

3

One bitterly cold winter day when he was ten years old, Alex had hidden in his father’s library.

It was a fairly large library, but even so, like most people, his father was not a reader. Far from it. Books were useful for starting fires, his pa thought, if you ripped the pages out first, and for propping up tables with one leg too short. His library was kept locked because there was no librarian, and the untended books were left to grow moldy.

But young Alex had found the key, and he took refuge there. It was quiet. There were no men-at-arms or women-at-arms in the library. No sword practice. No strategy and tactics, no military history lessons.

And there were books.

He had made his own place, a cozy nest hidden behind a curtain in a windowed recess. There he kept a stack of books that he read like a thousand grasshoppers eating their way through a wheat field. By the time he was twelve, he’d read every book in his father’s library. Twice.

Everybody knew how to read, of course, but for practical reasons. Not for reading books, of all things. Librarians were so obsessive about keeping their libraries locked up all the time that books had come to be treated with suspicion. There were no new books, only old ones. Most people felt a little creepy about going into a library. Even so, as far as Alex knew, books were inanimate objects that sat on the shelf getting dusty, unless he read them, in which case the dust got on him.

But one day he found a book on a top shelf that, somehow, he’d overlooked. Standing on a chair, on tiptoe, he pulled it out from where it was hiding behind a rack of encyclopedias. The book was very thick, and had a worn red leather cover and no title. It smelled of smoke and cinnamon spice. It was much heavier than it looked. Alex heaved it off the shelf and took it to his lair, where he wrapped himself in a blanket. Opening the book, he started to read.

And the world around him went away. There was no itchy wool blanket, no chill seeping up from the stone floor, no ache in his bones from sword practice the day before. There was just the book. Even the feel of the bumpy cover faded away, and so did the faintly smoky smell wafting up from the pages.

The book had him in its clutches.

And then, as he read, the black words spooling across the creamy white page, the letters had twitched, pulled themselves up, and marched across the paper and up his ice-cold fingers. He’d watched, fascinated, feeling prickly all over as the words crawled like spiky black ants over the back of his hand, then encircled his left wrist. The letters shifted, blurring into one word, then another.

BOOK, he read, then STOLEN and THE and NEVER. Then a strange word, CODEX. Then the letters shifted again, jumbling into nonsense.

As Alex wondered what a codex was, the library door had slammed open with an echoing bang. A moment later, two of his father’s soldiers ripped the curtain away from his hiding place. He had a moment to blink owlishly up at them before they grabbed him.

“So here’s where you’ve been hiding, kid!” exclaimed Jeffen, who was one of the Family, his father’s most trusted soldiers. Like all of the Family, Jeffen was sort of like an older sibling to Alex. An extremely loud, obnoxious, annoying, teasing, redheaded big brother who also happened to be an expert swordsman. Jeffen had looked uneasily around the dim, dusty library. “Kind of snaky in here, isn’t it?”

Alex had given him his most dire scowl. “Go away.”

“Can’t,” Jeffen said with a cheerful shrug. “Your pa wants you.”

The other Family soldier was a woman-at-arms, Franciss. “You know what they say, Alex,” she said. “‘Children should be seen and not hide.’”

“That is not what they say,” Alex had snapped, “and I’m not hiding. I’ve been reading.” The words that had crawled onto his skin started prickling like lots of tiny needles. The prickling feeling became an almost unbearable stinging, and the letters flowed over his own hands and spilled out of the book he was holding, onto the floor, and then swarmed over Jeffen and Franciss. The words slithered up the legs of their trousers and up their sleeves.

Jeffen had shrieked and ripped open his uniform. “Gah!” he shouted as he pulled it off and flung it to the floor, and then started stamping on it. At the same time, Franciss drew her sword and spun in circles, looking for something to fight. A word crawled out from under her collar and up her neck, and her eyes bulged with fright.

“Franciss, put your sword away,” Alex said, using the sharp tone his pa used when giving orders, “before you skewer somebody.” Then he turned to Jeffen. “And quit yelling about ants all over you.” Somehow, he’d known exactly what to do next. Pointing at the words, he shouted one of the markings that had been printed on his wrist: “Codex!”

And the words had peeled off of Franciss’s neck, and off of Jeffen’s arms, and flown through the air toward him.

“Codex!” he ordered again, opening the red-leather-covered book, and he’d felt certain the words would obey him—and they did, flowing back to him. He snapped the book closed.

But a few words had stayed behind.

Black spots flickered in his vision, and his skin felt prickly all over. Then his eyes cleared and he saw black letters printed around the pale skin of his left wrist, like a tattoo, or a bracelet. The words didn’t spell anything, or at least they didn’t make any sense when he tried to read them. But he’d been marked, and he had suddenly known with a fierce certainty that this meant he wasn’t supposed to be a soldier like his pa.

No. He was a librarian.

There were three problems, that he knew of, with this fact.

The first problem was that every librarian that he’d ever met—and he’d met a few since leaving home—was ancient. None of them would teach him anything. None of them would tell him any of their librarian secrets—and he knew they had secrets.

The second problem was that every true librarian had pages—magical pieces of paper that carried out the librarian’s orders. Unfortunately, Alex didn’t have even one page to help him.

The third problem was the biggest. His father. Pa valued swords, not words. According to him, librarians were useless and spineless and basically less in every way.

And yet.

Alex had, of course, told his father about the book that had gone after the Family soldiers. Or the Red Codex, as he thought of it.

“It wasn’t a book,” Jeffen said scornfully. “It was ants. That library is infested.”

“It was not ants,” Alex insisted. “They were words. Words that crawled out of a book.”

“You know what they say,” Franciss had put in. “‘You can’t judge a book by the color of its spots.’”

Nobody says that, Franciss,” Alex had said with a glare.

“I say it,” Franciss argued. She appealed to Jeffen. “Didn’t I just say it?”

“All right now,” Pa had interrupted just as Alex was about to explode with annoyance. His father had just come in from sword practice. He was huge in his leather armor, with the broadsword strapped across his back. “What was this book about, son?”

Alex had opened his mouth to answer, when he realized that he couldn’t remember a single word of what he’d read. “It’s . . . it’s about the history of . . . of making swords,” he’d told his pa. He hadn’t been a very good liar when he was younger. He’d gotten better since then.

“Show me this book, then,” his pa had said.

Alex went to fetch it, but the Red Codex was nowhere to be found.

“See?” Jeffen said, when Alex came back empty-handed. “Ants.”

Ants or not, that was enough for Alex’s pa to decide that they needed a proper librarian.

Alex had told him that he wanted to do it.

Pa had snorted. “Why waste your time?” he’d asked.

And then Alex had told Pa that he wasn’t going to study the sword anymore, or military tactics, or strategy, or any of the things that Pa thought were important. He showed him the bracelet of letters printed around his wrist and said that he was going to be a librarian.

And his father had laughed. “You, a librarian?” he had boomed. “Hah. My only son will not be wasting his life looking after a bunch of moldy books.”

Alex had argued and shouted and had even tried to reason with him, but Pa wouldn’t listen. Instead he’d brought in a professional, an old woman librarian with two faded-looking pages who refused to teach Alex anything.

He had tried telling her about the Red Codex.

When he’d told her that the words had crawled off the page and onto his skin, her eyes had gone wide. When he’d told her how he had ordered the words back into the book again, she had given him a sour, suspicious look and called him a liar. When he’d asked her what the word codex meant, exactly, she went to his father. Then she locked the library and wouldn’t let Alex back into it. Pa’s orders.

The betrayal of it still hurt.

Because no matter what his pa said, no matter that he didn’t have his own pages to act as his servants, and even though all the other librarians he’d met were dusty and decrepit and secretive, Alex knew exactly what he was meant to be.

He just wasn’t sure how he was supposed to do it.

With his own eyes, he had seen books that did not just sit on shelves getting dusty—first the Red Codex in his pa’s library, and then the book at Purslane that had attacked him with vines and had probably killed Merwyn Farnsworth. Clearly librarians were more than just keepers of the keys to library doors. There was something magical about books, something dangerous, something more. But what more, exactly, he didn’t know.

Well, he’d just have to figure it out as he went along.

He was sure about one thing, at least. He couldn’t go back home, even though he missed . . . certain people. He had to go on. He had to prove himself, somehow.

Down the road a short distance from Purslane Castle was the town of Purslane, which sat on a crossroads. There was an inn on its busiest corner, which was not particularly busy, because people didn’t travel much these days.

Alex’s stomach growled. He looked down at himself. He was dusty and disheveled and . . .

Blast. There was a smear of horse dung across the front of his jacket. He tried brushing it off and ended up with horse dung all over his hands. Giving a shrug, he wiped his hands on his jacket and headed toward the center of Purslane, passing shops and people and wagons loaded with wheat and vegetables grown in the farmland that encircled the town. The weeklong harvest festival had just ended, and everyone was busy putting their gardens to bed, and storing food for the winter. A few people glanced at him. It wasn’t usual to see strangers in a little town like Purslane. Most people, Alex had realized after he left home, never went farther than five miles from the place where they’d been born. Even so, as far as the townspeople could see, he was just a scruffy-looking kid.

Little did they know, Alex thought darkly to himself.

He spared one last glance at the castle behind him. He hated leaving that locked room and its potential dangers. He’d tried to warn them, but he knew the duchess and the steward had not taken him seriously. And he hated leaving behind the four books he’d been reading. A book half read was a bother. Like a toothache. It niggled.

There was nothing he could do about it now.

As he stood there, he felt another wash of sorrow that Merwyn Farnsworth was dead. The old man had kept his secrets, and he’d been a little weird about bugs, but he had been kind to Alex.

On Alex’s left wrist, the bracelet of letters itched, as it often did. He glanced down at them. Then he blinked and looked more closely. For the first time since the Red Codex had marked him, the letters were shifting, climbing over each other, rejumbling into a new order. For just a moment, a word formed.

GO

Then the letters shifted back into a jumble again.

All right, that was snaky. “I’m going,” Alex said to the letters.

But they didn’t spell anything back to him. With a shrug, he went on.

When he arrived at the Purslane Inn, he had a bit of luck. Going through the front door, he found an unattended counter. On it rested a paper where guests could sign in; next to it was a pot of ink with a cap on it, and a metal-nibbed pen. With a quick look around, Alex pulled out the letter he’d stolen from the librarian’s desk; it had a second page with half a blank page under the queen’s signature. He tore the paper, taking the blank half and stuffing the rest of it into his pocket. Dipping the pen into the ink, he wrote a quick note, using the dowager duchess’s handwriting, which he had made a point of studying during his time at the castle.

To the Inn at Purslane—

To the bearer of this note provide all finest accoutrements, bed, dinner, breakfast, and supplies to see him on the road tomorrow. Send the bill to me at the castle.

Signed,

Dowager Duchess Purslane

There. That should do it.

No sooner had he set down the pen than the innkeeper, a stout woman with fiery red hair, bustled into the room, wiping her hands on a stained apron.

“Well, what d’you want?” she asked impatiently.

Alex took a quick glance at the note he’d just written. The ink was still wet. Surreptitiously, he waved it, trying to get it dry before he had to hand it over. “I’ll take a room for the night,” he said, “and the best dinner you’ve got.”

“Hmm.” The innkeeper eyed him.

Alex knew he looked a little rough around the edges, but he eyed her right back.

“And you’ve got money to pay for this best room and fine dinner?” she asked dubiously.

“Even better,” Alex told her, and held out the note, which hopefully wouldn’t smear when she took it.

The innkeeper cocked her head and squinted down at the paper. “From the duchess.” She read on, muttering to herself. “Ack-coo-tree-monts, is it? Hmm. That’s the duchess’s signature, though. I suppose this seems in order.” She glanced up at him, and gave a suspicious sniff. “What’s that I smell?”

“Yes, I smell like horse,” Alex said. “That’s because I’m a groom in the duchess’s stable.” He took off the stinky jacket. “I’ll need you to wash this for me.”

The innkeeper stared at him.

“Accoutrements,” Alex told her, putting into his voice every bit of confidence he had, every bit of I am on a special mission for the duchess and how dare you doubt me?

The innkeeper blinked and then, slowly, she reached out and took the jacket, and Alex knew he’d won.

“Have it ready for me by tomorrow morning,” he said. “Along with the supplies the duchess mentioned in her note. I’ll go into the dining room to wait for dinner.”

With that, he breezed past her into the large common area. Finding a small table next to the inn’s row of front windows, he sat down and let out a relieved breath. The duchess, he guessed, would pay for his stay at the inn when the innkeeper sent her the bill. She wouldn’t be happy about it—rather, she’d be furious—but it couldn’t be helped, and she owed him that much, anyway, for almost four months of work.

A waiter, a red-haired kid who had to be the innkeeper’s son, appeared and took his order for the finest dinner they had.

“Where you headed?” the kid asked.

None of your business, Alex thought. But the men-at-arms who might, possibly, come looking for him would ask at an inn like this, so he’d better lay his false trail from here, too. He told the redheaded kid the same lie about heading west to the border and taking a ship to Xan.

“Uh-huh,” the kid said, looking bored.

“And my name is Alexandren, in case anybody comes here asking about me.”

The kid shrugged. As soon as he’d gone, Alex pulled out the letter he’d taken from the librarian’s desk—it was rather crumpled now, and the second page was torn in half, but the gilt edging was as shiny as ever.

He’d seen the queen’s signature on the second page. The date at the top indicated that it had been sent less than two weeks ago. Eagerly, Alex started reading from the beginning.

Librarian Merwyn Farnsworth

Purslane Castle

Extershire

Aethel

Librarian Farnsworth,

It is with sadness that we report to you the death of Maeviss Clark, who had served us as Royal Librarian. She made it known that you, Librarian Farnsworth, were next in eminence to her, and should be appointed in her place, should anything happen to her.

As you may know, the Royal Library, housed in the Winter Palace, is extensive, consisting of many rooms and innumerable books, texts, codices, scrolls, maps, diaries, tomes, and handwritten manuscripts. Certain parts of the collection may have not been properly cataloged in many years.

In order to put the books into better order, and to guard them well, you are required to journey to Aethel’s Winter Palace to take up the position of Royal Librarian. Upon arrival, report to the Royal Steward, who will direct you further.

We request that you make all haste to take up this position.

By order of the Queen, Kenneret the Third

Q. Kenneret III

Another librarian, dead.

Quite a coincidence, Alex thought.

As far as he knew, the queen, who hadn’t been queen for very long, had never met Merwyn Farnsworth. She hadn’t even written the letter; that had been done, he guessed, by a secretary, or this steward person that was mentioned, and the queen had just added her signature at the end.

The queen wanted Merwyn Farnsworth to report to the palace?

Well, Alex thought, this was his chance. He would GO. If the queen needed a librarian, she was going to get one.

4

I must have added wrong, Queen Kenneret thought to herself. She looked over the column of numbers that had been submitted to her by the royal steward, who was responsible for . . . well, basically for overseeing everything in the Winter Palace. Housekeeping, hiring the servants, putting together the budgets, ordering supplies, and so on. The steward stood at attention four paces from her desk. As always, Dorriss had not a gray hair out of place. She wore the uniform of the royal servants, a dress made of black silk with the kingdom’s seal, the bear, sword, and spade, embroidered in gold on her sleeve. At her waist she wore a belt, and hanging from it was a chatelaine, a chain with a ring of keys at its end that jingled every time she took a step. Behind the steward stood two footmen, wearing gold-and-black-striped waistcoats, and two secretaries holding files stuffed with important papers.

“Carry the one,” Kenneret muttered, totting up the numbers again. “Nineteen, and twenty.” Setting down the pencil, she sat back from her desk. “Twenty thousand. It costs twenty thousand golds to heat the Winter Palace every year.” She allowed herself a brief moment of despair. Her uncle, Patchedren, would make an issue of the cost. Her uncle had been her regent until three months ago, when Kenneret had turned sixteen, which was old enough to rule the kingdom herself, he’d said. He often made issues of things, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that his issues too often made her seem thoughtless or weak.

Well, there was nothing else to be done—they would simply have to stop heating parts of the palace, even though the harvest festival was over and nobles and courtiers from all over the kingdom had started descending on the palace to spend the winter doing what nobles and courtiers did. Namely feasting, gossiping, carrying on secret intrigues, and challenging each other to duels. Why couldn’t they all just stay home until spring?

Ugh, and her bottom hurt from sitting on this uncomfortable velvet chair for the past four hours. And her crown—the simple gold circlet, for daily use—was giving her a headache.

When she opened her eyes, the steward was bowing deeply. “The numbers don’t lie, Your Majesty,” she said formally.

Kenneret straightened. She let her usual mask of imperturbability settle over her face. “Of course they don’t,” she said coolly. “For the good of the people—” It was always best to begin her proclamations that way. “For the good of the people, we authorize a reduction in the heating expenditure for the palace.” Standing, she leaned over the wide, polished expanse of her desk and handed over the papers she’d been studying.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the steward said.

“We will start a fashion this winter for wearing wool and furs,” Kenneret said, using the royal we that made her every pronouncement seem too formal. “So our courtiers don’t get cold.”

“Very good, Your Majesty,” Dorriss said, and turned to hand the papers to one of the secretaries.

With a sigh, Kenneret sat down on her sore bottom. She was queen. Surely she could get a better pillow for her chair. But she did not squirm. Her back didn’t even touch the chair—that’s how straight she sat. “Will that be all, then, Steward?” she asked.

“There are two more things, Your Majesty,” Dorriss said, turning away from the servants. “Yes, you may go,” she said to the two secretaries, who, after bowing deeply, received a nod of dismissal from the queen. Dorriss pulled a letter from the file of papers she held, and scanned it. “This, Your Majesty, is from the military school at Starkcliffe. They are expelling your brother.” She glanced up. “Again.”

Kenneret stifled a groan. Her brother, Charleren, younger than her by a year, was far, far more trouble than he was worth. The school had kicked him out before—and they’d taken him back because she had insisted. After all, she was queen. “When does he arrive?” she asked, forcing her voice to remain calm.

“In a few days, Your Majesty,” Dorriss answered, after scanning the letter again.

“Very well.” Carefully, Kenneret placed the tips of her fingers along the edge of the shiny surface of her desk. She made herself notice the swirls in the polished wood, its deep honey color. Details. They were important. They kept her grounded, steady, even when she wanted to rip off her crown and run screaming with exasperation from the palace. She took a long, steadying breath. “We believe you said there were two more things requiring our attention?” she asked.

“Ah, yes, Your Majesty,” Steward Dorriss answered. “It is about the new royal librarian, who has just arrived. I think . . .” Her lips pursed. “It may be best if Your Majesty meets him.”

Kenneret sighed. She wasn’t getting out of this chair anytime soon. “Very well.” A library was a burden. Like an ancient, sickly maiden aunt, of little interest to anyone, but it did need a keeper.

Dorriss turned to give orders to one of the footmen to fetch the new royal librarian.

“What is his name again?” Kenneret asked.

“Farnsworth, Your Majesty,” Dorriss answered, her face carefully blank. At the sound of footsteps in the hallway, she turned. “Ah, here he is.”

The librarian entered her office. Kenneret blinked and tried not to stare. He was not at all what she had expected. He was young, for one thing, even younger than she was by at least a year, she guessed. The same age as her brother. Tall, though. Pale-skinned, with badly cut blond hair, a long nose, wearing a shirt that had once been white, with a shapeless brown jacket over it, and trousers that were a little too short, as if he’d grown taller since he was given them.

“Your Majesty,” Dorriss said, her voice uninflected, “may I present Librarian Merwyn . . . ah . . . Farnsworth, most recently librarian to the Dowager Duchess of Purslane Castle in Extershire.”

Now was when he should bow. But he didn’t. He just regarded her levelly, with narrowed gray eyes.

She stared back at him and felt an instant antipathy. Who did he think he was, not even bowing to the queen? “You are Merwyn Farnsworth?”

He flinched just the slightest bit as she said the name. She noticed such things—she had to, because people never ever told a queen what they were really thinking. He didn’t like his name, she guessed. Or . . . it wasn’t his name at all.

“Yes, I’m Farnsworth,” he answered. “Not Merwyn, if you don’t mind. Alex. I go by my middle name, Alexandren.”

“We are pleased to welcome you to the Aethel Winter Palace, Librarian Farnsworth,” she said formally.

“Thanks,” he answered. He glanced aside at the steward. “What happened to the previous librarian?” he asked.

“She died,” Dorriss answered.

“Yeah, I got that,” the boy said impatiently. “It was in the letter. But how did she die?”

“Of old age, I believe,” Dorriss said. It was, after all, her job to know such things.

“She just fell asleep one day and didn’t wake up?” he asked. “Is that it?”

“That is,” Dorriss said dryly, “in fact, it.”

The boy looked intent. “Was she holding a book when it happened?”

Dorriss frowned ever so slightly at the question. “I do not know.”

“Huh,” the boy said, and absently rubbed his left wrist.

There was a moment of silence.

“Do you have the letter that we sent you?” Kenneret asked, trying to get a better sense of who he was. “The one inviting you to serve us as the royal librarian?”

We?” he asked abruptly. “What we? What us?”

Kenneret caught her steward’s eye. At her nod, Dorriss answered for her. “Her Majesty uses the royal we. It is a reminder that Her Majesty, the queen, speaks not just for herself, but for the crown and, indeed, for the kingdom.”

To Kenneret’s surprise, the boy nodded seriously. “Right. I get it.” And then he gave her that level, searching look again, as if he was trying to see past the we to I. To her.

She didn’t like it. “The letter?” she prompted.

The boy pulled a crumpled paper from the pocket of his rather ragged jacket and held it out to her, stepping closer so he could reach across the desk.

As she took it, she noticed that he had some sort of tattoo around his wrist, but even stranger, his fingers were calloused. And, he had lines of scars, faded to white, across the backs of his knuckles. She knew scars like that—her brother had them, too. People got them from training with the sword. Not just blunted practice swords, but real ones, with sharp edges.

What kind of librarian had advanced sword training?

She glanced at the paper, and indeed, it was the letter her steward had sent to Castle Purslane requiring Merwyn Farnsworth to take up the position of royal librarian. She tapped the edge of the paper against the polished surface of her desk. “So . . . you are a librarian,” she said.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Dorriss said pointedly. “That is the proper form of address when speaking to the queen.”

He frowned, hesitated, and then said, “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“What, in your opinion,” Kenneret asked, “is a librarian’s duty?”

“Librarians look after libraries,” he answered. And then added, “Your Majesty.”

“And what does that involve?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Cataloging the books. Keeping the books locked up.”

“That does not sound particularly interesting,” she murmured, still tapping the letter on her desk, because she could see quite clearly that it annoyed him. “It seems to us, Merwyn Alexandren Farnsworth, that you are more suited to being a swordsman than a librarian.”

He gave her an inimical look. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Your Majesty,” reminded Dorriss softly.

“Libraries are dangerous,” he went on as if Dorriss had not spoken. “Books are dangerous. A book is more dangerous than any sword.”

Interested, Kenneret leaned closer. “And a librarian is more brave than any soldier?”

“That’s right,” he answered promptly, as if he’d had this argument before.

Hmm. She suspected he was being purposely overdramatic about books—which were strange, yes, but not actually dangerous—so that she’d give him the job. And she didn’t believe for a second that he was who he claimed to be. He was too young, too scruffy, too obnoxious. Still, he sounded educated, despite his northern accent, and she did need somebody to keep the books in order, or at least dusted, until her steward found somebody more appropriate.

“We will give you a chance to prove yourself,” she said. “Until the end of the month.”

“What?” he protested. “I’ll barely have time to survey the shelves. Six months. A year would be better.”

“End of.” Kenneret smiled coolly. “The month.”

“Fine,” he snapped. “I’d better get started, then.” And he spun on his heel and stalked out of her office. The door slammed behind him. Then it opened, and he stuck his head back into the room. “Your Majesty,” he added, his voice etched with acid, and then slammed the door as he left again.

“My goodness,” Dorriss murmured, gazing at the closed door with her eyebrows raised. “That one is going to be trouble.” Then she glided closer to the desk and picked up the crumpled letter that had been sent to Merwyn Farnsworth.

With a sigh of relief, Kenneret stood up from her uncomfortable velvet chair. Before Dorriss could leave, she asked the question that had been bothering her since the beginning of the interview. “Steward, he asked about the previous librarian. There was nothing odd about her death, was there?”

“I believe not, Your Majesty,” she said, adding the letter to a folder stuffed with other papers. “Does Her Majesty wish me to begin searching for someone more qualified to serve as royal librarian?”

Kenneret sighed. “Yes. We suppose that you must.” She didn’t think Merwyn Farnsworth—or whoever he was—could do too much damage to the royal library before they found somebody to replace him.

And then, with an effort, she dismissed the new librarian from her thoughts. It was only the library, after all. It was only books. She had much more important things to worry about.

5

Alex could still hear the echo of the door he’d slammed, the one that led into the queen’s office. Storming out of there had probably been a mistake, but when she’d said he had until the end of the month—fifteen days!—to set the royal library to rights, it had infuriated him beyond all toleration. A whole team of expertly trained librarians couldn’t do it. He certainly couldn’t, not all by himself.

Still, he’d started on this road, and he couldn’t stop now. He had to keep going and see what happened, even though he’d probably wind up either tossed out the front gate of the palace, or tracked down by the people he’d been trying to avoid for the past few months, or, most likely, he’d fail so spectacularly that blast it into a million pieces would no longer be just a figure of speech.

Alex stalked down the long hallway, walking fast until he’d taken the edge off of his annoyance. The queen obviously didn’t believe for a second that he was a librarian. There she’d sat, a smug smile on her face, all stiffly formal in her lacy brocade dress, with a heavy-looking gold circlet resting on her intricately braided brown hair and stacks of jeweled rings on every finger. Still, she was young, not that much older than he was, and she’d seemed uncomfortable. All that royal we and Your Majesty business, as if she had to be constantly reminded that yes, she was the queen. Or maybe she had to constantly remind everybody else. He wondered who had her doubting herself so badly.

Never mind the queen. He had more important things to deal with.

The library had to be around here somewhere.

He kept going, around corners, up wide, sweeping staircases, across echoing, marble-floored halls, prowling through darkened drawing rooms. He passed a few footmen—they reminded him of bees in their black-and-white-striped waistcoats—and even fewer maidservants, clots of royal officials, not to mention bejeweled, perfumed courtiers by the dozens. But no library.

Finally he stopped and looked around. The walls of the hallway he was in were mirrored, showing him reflections upon reflections of his own shabby self. The edges of the mirrors were gilded. A reminder of how wealthy the Kingdom of Aethel had once been—but it was all a bit tarnished now. Dust had collected where the floor met the wall; clearly there weren’t quite enough servants to keep it all in order. The kingdom had once been a center of trade, with people from everywhere coming and going at all times, though more recently it had grown isolated from the rest of the world. Not as wealthy, not quite as gilded or great.

The chairs lined up against the walls were gilded, too, and dusty. They were there in case you got tired from wandering lost through the palace, Alex figured. It was, he realized, enormous. What it must cost to heat the place in the winter!

In the nearest mirror he caught a sliver of black, reflected. It wavered, and he turned to see the steward in her black silk dress gliding toward him down the hallway.

“Ah, Librarian Farnsworth,” she said briskly.

“Alex,” he corrected her.

“Hmm,” she murmured. She wore a ring of keys at the end of a chain at her waist, and they jingled as she walked.

“I’m trying to find my way,” he said. “This place is huge. It’s like a maze.”

“Just wait until you see the library,” she said with a thin smile. “Come with me.”

The steward was short and plump and very correct; she had light brown skin and wore her iron-gray hair in a tight knot at the back of her neck and had deep lines at the corners of her mouth. Lines of disapproval, Alex guessed, not ones she’d gotten from laughing. She disapproved of him, that was for sure.

“When you have guests,” he asked, “do you give them a map of this place so they don’t get lost?”

“No,” she said. “We give them a footman to show them the way.”

Well, they weren’t going to give him a footman. He tried to pay attention as she led him through the palace’s winding corridors and echoing chambers until they reached an unobtrusive door set at the end of a deserted hallway with worn carpeting on the floor.

“This is it?” Alex asked.

“It is,” the steward replied. She held out a bunch of keys on a heavy iron ring. They ranged from the size of a fingernail to a heavy key as big as his hand.

Librarian keys. Alex felt a prickle of excitement as he took the jangling ring and turned to the door. Sorting through the keys, he found the one that looked like a good match for the lock, and tried it. He turned it, and the door creaked open. Pushing it wider, he peered in. His hands trembled a little with excitement.

A library. His library, at least for a while.

It was dim. Tall windows off to the right were covered with velvet curtains, and just a little light filtered in. Spiderwebs were draped around the doorway. He stepped farther in and looked up . . . and up. The room was huge and round, and so far across that every creak of a chair and turn of a page would echo. Bookshelves stretched up the walls, level upon level of them, with balconies and ladders and catwalks, all the way to the ceiling, which was lost in darkness. Alex caught a fluttering movement in the high shadows—were bats living up there?

“Librarian Farnsworth,” the steward said from behind him.

He nodded to show that he was listening, while noting that the main floor was made of uncarpeted stone inlaid in some kind of pattern. Two long wooden reading tables with chairs took up half the space. There were also desks and cabinets for the card catalogs, and rows of bookshelves taller than he was made of carved wood, all stuffed with books.

“A warning,” the steward said. “This library has been locked since the death of the librarian, nearly a month ago. And before that . . .” Alex glanced back at her and saw that she was frowning. “Maeviss Clark, the librarian, was very, very old, and spent most of her time asleep, or reading. The royal library has been essentially untended for many years.” She pointed at the huge room before them. “This is only a small part of it. Sections of it were hacked out of the cliff itself. There are locked rooms that have never, in my time here, been opened. There are rooms that have been found once and never seen again. There are hidden doors. I have heard rumors that one of the librarian’s assistants, who disappeared many years ago, is still in here somewhere. In short, there was probably a good reason why the previous librarian made sure she and the pages that served her were holed up in her office most of the time.”

The keys weighed heavily in Alex’s hand. He felt goose bumps on his arms and tried not to shiver. Looking up, he met the steward’s cool gaze. “You’re trying to frighten me,” he said slowly. Then he added, “It’s not going to work.”

The steward frowned. “Just as you are a librarian—or you claim to be—I am a steward. It is my job to know all that goes on in this palace. There are dangers here.” Her lips thinned into a narrow, disapproving line. “I think it’s very likely that you won’t live to see the end of your fifteen-day trial. You should get away from here while you still can.”

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