Emilia stood in front of the washroom mirror, brushed her hair back into a wavy ponytail and straightened the collar of her dress. Being out of uniform was always strange. She had switched it for a simple dress, the hem reaching to just a little below her ankles so it mostly hid the grimy boots she really needed to clean after all that running for her life in the woods. A brown leather waistcoat held the dress in place instead of a belt, closed with old copper clasps, and the simple red cloak over it – the only cloak she owned. The sun was already slowly setting, peeking out through rainy clouds, when she made her way down from the library.
The Timbatou home above the workshop had all windows lit, and when she knocked, it took a good while for someone to come downstairs. She heard the laughter of Claudine, the housekeeper, clear as day just before she opened the door.
“Oh, Emilia dear, what a lovely surprise! Lotte will be excited to see you!”
“Sorry, I couldn’t get out of the library the other day, so I thought we could do the dress-picking tonight?”
“Of course, dear. Come upstairs, out of this dreadful cold. You, um… might want to take those boots off.”
“Certainly,” Emilia confirmed with a laugh and while the housekeeper went upstairs to inform Lotte of her guest, she sat down on the steps to slip the boots off. She heard the pitter patter of light feet upstairs before the voice.
“Em!” Lotte called cheerfully. Emilia looked up. Lotte stood at the top of the stairs, in a frilly, light blue tea gown, golden curls spilling over her shoulders and a bright smile on her face. “I am so happy you could make it!” she declared and rushed down the steps to hug her. As soon as Emilia had both boots taken off, her friend snatched her arm and pulled her up to the family home. They caught a glimpse of the tea parlour, where her father’s had welcomed guests it seemed. The Hernessons, likely to negotiate the engagement between their son Henrik and Lotte herself.
“Lotte, darling?” Wilhelm Timbatou asked, peeking past the militia Captain and his wife.
“We’re going to my room.”
“I’ll get you tea. And something to nibble on,” Claudine chimed.
Lotte took them up a second, narrower flight of stairs, where – right under the roof – her rooms lay. Rooms. Plural. Lotte had a large bedroom to herself, with a lovely bay window with cushions to sit in, a large four poster bed, a vanity with fine beauty products from the capitol. She had a walk-in closet – a separate little room just for her dresses and shoes and bags and hats, with a large mirror for her to look at herself from all sides. And she had her own little bathroom, with a tub and everything, the kind of luxury Emilia had always envied a little.
“I was worried when you didn’t show yesterday,” Lotte noted when she rushed over to her closet and began picking garments, until her arms were full of dresses.
“Something came up. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry, it’s alright. The banquet is not until tomorrow night. Plenty of time to pick,” Lotte declared cheerfully, as she piled the dresses on her bed and got to trying on the first one. She slipped out of her tea dress, hopped around for a moment in just her bloomers, blouse and corset, then picked the first dress. A giant fluff of light blue and cream ruffles, and it was Emilia’s job to unfold the many layers so Lotte could climb in, while her friend slipped into her steel boned crinoline. Emilia suspected that was the main reason why Lotte wanted her here for this. A good ninety percent of her wardrobe she could not put on or take off on her own. “Do you know if you’ll be going?”
“I doubt I’ll get an invitation,” Emilia admitted, while opening the small metal hooks that closed the dress in the back.
“The Admiral seems to like you, I am sure if you express interest, he’ll get you a personal invitation,” Lotte suggested.
“You know I don’t like these kinds of events. The stuffy dresses and hundred tiers of silverware… I’ll just make a fool of myself.”
“It will be fun, I promise! And when will we ever get onto the Leviathan again? I thought you of all people would be excited about that idea!”
“That’s true, I’d love to see the ship. But maybe I’ll get another chance. Without the banquet and the dressing up.”
They pulled the layers of fabric over Lotte and Emilia got to fastening all the little hooks again, tying the silk bows to keep the dress in place, while Lotte evened out the fabric over the crinoline. She handed her a tournure with matching fabric and small, embroidered silk flowers, and once the whole thing was in place, Emilia stepped back to Lotte could marvel herself in the mirror.
“That’s not like you, Em,” she said, and when Emilia looked up she could see Lotte was watching her through the mirror. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, of course,” Emilia replied with a smile. A knock at the door interrupted them, but Emilia could see by the way Lotte pulled her brows together that she did not believe her. Lying to the Head Librarian or to the hunters or even to her own family was one thing. But lying to Lotte Timbatou? That would not work. She should have known that before the words left her lips.
“Yes?” Lotte asked. The door opened and Claudine peeked inside.
“I brought tea for you two,” she said and rolled in with a tea tray, a large, silver teapot, two lovely sets of cups and saucers, with little flowers painted on the china, and little silver spoons with mother of pearl laid in the handles, a bowl of brown sugar chunks, cream, a few slices of lemon, and a whole tray full of little fairy cakes, decorated with glittering sugar balls and stars and little birds and cats, and a tower of meringue, dusted with rose coloured, glittering powdered sugar, or painted with stripes of lemon jelly. And last but not least, there was a plate with neatly arranged triangles of sandwiches, some with cheese and egg, others with pate and chutney, some with fish, some with cabbage and pickled cornichons.
“Oh Claudine you have outdone yourself, thank you so much!” Lotte chimed when she ushered the housekeeper outside. Once the door was closed, the girl in the giant creampuff of a dress turned towards Emilia with a stern expression, hands on her hips, cheeks puffed. “Now, spill the beans.”
“Oh, Emilia, you know you can’t lie to me. Even lies of omission. Now you want to pass up a chance to get on board the Leviathan? What is this really about? Is this about Andrew? Because if it is about Andrew, I totally understand, and you can talk to me about it.”
“What? Andrew? What does Andrew have to do with anything?” Emilia asked perplex.
“I… figured he’d told you that he was leaving next year?”
“Oh… yes, he has…”
“That’s going to be strange, right? Par’bain without Andrew…”, Lotte mused. Emilia bodded and both of them were silent for a few moments, before Emilia shook her head.
“But… that’s not what this is about…”
“Then has he told you about his feelings? Because it’s been a long time coming.”
“Lotte, this isn’t about him. What does that even mean?”
Lotte rolled her eyes.
“Oh it’s painfully obvious, isn’t it? He’s in love with you. Has been since we were children.”
Emilia sighed, shook her head and leaned back against the bay window as she sat down on the cushions. Of course she knew that. Of course she was not that oblivious not to realise that Andrew had a crush, But she had thought it just that. A crush, something they would laugh about in a few years when they were in different lives, when he was likely married to a merchant daughter or some upper class girl from Par’fost. Lotte, however, seemed to be of the mind that this was more than a little crush.
“He’s said nothing. And I won’t bring it up. I don’t want him to feel uncomfortable. I’d be happy if this whole thing just… blows over. This… isn’t about Andrew… it’s about me…”
Lotte lowered her hands and came closer. Cradling her many layers of dress and moving the crinoline so she could comfortably sit next to Emilia, she took her friends hands.
“Then what’s going on with you? Look at you, you barely sleep. Is this still about that night with the monsters?”
Oh Lotte. Oh sharp, attentive Lotte. She never got enough credit for how much attention she paid to her surroundings. Especially to her friends. Emilia had thought to be so sneaky with her new, giant secret. Clearly, she was not. At least not to those who knew her best.
“It always is with you. And you know what is also always the same? That you can tell me everything. Emilia and Lotte, remember?” Lotte asked, raising her pinkie with a thin, gold ring on it, their initials engraved in it. Emilia smiled. She had not seen that ring in years, it lay somewhere in the small case with her belongings in her dorm room, because it did not fit on her fingers any longer. Her hands were not nearly as delicate as Lotte’s. But still, she hooked her pinkie in with her friend’s.
“Lotte and Emilia,” she confirmed. Lotte grinned widely, then nodded.
“So, can you tell me? Because if you can’t right now, that’s fine, too. I won’t pressure you. I just want you to know that I will always be here for you.”
It wanted to burst from her, like it had been boiling at the surface for too long and finally blew up. Emilia let go of a long sigh. Gods, it would feel so good to have that off her chest, to have someone she did not need to lie to, someone to confide in about this. But she knew it was selfish, to share something like this with Lotte, making her essentially an accomplice to whatever crime she made herself guilty of by harbouring a dragon.
Slowly, she shook her head.
“I… can’t. I’m sorry. I want to, believe me…”
“Is it about a boy? Are you seeing someone. Are you…” Lotte gasped, and leaned in for a whisper. “Are you pregnant? It’s Valek’s, isn’t it? Ohhh that hunky little dwarf…”
Emilia burst with laughter and shook her head.
“Lotte, I am not pregnant. And I am not seeing Valek. Or anyone. I promise you, if a boy was involved, you would be the first one I would tell. Like, instantaneously. I’d turn right around and tell you. It’s not about a boy,” she assured her. Lotte sighed relieved.
“Good. I’d be sorely disappointed if you didn’t tell me. Oh Goddess, could you imagine your father’s reaction if you brought home a boy he’d never met before!”
“I try not to,” Emilia admitted. Lotte laughed, then waved both hands.
“Now, enough about boys. I have 16 more dresses to try on!” she declared with determination and began pointing at all the bows that needed loosening to get her out of the cream-puff again.
“You’re just letting this go?” Emilia asked carefully.
“Like I said, when you’re ready to tell me, I’ll be right here to listen. No matter what it is, no matter how big or small. I am here. Promise.”
Emilia looked up at Lotte, the sincerity on her face was moving to see. She smiled, raised a hand to Lotte’s cheek.
“Thank you. I will tell you. In time. Promise.”
Lotte nodded, clearly happy with that response, and then began to wiggle out of her dress, while Emilia headed over to prepare the next one for her to climb in.
She was grateful for the time here. Because with Lotte, she never felt like she had to hide. Never like she had to bite her tongue or pretend to be someone she was not. In a way, it was a lot like how she had felt in the secret garden, before things had gotten so out of hand. To think that she had felt as comfortable around the dragon as she did around the person she knew all her life and loved like a sister…
She missed Eraiyo.
It dawned on her quite forcefully when she turned back to Lotte to help her in the second dress. She missed him, and she wanted to make amends for their strange falling out earlier. But she could not. Because he was gone, and she was left behind, and she would probably never find him again. It felt like she had lost her best friend. Looking at Lotte, it was the same feeling she imagined she would have if she left, and that was terrifying to her. Why did she feel so close to this dragon? What did this strange connection do to her? She could feel the cracks of her composure grow bigger and she had to sit down on the bed while preparing the dress.
She spoke little for the rest of the evening. Mostly just nodded or shook her head at whatever dress Lotte put forward. About halfway through, Lotte all but ordered her to try one on herself – a green one her father had brought from his latest business visit to Par’fost, and while Lotte did not think it suited herself, she thought it was exactly as Emilia’s eyes so she had kept it for her friend. It was a dress unlike anything she owned. Rich fabric, heavy with delicate golden embroidery, an evening dress that would be completely over the top at anything other than a formal dinner with a dwarven admiral. It was low cut in the front and slightly off shoulder, with no sleeves, and a huge bustle in the back that gave her a silhouette she normally was only used to see on Lotte. Emilia tried it on reluctantly, when they had officially tried every dress from Lotte’s selection, with Lotte helping her adjust the crinoline and then watching her cheerfully from the bed in just her underwear and a light blue dressing robe.
“Oh you look amazing in it! Really, if you do decide to go to the banquet, you should wear this! It came with shoes and everything!”
“I’ll think about it. Can we settle on that?”
“Yes, we can.”
“Did I help you with a decision at all?” Emilia asked.
“You did. We narrowed it down to four, that’s a lot better than 17. I’ll decide tomorrow. I guess you have to get back to the library?” Lotte asked. Emilia nodded as she began the climb out of the green dress and back into her own, much simpler garments.
“I’ll bring you to the door,” Lotte offered and leapt off her bed and into her slippers. Emilia threw her cloak over her shoulders and followed her friend downstairs. The house had quieted down, and a glimpse at the clock on the mantelpiece of the fireplace told her why. It was far into midnight.
A cold breeze hit her when Lotte opened the door, and they could hear the rain splash down onto the road. Lotte shivered. “Brrr… You could sleep over, if you want.”
“Another time. The Head Librarian is keeping a close eye on me. I am not to spend the night away from the dorm,” Emilia noted with a sigh, and flipped her hood over her hair. “I’ll run. It’ll be fine.”
“Right. So, maybe see you at the banquet tomorrow. If not, mess on Sunday?” Lotte asked.
“Definitely,” Emilia agreed with a nod, then leaned over to press a kiss on Lotte’s cheek.
“Get home safe!” Lotte called after her when she rushed into the street and turned towards the hill. She waved back once, then – with the cloak clutched close before her and the other hand holding the hood in place – rushed back to the library.
Emilia slipped through the gates of the library grounds and took the distance towards the dorm in wide strides. Her cloak was soaked, hair sticking in wet strands to her face and neck, and the once light coloured hem of her dress was soaking up rainwater and mud from the road. Judging from the cold, wet feeling of her feet, her boots had seen better days as well.
She was all but set on getting to her room, changing out of the wet clothes into a cosy nightgown and curling up in her bed, when she saw movement in the corner of her eye. A glimpse of a shadow just, by the front doors of the main building, and by the time she turned her head all she saw was the door fall shut, extinguishing the shimmer of light that had fallen out from the hall.
At this hour, not even the Head Librarian was usually in the library. She looked back at the dorm, saw the windows of the warden’s bedrooms were lit from inside, so they were both there. And none of the offices seemed to be lit.
Someone was sneaking about! And for once, it was not her!
Emilia hesitated, stopped short halfway between the main building and dorm. It would be easy to ignore, to just go to bed and sleep and not get involved. But her curiosity was nagging at the back of her head with excuses to go snooping around. What if it’s a thief? What if someone broke in and steals something? And you saw it and did nothing? What will Madame Ludivine think?
She sighed and turned on her heel, rushed up the steps to the main building and pulled open the door. There was no light inside, so whoever had come in here had brought a lamp? Rain was drumming against the glass, and from the dim light falling in through them, the statues in the entry hall looked grim and threatening. She shivered, and had half decided to turn away with no sign of where the figure had gone. But then she saw the light, shimmering from down a hallway. Emilia swallowed. Bad things happened to wanderers who followed strange lights. But this was a familiar place, so nothing bad could happen, really. Right?
She followed the light, saw it disappear around a corner, possibly into a room, and her steps grew larger to keep up and not lose them. As she got closer, she recognised the path she was following. It led to the closed archives. Andrew, perhaps? Maybe he had trouble sleeping and though he would distract himself with a bit of work in the archives? As she climbed down the stairs, she thought about their conversation earlier. About him leaving in the summer. And about him having trouble imagining a life without his friends here. Without her. Had he been trying to confess his feelings after all? If so, she was almost relieved Fran had interrupted them. She was afraid of what would happen if rumours spread that Andrew Fahren had confessed he felt more than friendship. It was not something she wanted to deal with, and it was not something she wanted from their friendship. She liked the way things were, she did not want more, and she was scared that if she told him that, he would feel hurt and humiliated and end their friendship. It was silly, she knew that deep down. She knew Andrew was not like that. But she couldn’t help the fear.
The door to the archives was unhinged, and that made her frown. It was not unlocked, it was not just ajar, it had been lifted out of its hinges and lay haphazardly against the wall. This was definitely not Andrew, and it alarmed her. She entered the archives, cold wind was blowing through the tunnels, and she heard… movement, in the distance. Down the hallway where she knew the adarrill books were stored. Someone was coming to take them. It was the first thought she had. Had someone overheard their conversation earlier? But even if they did, Emilia was the only one who had ever been down by these books, not even Andrew had seen them yet. So how would this potential thief know where to look? Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe she could still hide them.
She took a lantern for herself and followed the tunnel, rather than any sign of another intruder. She had to make sure the books were safe. Her steps were quick, her boots leaving muddy trails in the darkness, only briefly illuminated by the light of her own lamp.
Before she even reached the dead end with the ancient books, she came to a halt. Here, right down that crossing, was that book, the strange one, whispering to her before. Right here, it occurred to her. Whoever had come down here had not come for the old books back there. They had come for this one. She raised the lantern, saw the light reflect of the shiny binding of the book. There were no whispers this time, but she was sure to hear breathing. A rattling breath, that… did not come from the book. Her hand holding the lantern was shaking when she slowly, very slowly, turned around.
The light fell on a monstrous visage, half bug, half person. Something she had seen before. The creature that had fought with Eraiyo above the library, days ago. She had never seen it leave the library, because it never had. It had been hiding out here, all this time, right under their noses, where they had been working, undetected. Until now. As it moved, the buggish exoskeleton pieces of its body scraped together. It came closer, and part of her hoped that if she stayed very, very still, it would not notice her presence. Of course, that was a very, very big ‘IF’.
Sharp claws came up, and the jaws of the beast opened wide for an angry shriek that Emilia responded to in kind. Before the claws could come down to slice her to pieces, she slammed the lantern she was holding into the creatures head. Oil was spilling, catching fire, burning the creature and making it stumble back with screams of agony she did not stop to listen to. It fell into a bookshelf, setting the old, thin paper on fire in seconds.
Emilia ran. As fast as she could, back down the tunnel to the main cave of the archives. There, she stopped, just a moment, to catch her breath by the door and look back.
The tunnel lay in darkness and silence for several heartbeats, and as out of breath as she was, for a moment she was almost certain she had gotten away. Clearly, that was overly optimistic.
It was first just a shimmer of light in the distance, making her frown with worry for the blink of an eye before she realised what was happening. It was coming. And it was burning. And it was probably very, very angry.
She stumbled backwards, fell over a pile of books and landed on her behind just as the creature burst into the cave with a furious roar, surrounded by flames, setting books on fire wherever it moved. The tongues of flames snapped up around her, taking her breath away, driving panic into the front of her mind. She was back at the secret garden, with Eraiyo spitting flames at her. And back on the watchtower that first night she had seen him, with flames flying around them. And she was somewhere else, being dragged through burning streets by a hooded figure, being crammed into a crowded space with shivering, sobbing little bodies, while the light of flames was shimmering through. Someone took her hand then, small and trembling like her own.
“It’ll be alright. We’ll be alright.”
A girl with black curls and big, fearful eyes, and-
Oh by the Gods, she had set the library on fire! If that beast did not kill her, Head Librarian Ludivine certainly would!
She crawled on all fours to get away from the creature before she had the grip to get back to her feet and she ran for the door. The creature roared behind her and she heard it crash into the wall next to the door in an ill-coordinated attempt to catch her. Emilia stumbled up the stairs, looked back once at the top, to see burning legs appear, claws dig into the stone stairs.
Emilia stumbled through the kitchen. Running, stopping only to look back at the creature still in pursuit. She had to lure it out of the building, away from the books. It was still after her by the time she ran into the entry hall and out the door. She stopped there, briefly, with her back against the closed doors, contemplating where to go, what to do next. It was one thing to get the creature out of the library where it could no longer burn priceless artefacts, but a whole different thing to get away from it with her life.
It crashed against the door from the inside, sending Emilia forward down the steps. Yelling. Maybe yelling would help.
“Fire!!! Fire in the library!!!!” she cried out at the top of her lungs. The doors burst wide open and she flew around breathless. The creature stood in the door, still surrounded by simmering heat as it stepped towards her, calmer now that the heat of the fire was subsiding. “Also there’s a monster but yeah, take your time people!! The library is just bloody burning!!”
She stepped backwards with every step the creature took towards her, with claws ready and the burn marks clear on its exoskeleton, its thin, glass like wings singed and destroyed. She had left a mark on that creature, and she would not get away with that, she knew.
Another step backwards.
“Is it too late to talk about this, maybe?” she asked, voice cracking in her throat. It had worked with Eraiyo, maybe it worked with this thing as well. Yet it seemed utterly unimpressed. She saw legs bend, ready to jump at hear with claws ready to slice and she heard herself scream, turned away because maybe taking the claws to the back was less painful and deadly than facing them. But the claws never came.
Emilia looked up. The creature had been knocked off its feet, was being scraped over the muddy ground by powerful claws and teeth, and an impressive wingspan, and burning, black scales. It made the breath catch in her throat.
By some bizarre coincidence or miracle or whatever she could call it, he was here and had quite literally saved her life. The creature was pushed back, the dragon between it and her, growling angrily, flames licking up between his teeth. Emilia stumbled away from the battle, towards the main gate of the library grounds where she saw figures approach. Militiamen no doubt. And behind the battle, in the dorm, she could see the librarians, and the agents of the Inquisition who had stepped outside with their weapons ready to attack, but now lowered because they were not needed.
“Emilia. Emilia are you alright?!” she heard Peddar Freeman call out to her as he came running closer. She nodded, stunned into silence, captivated by the black dragon, the archdragon, in battle with the creature. A battle that had been interrupted and now came to its conclusion. Claws sliced exoskeleton, limbs were torn, the creature screamed and whined in agony, until it was finally ripped apart, and silence fell over the library.
Peddar gently took her by the shoulders to pull her behind the lines of fire, of the muskets pointing at the dragon who glanced around the grounds now, looking for something. Looking for her? And when he spotted her among the militiamen, it seemed almost as if he relaxed, as if he were… relieved to learn she was unharmed.
“Ready!!” Captain Hernesson called.
“No! Don’t!!” she heard the response from Yustir Rova in the distance. And the momentary distraction was all that was needed. Long before the militiamen could pull their triggers, one powerful stroke of black wings had catapulted the dragon high into the sky and above the rainclouds, out of sight and out of range. Gone again.
Emilia blinked against the falling waters, tried to make out where he was flying, but she could not see anything. Looking back at the mess in the courtyard, she saw Yustir Rova point his crossbow at the cadaver, before her turned and jogged towards them. He nodded at her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I… I’m fine… It… it didn’t get me…”
Yustir Rova nodded, seemed relieved.
“On what authority do you interfere in my command?! We could have killed it!” Captain Hernesson exclaimed as he marched towards the hunter and seemed hell bent on a fight. Yustir squared his shoulders, and his sparkling, boyish eyes turned cold.
“On the authority of his excellence the High Judge of Par’fost, under whose orders I stand. I did you a favour. Had you tried to hurt this creature, it would have turned its wrath upon you and that, my good Captain, would not have ended nicely for you and your men,” he said, then nodded to Emilia, knowing. Too knowing. How much had they seen? Had they seen Eraiyo come to her protection? Had that happened? Had he protected her, or had he just waited for the perfect opportunity to rid himself of the creature that was clearly still hunting him, and she just happened to have been the bait? Had saving her life just been a happy coincidence, or had it been his intention? Would she ever get an answer to that?
“To your beds! All of you! Back to your beds! Right now!” the harsh voice of Head Librarian Ludivine sounded from the dorm as she ushered the apprentices back inside. In short sentences, because Emilia doubted her current temper could handle anything else. She was in a long, dark red nightdress and dressing gown, her hair in rollers, and gone her usually flawless make-up. Emilia saw her head over to the two hunters inspecting the cadaver, making sure it was dead. She saw Regine Valaente nod without a word, then the Head Librarian instructing her and the other Rova brother into the main building. That made Emilia gasp, the memory just coming back to her.
“There’s a fire! There’s a fire in the closed archives, maybe spreading.”
“We’ll take care of that,” Captain Hernesson stated and ordered his men to ready everything to extinguish the fire. Head Librarian Ludivine was crossing from the main buildings blown wide open doors towards them and pointed at Emilia.
“You. My office. Right now,” she said, her voice cracking with what could only be fury. She then pointed at Yustir Rova. “And you.”
“Not here. My office. Right now.”
Emilia closed her mouth and nodded in silence, before moving past Yustir and towards the library again. She heard Ludivine instruct the militiamen to caution around the books, and then they were out of hearing range.