It was perfectly silent in the Head Librarian’s office.
Emilia was shivering. Perhaps from the rain and cold, perhaps from the hair-raising events of this night. Perhaps a bit of both. Her hands, folded in her lap, were trembling, and water was dripping out of her hair, past her likewise trembling lips.
They had been sitting here for a good twenty minutes, in utter silence, before the door flew open. The smell of cold smoke blew into the office in a waft with the Head Librarian. She crossed the office in wide steps, flew past her desk, her skirts rustling. She had thrown her robes over her nightgown haphazardly and had a colourful scarf wrapped over her rolled hair. She remained standing at her desk, hands on the wooden surface, staring at the papers she had left there before retiring to bed earlier. No one said a word. Emilia felt her nails dig into her palms, and her breath was shaking.
Then, finally, the Head Librarian looked up.
“You three. Outside. I’ll deal with you later.”
She pointed at the Inquisition agents and Emilia felt the blood curdle in her veins. It took a moment for the three to react, but then she heard Yustir Rova and Regine Valaente get up from their chairs and leave, Yurij had not even been sitting, he just moved out of the door and gone they were. She heard the door click shut behind them quietly.
Ludivine still had not moved. And did not move for what was possibly the longest, most painful minute of Emilia’s life. So long, she could no longer bear it.
“You... set fire... to my library...”
Emilia’s mouth closed abruptly and she swallowed a sting of tears rising in her throat.
“I didn’t mean to.”
Gods, she barely recognised her own voice. Tiny and meek and trembling. And the Head Librarian did not respond. She simply glared. “I... didn’t know what else to do. I was... I came home from an evening at Lotte Timbatous, and when I got here, I saw movement by the main building. I followed it, because I... I thought it might be a thief. I followed them to the archives, and I went deeper into the tunnels. Then... I... I heard breathing, and when I turned around, the creature was there. Right in front of me, blocking my way back. I... had to do something. The only thing I had on me was a lantern. So... I... I...”
She was sobbing by now, shook her head violently. “I didn’t mean for this to happen. I didn’t want the books to catch... is it... is it bad.”
Ludivine still glared, but after a moment, she sighed and sat down.
“It is... tolerable. There is some irreparable damage. But mostly in the one tunnel you were working in. The other two seemed fine,” she said. She then looked up over the frame of her glasses. “Don’t get me wrong, I am still mad at you for setting fire to my library. But... I see why you did it. Although you had no business investigating this by yourself. You should have reported that you saw someone – or something – enter the library, or found me or Master Salmai and we would have taken care of the situation for you.”
“I... didn’t really think...”
“That is becoming a bit of a habit with you, Emilia. For such a clever girl, you make surprisingly dumb decisions under pressure.”
She laughed through sobs, wiped away a few tears with her cold hands. The Head Librarian leaned back. “Now. This... creature that now lies dead in our courtyard...”
“It was the one I saw that night on the watchtower. The one that fell through the roof. I was right, it never left the library. It’s been hiding in the archives all along.”
“I am amazed you survived the encounter, quite frankly,” Ludivine admitted.
“Not by my own doing, I am afraid. If the... if the dragon had not shown up, I would surely be dead now. He intervened at just the right moment.”
“Hm... quite lucky...It is a strange creature, isn’t it. We thought it had moved on from this region but... something seems to still keep it here,” Ludivine mused. Emilia was just about to respond, when the door opened again.
“Aye, something does. Sorry, we couldn’t help but overhear. And we know that ‘something’ keeping the dragon here is sitting right there,” Yustir Rova declared, and pointed the handle of his crossbow at the chair Emilia was sitting in. Emilia jumped up.
“We have discussed it, Madame Head Librarian. And all three of us agree that we have seen the same thing, both tonight and the other night in the woods. The dragon comes when this girl is in distress. He comes for her, he is here for her,” Regine Valaente elaborated. Emilia laughed hysterically.
“Please, Miss Baines, let them explain their reasoning for such tall tales.”
Yustir Rova stepped forward, past Emilia and leaned over the desk to pull open a map of the forests.
“The day when we went to investigate these woods, we had a little encounter with the dragon, as we have informed you. What we did not inform you of is that we were not the only ones in the woods that night. Emilia Baines was there. The dragon was following her, and only when he saw she was safe with us did he leave.”
“That!” Emilia cried out, interrupting him. Yustir blinked surprised and turned to stare at her wide eyed. She felt her cheeks flush. Much quieter, she continued. “That’s not quite what happened. It’s true, I was in the forest that night – andIamsorryIknowIwentdirectlyagainstwhatyouorderedmetodoma’amand… I was hoping to get a closer look at the dragon and determine what kind of dragon he was, referencing the bestiary. I found him sleeping in the forest, and foolishly thought I could get close enough. But it stirred him up, and he went chasing after me. I ran for my life when I bumped into these three, and I guess once it was the four of us, the dragon simply lost interest, or it seemed like too much effort to go up against them. He was not watching out for me.”
“But he was watching out for her tonight, Madame. We came outside when we heard the yelling, we were there when the creature attacked her in the courtyard,” Regine explained.
“We had our weapons ready, but we would never have made it in time. But he did. The dragon attacked the creature right when it was about to strike her down. It was protecting her. And then, when the beast was dead, he looked for her, made sure she was safe, and only after doing that did he fly away. Just like he did in the woods,” Yustir added.
“She may not be aware of it herself, but this... creature somehow seems to want to protect her,” Regine finished.
Emilia’s teeth clattered together and her gaze shot towards the Head Librarian. Ludivine was contemplating, her brows in a deep frown and her lips pursed. She then slowly shook her head.
“That goes against every assumption we have made.”
“That’s because you have assumed the dragon is just like any other wild animal. We believe that is not the case. We think he is an Elder.”
Emilia looked up. That word again. Just like Danzas had said. An Elder dragon.
“An Elder dragon? Elder dragons have not been seen outside the North in a thousand years,” Ludivine challenged, shaking her head. She then glanced at Emilia, who was deliberately avoiding eye contact. “Miss Baines. You said you had a close look at the dragon. Would you agree with this assessment?”
“I… don’t think I am qualified to tell whether something is an Elder dragon or not...”
Ludivine smirked at the three hunters.
“I will take my apprentice’s word over yours then,” she said smugly. She pulled her chair closer to her table and looked at the hunters. “What will your course of action be now?”
“The dragon is still out there,” Yustir said. Emilia felt Regine’s glare, making the hairs at the back of her neck stand up on end.
“He will be here as long as she is,” the huntress said.
“Well, my librarians will dissect the creature and find out what it is, perhaps we can determine something more about the dragon. I suggest you do not attempt to engage it in battle, and instead focus on protecting the town,” Ludivine suggested. Yustir nodded.
“I can get behind that,” he confirmed. Ludivine nodded.
“Good. Then you are done here. I will have another word with my apprentice. Ideally without eavesdropping,” she said with a warning glare at the three. Yustir raised his arms in defence and bowed his head.
“We will leave you to it. But we would like to be kept informed about the results from the creature.”
Ludivine nodded in agreement, and the three of them left the office, closed the door behind them. The head librarian got up and marched over to the door, opened it a little to see if the hunters were truly moving away from it and only when she was satisfied with the distance they had brought between them and the office did she close the door again and returned to her desk. She pulled her chair closer again, then folded her hands with her elbows resting on the desk.
“Emilia… what in the world where you thinking? Going into the woods. Again! You could have been killed.”
“I know. Believe me, I know…” she replied in a small voice, vividly remembering the feeling of dragonsfire shooting overhead.
“What will it take for you to stop leaving this library to kill yourself?”
“I… don’t know…” Emilia admitted. The head librarian sighed. Emilia pleaded: “Can I go no? It’s been a… weird night.”
“Yes, please, go, get some sleep.”
Emilia nodded, got up and left the office. She crossed the quiet library and the main hall, where everything still smelled of cold smoke and the burning creature – like a bug zapped by a lamp. When she stepped outside, she saw a number of librarians were working on getting the cadaver into the laboratories. But she had no mind for it. She was too tired. All she wanted was to get some sleep. She dragged herself up the stairs into her hallway and to her dorm room, opened it quietly in case Fran was asleep. But a dim light was switched on, and Fran was sitting on her bed, wide awake it seemed. On her lap rested a pile of papers in a pitiable state, edges singed, parts torn, paper flaking and splattered with mud. When she entered, Fran looked up, utter shock in her eyes.
“What is this?” she asked in a trembling voice. Emilia blinked confused and it took her another heartbeat to see her old bag sitting on the floor. The papers had been in there. And the only papers she had kept in that bag were… Fran’s manuscript. Emilia covered her mouth with a gasp.
“Oh… oh Gods Fran I… I am sorry, I didn’t want you to see that. I wanted to fix it before you-”
“Fix it? How were you going to fix this?! There’s pages missing! Entire pages! What happened?!”
“It happened when I was on the watchtower and the creatures flew over….”
“Emilia I trusted you with this! You know how important this manuscript is to me, you know how much time I spent on it.”
“I know, that’s why I wanted to fix it first, I-”
“It’s ruined! It’s-” Fran drew in a deep breath, then let the air out slowly. “You know what. Forget it. It’s not about you, so who cares, right?”
And with these words, Fran tossed the tattered pages on the floor, scattering them all over, and she got up and stomped past Emilia, for the door.
“Where are you-?!”
“Out!” Fran snapped at her, as she grabbed her coat and left their room.
Emilia stayed behind, like struck by lightning with manuscript pages scattered around her. It took her a moment to move again, to gather the pages with trembling hands. She tried to order them right, but it was near impossible. Not because she did not know the order, but because she could not see the pages clearly through a veil of tears forming in her eyes. She feverishly tried to fight them back, wiped them away, sniffling. And she did not even know what was worse today. Andrew telling her he was going to leave? Having set fire to the archives? Eraiyo? Or the look of disappointment and betrayal on Fran’s face moments ago?
This was a horrible day. A horrible day she just wanted to end. She was cold and wet, had tattered pages she shoved back into her back with trembling hands, and all she wanted was to go to sleep and pretend this all never happened. She did not even put effort into putting her clothes back in her locker, just threw them in, slipped into her nightgown and crawled into bed. Still sniffling with suppressed tears until she finally fell asleep.
It was a restless night, and a quiet morning. Fran had not returned to their dorm room at all, and when Emilia came downstairs for breakfast, she saw the other get up from their usual table and walk out. Leaving Andrew behind with a question mark painted all over his face.
“Everything okay?” he asked, when Emilia sat down with her breakfast. She sighed.
“I messed up, Andrew. Real bad.”
He did not respond, but just waited for her to shake her head. “I… she trusted me with something that is very special to her and I messed it up.”
“Doesn’t sound like something that can’t be fixed, honestly.”
“I’ll try to fix it. I am just not sure where to start…” Emilia admitted. And not even that was true. She knew what she had to do. Fix the manuscript. It would not undo what had happened, but it would be a start and maybe Fran would allow her to make amends for the mess she had caused. When she looked up, Andrew was smiling.
“You’ll figure it out. You two are too close for this. She will calm down, and you will talk it through.”
“I hope you’re right.”
He nodded, still stern.
“What about tonight? What was all that about?”
Emilia fell silent, then slowly shook her head.
“I just seem to have a talent for finding monsters in the library.”
“They’re still taking that thing apart in the lab. And no one really knows what it is. They have never seen anything like it. Not even the Inquisition agents.”
“I am just happy it’s dead,” Emilia admitted. “One less thing to worry about.”
He grinned and nodded, and they both focused on their breakfast for a while, before he looked up again.
“What will you get up to today?”
“I was going to go to town, visit my family. You?”
“The same, probably. Need to get a suit to wear to the banquet tonight.”
“Lotte went through 17 dresses yesterday, trying to decide what to wear.”
“That sounds like her,” he admitted. “What about you? Are you going?”
“No invitation. And besides, not my kind of party. Maybe I’ll check out the labs later, see what they can find out about the creature. And-”
The apprentices looked up as the door swung open and the mailman came in, pulling his little cart behind him. The elderly, bearded man was huffing and puffing, no doubt from the climb up the hill. “Blimey, that’s a right mess out there…” he grumbled to himself as he walked between the tables, handing letters and parcels out all around. One, Emilia was surprised to learn, was for her. A envelope of fine paper, addressed to her and sealed with a dwarven seal. Andrew nodded at the letter.
“That’s your invitation right there.”
“To the banquet. The invitation my parents got came in an envelope just like that. Same seal, too.”
She hesitated a moment, then broke the seal and pulled out the card. There were golden ornaments painted on the paper, and the word ‘Invitation’ written in a delicate handwriting, almost like printed. Underneath it read: Admiral Dimdel Huckpack invites the recipient of this card and their family to dine with him on board the Leviathan.
“Why would he send me one?”
“There’s something scribbled on the back,” Andrew pointed out. Emilia flipped the card, and in a handwriting she did not know, a note was written to her. The writing was of an elegant cursive, probably not easy to read for someone who did not spend the majority of her life deciphering ancient texts.
“Looking forward to dining with you tonight, if you will humour me,” she read. Andrew’s eyes widened.
“Did the Admiral write that?”
“That does not look like dwarven handwriting. They normally use different pens and ink, and their letters are more angular.”
“So… someone invited you out for dinner on the Leviathan? Is that’s what happening here?” Andrew asked sceptically. Emilia looked up, a brow sharply raised as she shook her head.
“Always with the tone of surprise.”
“No, that’s not… I wasn’t… I just… do you know who sent it? Is there… you never mentioned… you know… a suitor?”
Andrew was wringing his hands, stumbling over his words, and Emilia vividly recalled her conversation with Lotte yesterday evening. About Andrew’s feelings. And she was almost inclined to believe he might have secretly sent the message and invitation, but she knew his handwriting too well.
“I have no idea who sent this,” she clarified, and turned to the postman. “Hey. Hey Eddy? Do you know who sent this?”
“Pretty fella. Came into the office this morning. Big hat, nice clothes. Capitol accent. Didn’t say his name.”
Emilia looked down at the card. Who did she know with a big hat and Capitol accent? The only one who came to mind, and that was odd enough to begin with, was Yustir Rova. She shook her head with a sigh.
“Ring any bells?” Andrew asked.
“Maybe. I don’t think I’ll be going though.”
“Em, come on. The Leviathan. We will never get a chance to be on that ship again in our lifetime.”
“I don’t even have a dr-”
She paused. That was not quite true. She had the dress Lotte was holding on to for her. She could wear that. And she knew she would regret not going. Andrew was right, she would have no second chance like that in her lifetime. She wanted to go. She wanted to see this ship, see its forges, its engines, see where the crew slept, where they kept their supplies, their trading goods, how they kept a monster like that afloat. “I really do want to see the ship.”
“Then what are you waiting for? I am sure you can find something to wear at home!” Andrew declared with a wide grin. “Never mind whoever sent you this. Do this for yourself!”
“You know what? I will. I will do this for myself!”
“Good to hear! It’ll be more fun if you’re there. All of us, I mean. Lotte, too.”
“I know what you mean. Now, if I want to do this, my day just got a lot shorter. So I’ll see you tonight at the banquet, apparently.”
“See you tonight.”
Emilia got up from the bench, her invitation stuffed into the pocket of her skirt, and left the dorm. She saw Ludivine outside the main building, discussing with the militiamen who had worked on putting the fire out, while the young librarians just out of apprenticeship were still busy with the creature. They had carted the carcass into the laboratories through the greenhouse doors, and with these doors still wide open she could see them work on the broken body. It looked much smaller than it had felt in the night, when it had been hissing and shrieking and threateningly waving around its claws.
She turned away and made her way to town, to manage all the things that needed to be managed if she wanted to go to that banquet tonight.