A Conflict of Interests
She left the town hall in measured steps, and right outside the door she was already awaited by Lotte Timbatou. Her friend was bouncing back and forth on her heels nervously, wringing her silk gloves right until she spotted Emilia leave the hall. There was a sigh of relief from the blonde, relaxing her shoulders.
“Thank the Goddess, Em, I was so worried. Did he yell at you?” Lotte asked as she grabbed both Emilia’s hands and pulled her into a hug.
Lotte Timbatou – her parents had named her Charlotte, but she refused to react to it because she considered it old-fashioned and ‘rural’ in her own words – was perhaps the closest friend Emilia had. They had grown up together, had protected each other from bullies on the playground, and considered each other sisters, despite their many differences. To this day, Lotte was the one Emilia trusted more than even her own family. Yet still, she would have to keep this new secret even from Lotte – likely the hardest trial of this ordeal.
“He did. But I yelled back. I’m fine.”
“I knew you would.”
“Thanks for warning me though, that came just in time,” Emilia admitted. Lotte nodded, golden curls bouncing as she did.
“I was trying to get to you sooner, but-”
“That’s alright. How are you, how is your family?”
“We’re fine. A little shaken, but we barely saw or heard anything. It all happened really fast.”
“Tell me about it…” Emilia mumbled in agreement. She and Lotte locked hands and started walking across the market square. Morning light was dipping the usually grey town into orange, chasing the cool mist off the streets. Many people were still out and about, speculating outside their doors, with their neighbours and friends, trying to figure out what was happening. Par'bain was a small town, a cluster of buildings sitting close together on the peninsula surrounded by stormy, grey seas. Close enough that there were hardly any secrets in this town.
They past the Miner’s Mug, the inn Emilia’s family owned. The wooden sign was swinging lightly in the drizzle. The brick building was slightly taller than the ones surrounding it, with a small, windowed oriel, flower-patterned curtains in the upstairs windows and a view of the tables in the bar from the street. The chairs were turned upside down and it seemed abandoned. In all of Emilia’s memory, there had never been a single patron who stayed at one of the three small rooms of the inn overnight, but there were always plenty regular customers coming over for ale and for Linda Baines’ cooking.
“Will you go back to the library?” Lotte asked as they past the Baines’ family home.
“Of course,” Emilia confirmed. Lotte’s brows pulled in a worried frown.
“Isn’t that terribly dangerous?”
Emilia shook her head.
“There’ll be militia all over the grounds. We’ll be perfectly safe,” Emilia reassured her. Lotte was reluctant, but she nodded eventually. Their way took them down the main road through town and just a little ways ahead, Emilia could see the group of red robed librarians on their way back to the library.
The two girls stopped outside the workshop Lotte’s fathers owned. In the display window sttod three mannequins dressed in beautiful dresses made from fabrics directly from the capitol city of Par’fost. Behind them, they could see the walls were stacked with fabric rolls and on a large table, the tailor Joseph Timbatou had spread out blue and silver brocade and was just dotting down a pattern with his chalk, ready to cut the beautiful fabric. He wore a fine jacket and a clean, starched dress shirt with a cravat held in place by a fine gold needle with a big ruby. The tails of his coat reached almost to the back of his knees and his high boots were meticulously shined. As they approached, he waved at Emilia with a big smile and she waved back. He then turned to Lotte, a motion for her to come in, and a mouthed ‘hurry’.
On the other side of the room, at the register talking to the woman who had no doubt just commissioned the blue dress, stood Wilhelm Timbatou, Lotte’s other father. Where Joseph was the creative mastermind and designer of the clothes the family sold, Wilhelm was the one with the sense of business, quieter in his demeanour, more calculating, keeping the family books.
On the porch, Lotte turned to Emilia.
“I have to get to work, father needs help,” Lotte shrugged. Emilia smiled.
“You’re better with the scissors than he is.”
“He gets so attached to the fabric!” Lotte confirmed, exacerbated. Both girls laughed, then hugged once more. Lotte held on to Emilia long. “Please be careful.”
“Are you sure you’re alright? You seem… different,” Lotte asked quietly. Emilia hesitated a moment. She felt different. And for Lotte to notice was not a surprise. But she forced a smile on her lips (no doubt something Lotte noticed a well) and nodded.
“I’m fine. I promise,” she confirmed, smacked a kiss on Lotte’s cheek and then turned to leave, waving at Joseph once more. She heard the chime of the little bell above the door when Lotte entered, and when she looked back she saw her friend wrap an apron over her dress and take the scissors from her father. She saw the both of them laugh, and it made her smile. She could not remember the last time she had laughed with her father like that… she was not sure if they had ever laughed about something together. Sometimes she wondered what kind of a person she would have turned out to be if her relationship with her father had been as great as the one between Lotte and hers. But that was for another day to wonder about.
Par’bain was returning to its trot. The people who had been at the gathering with the Mayor returned to their daily work, she saw men who had been in the town hall only minutes ago leave their homes again to get to work in the mines. Down the road, women were conspiring about what had happened, standing together in groups, whispering to each other while the children played monster hunt inspired by the night’s events.
She caught up with the other apprentices, walking just a few steps behind them. The path back to the library led up the main road of town towards the south outside the gates. Before they could reach the fields and windmills between Par’bain and its harbour, the road made a sharp turn east and wound up the hill to the library gates.
The library had been a castle a long time ago, before the industrial revolution had moulded merchants to the new financial elite and had led to the bloody downfall of the nobility. The extensive properties across the continent had been redistributed – some had become public facilities such as schools, hotels, company headquarters or libraries such as this one, others had been auctioned to the highest bidder, often the wealthy merchants from Palaaren.
The watchtower rose like a spire at the top of the hill, surrounded by the clustered buildings. The path uphill was muddy and unsteady, small rockslides were common and one had to tread carefully.
They reached the main gates, always open during the day, and entered the library premises. Just as Ludivine had agreed, militia had come with them to patrol the grounds now. The main building of the library was facing the gates and a water fountain with an intricate stone sculpture of Gh’law, the God of wisdom and patron of scholars. When seen from the gates, it seemed Gh’law was reaching up towards the watchtower in the background, the main building attached to it. The crescent of the main building was imposing, the many windows lit against the morning fog. Emilia could not see the broken glass ceiling of the main gallery from here, but she heard the shouts of workers who scurried to fix what had been broken in the night before.
But that was not where she wanted to go. Emilia turned from the main building and towards the dormitory, a sturdy brick house built some twenty or thirty years ago, when need for quarters arose for new apprentices. The first room to cross on her way in was the dining hall. Most of the apprentices she had come up here with took seats at the tables first thing, to have their breakfast none of them had had time for between the evacuation during the night and this town gathering. It was a quiet, sleepy breakfast. Emilia did not stop here though, but crossed the hall and pushed into the stairwell. It was quiet, the lamps hissing in the silence as she climbed upstairs to the first floor, where the dorm rooms of the girls were located.
There was enough room up here to home twenty girls along two hallways, but girls did not traditionally pursue the career of a librarian. Emilia and Fran were currently the only female apprentices in this library. They had been given separate rooms first, but it got boring and lonely – and a little bit scary all alone on a hallway – so they had asked to share a room instead and it had been that way ever since.
On the ground floor, just beneath them, were the rooms of the boys. They were almost fully occupied, 15 of the twenty rooms being lived in.
Emilia headed to the room she shared with Fran and changed out of her cloak and nightgown into her uniform. A stiff corset and breeches, clean blouse, starched petticoat under a long, deep red dress. The stiff top of the dress was closed with a line of simple black buttons, the long wide skirt swished with every step, making more noise than the ankle high boots she wore under it, and the many layers of petticoat gauze helped against the chill. She brushed through her hair, braided it and wrapped the braid in a bun at the back of her head, held in place with a number of carefully placed pins. She threw her cloak over her shoulder, took her gloves she would need if she was to work with old books today, and then left the room again.
This time when she reached the hall, she headed straight for the table on which she spotted Fran and Andrew. Both of them were in uniform as well – though for Andrew it consisted of dark red trousers, a matching dress vest and jacket over a fine shirt, and his cloak wrapped around him as well. Fran’s hair was braided and in a similar updo to Emilia’s, Andrew had combed his hair meticulously, making the black waves look slick and neat. They each had a plate of food, and had a third, untouched plate set aside for Emilia.
“Thanks for saving,” she said, as she sat down with her two friends.
“Sure. We figured you’d be late when we saw you speak to your father,” Andrew said. Fran leaned closer so her voice could drop below a whisper.
“Is it true that you saw the creatures?” she asked.
“I did. I was on the watchtower, reading, when they came,” Emilia replied. Now they were all whispering.
“What do you think it was?” Andrew asked.
“Hard to say. It was dark and it all happened really fast. I didn’t… I didn’t really get a good look at them…” Emilia lied. Of course she had gotten a good look at them. She had gotten a great look at them! She had been closer to the dragon than anyone had been in centuries, she guessed. “They were big, they had wings, they were fighting…”
“What could they want here? Par’bain isn’t exactly interesting to monsters…”
“Or anyone…” Andrew added in a mumble over his tea. Emilia glanced over at him.
“Someone’s gotten up on the wrong foot,” she noted. He looked up, then blushed and stared intently in his tea again.
“Sorry. It’s been… a weird morning,” he apologised.
“Hm, you don’t say,” Emilia said, taking a sip of her own. The three of them sat in silence for a moment, Emilia closed her eyes – feeling just how heavy the lids were. She had gotten no sleep tonight at all, and she felt that now.
Andrew was not wrong, obviously. Par’bain lay secluded and was not a typical target of invading armies. And monsters typically stayed away from industrialised areas. The occasional pirate ship was usually taken care of rather quickly by the fortifications the dwarves had set up in their harbour and barely even came close enough to be a threat.
But there had been the north wind.
She would not mention it to them. She could not. Maybe because deep down, she was scared, she was terrified of what it meant.
Fran moved, her uniform skirts rustling as she got up from the bench. Emilia looked up and noticed that most of their fellow apprentices had already left.
“We should get going. We don’t want to be late,” Fran said. The other two nodded, Ros took the last piece of her breakfast roll stuffed with scrambled egg and greasy, thick sliced bacon with her as the three of them headed out again. She finished the breakfast on their way across towards the main building, where they spotted the rest of the apprentices. They were all gathered, and that was unusual.
The three of them joined the group and could overhear what had caused the delay. Madame Ludivine was stood outside the door, arguing with the captain of the militia. By his side stood two younger men – his son Henrik, and Greigor Stump again, another young man from town. Both looked supremely uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the head librarian dressing them down right now.
“Your men do not have the qualification or the authority to deal with the books in my gallery. They are not here to look after my books, they are here to fix our roof and make sure there is no monster inside. You will not lock me out of my library and you will not lock my staff and apprentices out of my library! We all have our work to do and just because your oafs have no patients for the higher calling of scholarly pursuit does not give them the right to obstruct my people’s work,” Ludivine said. Her voice was steady and calm as ever. Ludivine was not one to yell or get visibly angry. But having studied under her long enough, her apprentices knew the signs of when to best stay far, far away from the woman. Her wrath could be quite intimidating. Those tell-tale signs were very pronounced right now: an ever so slight tremble in her voice, teeth gritted together in a steely, forced smile, hands on her hips in an imposing posture that made her look much taller than she was. She had her chin pushed forward, almost giving her the appearance of a snarl, like a wolf ready to bare her fangs and dig them into an unsuspecting offender’s throat. The militia men were treading on dangerously thin ice.
Captain Hernesson had taken off his melon hat, wringing it nervously in his hands.
“I apologise on their behalf, Madame Ludivine. We did not mean to offend. We only want to insure the safety of you and your staff. We need to search the building-”
“You do, but you will not touch a single book spine. The monster was quite big, I doubt it will be able to hide between shelves. Your men are permitted on our premises only as long as my people can go about their days work without constant disruption. Now let us pass.”
“Yes Madame. Sorry Madame,” the Captain said, nudging his son with an elbow. Henrik Hernesson squared his shoulders and bowed.
“Sorry, Madame,” he repeated awkwardly.
Madame Ludivine nodded and motioned to the gathered apprentices to get inside. The group started moving past her, while she glared at the militia Captain. One of the more troublesome young apprentices pushed himself up on two of his fellows’ shoulders in a victorious pose towards the two young militia men.
“Oh yeah! The feather is mightier than the sword! You have just been feathered!” he declared, earning him a chuckled from some of his fellows.
“Mr. Erikson,” Ludivine warned with one brow arched sharply. It made the boy slink back down, nodding an apology.
She nodded back, then turned just as Emilia, Fran and Andrew were making their way past her.
“Miss Baines, a word,” she said – not asking for it, but demanding it in the softest way possible. Emilia froze to the spot, nodded a little and watched on as her two friends disappeared inside the library with the others.
Madame Ludivine motioned for Emilia to walk with her, and she did. They brought a distance between them and the militia men still positioned outside the door and when they were entirely out of earshot, Ludivine turned towards her.
“What did you really see tonight, Miss Baines?” she asked. Emilia blinked, then glanced away.
“Oh, dear, you know you are a terrible liar. I know you were up on the watchtower, I know you would have had the opportunity to get a good look at what happened. And I know you were out in the woods tonight, too. You don’t have to tell the militia – in fact, I would be grateful if you did not. But something like this is unusual and I wish to know what we are dealing with. Tell me what you saw, and we will… not discuss your trespassing habits.”
Emilia blushed, fidgeting with her skirt, unable to look at the head librarian.
“I… what will you do if I tell you what I saw?”
“Miss Baines, we are librarians. We study the world around us, through books, through history, we aim to understand the unexplainable. What happened tonight is unexplainable and I wish to understand it.”
“So you would… study it?”
“I would. We would, everyone in the library can benefit from such an event.”
Emilia drew in a deep breath, glanced back at the militiamen and then stepped closer to the head librarian.
“I think – I have no idea if it really was that or not but I think – I saw a… a dragon.”
There was a moment that Ludivine stared at her out of wide eyes, then she took a step back.
“Gh’law preserve… are you sure?”
“Like I said, I am not sure. It all did happen very fast. But there was north wind. One of the creatures was more like a big insect – that was the one I saw falling into the gallery. But the other… the other was definitely what I think a dragon would look like. You know, scales, and horns, and large wings. And it coated itself in fire. It was like in the books, Madame,” she explained. “I… did not find anything in the woods when I went to search. I thought I might be able to get a closer look but… all I did was get lost and then run into the militia and have my father yell at me…”
The head librarian was silent as she spoke, a gloved hand came to her red painted lips, the other was still on her hips. She slowly shook her head.
“That is… remarkable. Such a find would be extraordinary. It would change everything we know about the North. If there are truly still dragons left in Arcaria… but Gods… if this is true, then the town is in terrible danger. If that creature is still out there… It was very brave of you to go out there on your own. Don’t worry about your father, I will set up a writ, let him know that you were there on the library’s request.”
Emilia flinched and shook her head.
“Ma’am, I don’t think that is going to help. He already thinks the library is putting ‘ideas’ in my head.”
Ludivine raised a brow, put both hands on her hips.
“Ideas? Like what? Like ‘women should be able to choose what they want to do with their lives’?”
Emilia smiled a little and nodded.
“Yeah, like that.”
“Well…” Ludivine began, seemed almost ready for an extensive rant about all the wars women like her had fought to get where they are now. But she sighed in exasperation and shook her head. “I suppose I have been where you are now. If you think writing to your parents is not going to help your cause, then I will let you handle this, however you see fit. Just know the library is always open to you and you do not have to lie to me, Miss Baines. As for the dragon…”
For a moment, Ludivine’s gaze turned glassy, lost in thoughts and she just absentmindedly patted Emilia’s shoulder. Emilia was not even entirely sure if the head librarian was still entirely aware of her presence until her head snapped back to her. The worried, stony expression on her features made way for a smile and she put a hand on Emilia’s arm. “Thank you for telling me. I will discuss the matter with the staff and should we investigate the creature, you will have the opportunity to assist us. Now, please go to the clinic, have Danzas look at your wound and dress it properly. I’ll let Oheier know that you will be delayed this morning.”
“Yes Madame. Thank you,” Emilia replied, bowed hastily as she moved away towards the clinic.
“Oh, and, Miss Baines!” Ludivine called after her. Emilia jumped, turned back to her. There was a glint of amusement in the head librarian’s gaze. “No more sneaking up the watchtower at night until we have this situation under control?”
Emilia turned and rushed down towards the clinic. Her heart was hammering in her chest. This had felt more like an interrogation than a friendly conversation, and she was not sure what would come of this. How would the librarians’ handle this information? What would they do about the creature in the woods now. If it even still was there. Maybe it had long since left. Maybe she was getting worried over nothing.Maybe.