The world inside Airyel’s walls couldn’t have been more different than the one outside. Huge estates rose up on the sides of the terraced valley, pouring opulence down onto the streets below over wrought-iron railings stuffed to bursting with flowers. Bramblebees of every color danced around the flowers, some bright yellow, others as red as taspberries, others orange or green. Marble statuary lined every property and stood in every park square, of which there seemed to be hundreds, dotted all across the town in honor of everyone and anyone the Airyellians could think to pay tribute to. And stretched across the wide, redbrick streets, high above the bustling crowds, garlands of pinea and jundaroses.
Another of the most immediately remarkable things about Airyel to Slate was that Pilotte was not the only one of his kind there. He noted many other strange creatures as well, from walecats, giant felines with bright blue bands of fur around their eyes, to stubranges, squat animals with fat legs and wide, scrubby bodies. Slate asked the apparent owner of one of these stubranges if she knew the location of Guh Hsing’s bookshop, and was pleased to find it was only a few blocks away.
When he and Pilotte reached Guh’s shop, an old building with a wooden sign that read The Shelf, Slate made sure the snarlingwulf had shade to wait in, then entered.
“Hello?” Slate called into the dark interior. “Hello, I’m looking for someone named Guh Hsing?”
“Who’s that?” a voice called from the back.
“My name is Slate Ahn, I’m looking for someone named Guh Hsing.”
An elderly man, with a deeply wrinkled face full of energy and hunched-over gait, shuffled out from the back of the store. “What do you want with Guh Hsing?” he asked.
“I have a package for him, from Aislin.”
“What sort of package?”
“I’m not sure. It’s from Naan Falls.”
“Naan Falls?” the man repeated, his eyes popping.
“Yes…” Slate answered hesitantly. “Do you know where Mr. Guh is? Mr. Hsing? I was told this was his shop.”
The old man moved furtively to the front window and scanned the street outside. “That’s… there’s a snarlingwulf out there,” he said. “How did you… Is that creature yours?”
“No, but he follows me. Has ever since we met,” Slate answered. “We’re friends.”
“My goodness,” the man said softly. “You know, it’s a rare person who earns the devotion of a snarlingwulf.”
“I helped him out of a trap. He’s a great traveling partner,” said Slate. “Anyways, do you know this Guh Hsing?”
“It’s me,” the man said in a whisper.
“Who?” Slate asked.
Slate scoffed disbelievingly. “You’re Guh Hsing?”
“Yes, he’s me!” the man said.
“So, this is your bookshop?” Slate asked.
“Yes, yes it is,” said Guh. He sighed and looked worried. “Please, wait here. Right here. I’ll be right back.”
“Alright. Can Pilotte come in?” Slate called to Guh, who had disappeared again into the back of the store.
“Yes, that’s fine!” came Guh’s response.
Slate let Pilotte in and then strolled about the small shop as he waited. The afternoon sun poured in through yellowed curtains, bathing the interior in soft light. The big picture window at the front of the store nestled a seating area padded with overstuffed, beige pillows upon which slept two plump, orange cats, until Pilotte tried to say hello, at which point the cats fled. The store’s aisles were delineated by three bookshelves, which ran back to a heavy wooden counter. The place was smaller than the library at the Falls residence, but its texts were more ornate, decorated with jeweled and etchleath covers. Bazzeb webs and dust showed that many of the books hadn’t been disturbed for a long while. It was only the New Release section that showed any sign of recent visitation.
“You don’t have much business here, do you?” Slate asked when Guh returned.
“How would you know that?” Guh asked defensively. “What would make you think that?
“Well, this place looks like a tomb.”
“And you look like a foolish young man. Perhaps we are both mistaken?
“I’m not as foolish as I look.”
“That’s good, because... Listen, I have very good business. Let’s not go by first impressions, shall we? I print here. Do you know printing?”
“Can you read?”
“And where do you think the words in books come from?”
“Someone writes them there?”
“No. See, we don’t have to write things by hand anymore. Look,” Guh explained, as he showed Slate a machine resembling a wine press that sat on the back counter. Guh cranked up the top of the press with a hand pedal and then unscrewed from it a plate. There were words on the plate, though Slate couldn’t read them easily because they were mirrored. “I arrange the letters onto this plate, and then we can ink them and print many copies, very quickly.”
Slate watched Guh demonstrate: He took letters from a cabinet hanging on the wall, arranged them on a plate, and then screwed the plate back up into the press. He put a clean sheet of paper into a well below the plate, brought the press down a bit, and then wiped the letters with an oily cloth. He lowered the press all the way to the paper, wound it back, and handed the result to Slate, the whole action taking no more than three minutes.
“Well that’s pretty neat!” Slate marveled at the resultant printing. It depicted on it Slate’s name, three flower forms, and a little dog figure. “It’s so fast.”
“You see now how it is,” Guh said. “That’s how I have good business. I print up menus, pamphlets, for places in town. There are only two other presses in North Airyel, so we stay busy.”
“Who’s we?” Slate asked.
“Well, me, and the cats. And now, you. I could use your help. Strong young boy like you.”
“I can’t stay, though,” Slate said. “I’m just here to give you the package. The real reason I’m travelling is to find my father.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry,” said Guh. “Everyone is in such a hurry all the time. Are you hungry? Can I get you something to eat?”
“I suppose I can wait long enough to eat. I’m starving,” Slate said. “I actually have some blue crabs in my sack, if you’ve got a way to cook them.”
“Blue crabs? Delicious. Oh, things just keep getting better, don’t they, Slate?” laughed Guh.
The two cooked up the crab in a tiny, back-room kitchen along with some rice and a vegetable Slate had never had before, something Guh called mea. As they ate over the sink, their faces close to their steaming bowls, Guh asked Slate a litany of questions. Slate answered them half-heartedly, often wondering why Guh should be so invasive, but focusing mainly on the tasty snap-crunch of the mea.
“What about school, have you completed your schooling?” asked Guh.
“No, I haven’t,” said Slate. “Not formally. No schools in Alleste. But I did some studying in Aislin.”
“You can read?”
“Yes, I can read. While I was in Aislin…”
“The Falls have one of the largest ancient libraries on Alm, did you know that?”
“No. But I’m not surprised. When I was there I...”
“And your family, what about your family?”
“Why do you have so many questions, anyways?” Slate asked.
“Because the answers are very important,” answered Guh.
“Slate, I don’t know how much was explained to you by Mrs. Falls, but you have stepped into something incredibly important. Something that will affect the entire course of Alm’s future.”
Slate choked on a bit of crab, turning red as he struggled to take it down. He finally cleared his throat and gasped, “Alm’s future?”
Guh Hsing put down his bowl and shuffled to the kitchen door to close and lock it. Slate wondered if he should be worried for his safety. He looked to the window over the sink, and contemplated whether or not he might be able to fit through it if he had to escape.
“What would you say,” Guh asked, “If I told you that I know who closed down the Great Hall?”
“I don’t know. What should I say?” Slate asked.
“There are very strange things happening these days,” said Guh. “Secret searches. Mysterious undertakings.”
“I know, things are a mess,” Slate said. “All I want is to get to my father. Anyways, it’s late. Dinner was excellent. But now, Pilotte and I should really try and use what’s left of the day...”
“Where do you think he is?” Guh asked. “Your father?”
“Over at the mine,” answered Slate.
“Fundal Jarry,” said Slate.
“Fundal Jarry operate four different mines. Which one are you looking for, specifically?”
“Four? Well, I don’t really know.”
“Tell you what, Slate: I know a lot of people in town. I could ask around for you. It would be a lot easier than trying to find your father yourself.”
Slate wanted to refuse the help, but knew the impulse was illogical. “I’d appreciate that, Guh,” he said.
“Well, you did bring me my package. I’d be honored to do you a favor in exchange. I’ll ask around first thing tomorrow. For tonight, you can sleep in the room above the shop. I’ll find you some pillows.”
“Tomorrow? I guess that’s alright. We made it all the way here, after all. And, again, thank you,” Slate said.
He made sure to call Pilotte to join him upstairs. Even if it was only the cider making him paranoid, Slate felt safer with his traveling partner and loyal friend beside him in the dusty, cramped storage space above the printing shop that Guh gave them for a bedroom. Dingy as the space was, it was warm, the pillows Guh found for Slate were soft, and the room stayed nice and dark and quiet and allowed Slate deep sleep.
The next morning shook Slate awake with a series of loud bangs and a clamor of voices from the shop below. He moved closer to the stairs, to try to make out what the argument was about. He heard a low, raspy voice that he could not understand, followed by another, then Guh’s, which he could hear more clearly.
“You can’t come in here,” Guh insisted. “I told you, you’re not allowed!”
There was more growling from the other voices.
“It’s my private property,” Guh said. “Get out! Get out!”
The unfamiliar voices lowered their tones, then Slate heard stomping across the floor. After the front doorbell rang with the visitors’ departure, Slate made his way down the stairs to ask Guh what all the commotion had been about.
“Good morning, Guh,” Slate yawned as he stretched.
“Good?” Guh snapped.
“I’m sorry. Not good? What were those men here about?”
“Nothing,” Guh sighed. “It was nothing.”
“Sounds like the printing trade is a dangerous business.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Guh said. “Listen, I’m going to head out, to take care of some errands and see if I can’t find out which mine your father is at. Would you mind helping me with some deliveries?”
“Oh,” Slate said, surprised, “No. I’ve got nothing else to do. Of course I’ll help.”
“Excellent. I have another favor to ask: Do you think you could leave your wulf here, while you’re out? To keep an eye on things?” asked Guh.
“I guess…” Slate said. “Are you in trouble, Guh?”
“I really have to be going,” Guh said, evading the question. “The deliveries and addresses are there on the counter. Expect word about your father later,” he added, before dashing out the back door in a hurry.
“What a strange man,” Slate said to Pilotte, who was trying his best to squeeze his huge body down the circular staircase from the second floor.
Slate took the load of parcels wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine from the counter, along with a piece of paper that listed the addresses they were to be delivered to.
“I hope you don’t mind hanging out here for a little bit, Pilotte,” Slate said. “Guh needs you to keep an eye on things. I’m going to be right back after these deliveries, and I’ll bring you a treat, okay?”
The wulf seemed more than happy to stop his descent right where he was, squeezed tight by the bannister. He grunted contentedly and fell back to sleep on the stairs.
Slate’s first delivery was just across the street, one large, flat parcel and two smaller, thicker ones for J. Wellington of Wellington’s Haberdashery. A number of the foolish hats that North Airyellians donned around town sat in the window of this museum of bad taste, and Slate was trying to imagine why Mr. Wellington would even think to construct a specifically awful one, a nest-like affair replete with eggs and chicks, when someone wearing the very design walked directly in between Slate and the display.
He withheld his laughter as long as he could, breaking down two blocks later on the same street outside Carters and Sons, a hardware store that was closed. It was a sturdy and imposing brick building, like most of the others in town, executed in simple curves and hard edges. Slate slid their one, heavy parcel through the mail slot, and then cut down two more stone-paved blocks south and three east, to Babacelli’s Wine. Babacelli greeted Slate with a giant, “Hey!” which startled Slate as he fumbled through his stack for Babacelli’s three medium-sized parcels. “My menus! Hey!” bellowed Babacelli, stuffing a tip into Slate’s shirt pocket and giving him a slap on the back with a fat hand. Slate hadn’t considered the possibility of being tipped for his errands, and now felt more eager to finish the rest of his route, to see if anyone else was feeling as generous as old Babacelli.
The rest of the deliveries were all in an older part of town. On Graypyre Street were Johnson’s and The Black Keys, where two and five more parcels were unloaded, respectively. That left two parcels, both addressed to one K. P. of Bartlett’s Fruits. As Slate pushed his last two parcels through the mail slot at Bartlett’s, the door swung open into the store.
“Hey, what’re…?” barked the frazzled man in the doorway. “Oh, menus,” he said, taking and then throwing them back into the store haphazardly. “Here, this’s for you,” the man said as he handed a palm full of goldquartz to Slate.
“Thank you,” Slate said quickly. He stole away from the testy fruit salesman and turned quickly down the first alley he came to.
There, amidst the sawdust and trash, he sat on a rusty old barrel frame and counted his tips, a total of thirty-seven goldquartz from just the two customers who had actually been present for their deliveries. Slate was amazed at his fortune, and decided to stop at a mercantile, to purchase a giant bone for Pilotte and a new hat for himself in celebration.
He returned to Guh’s shop two hours after he had left, finding Pilotte still sleeping on the stairs and Guh now busy at work on the press.
“All done, Guh,” Slate said happily as he slapped down the remainder of the tips on the counter.
“What’s that?” Guh asked.
“The tips I made, said Slate. “Or, what’s left. I got a new hat and a bone for Pilotte.”
“Those are for you to keep,” said Guh.
“Oh wow, really?” Slate asked. “Thanks!”
“No, thank you,” Guh said. “I’m sorry I was short with you this morning.”
“It’s okay,” said Slate. “People get angry sometimes. What’re you up to?”
Guh stopped his work and came to the other side of the counter where Slate was standing.
“Slate…” he began, “I have some bad news.”
“What is it?” Slate asked.
“It’s about your father. Now… I don’t know how to give it to you.”
“What is it? Is he in trouble? Is he not here?”
“I don’t know how to do this the right way,” Guh said, moving to where his coat was slumped over a stool. He took a small package from under the coat and brought it to Slate at the counter. “I got this from my friend,” he said. “He knew your father… Take this, and go ahead and go out back and open it up.”
“Okay?” Slate said, wondering why Guh wouldn’t make eye contact.
He exited the back door and sat on a busted bench with the small package. Swallowing down his pounding heart, he opened it with trembling hands. It contained his father’s knife. He noticed that the package also contained a letter. Before he unfolded the letter, he looked to the sky in prayer that its message wouldn’t be too painful. It read:
My dear Slate and Greene,
It won’t be long for me now. The doctor tells me I have maybe three days left. It’s a hell of a thing to hear someone tell you that. But we all have to go. I never dreamed I was any exception. I wish only that I had enough time to see you both once more, to hold you, to tell you in person how much I love you. I’m sorry you have to find me like this, meaning not find me at all. I’m sorry I ever left, that I thought we needed more than we had in Alleste. Know that I only left to help you. And that I died trying to do the right thing, trying to help a stranger. Like I always taught you both, others are all we really have in this life, all that matters. The money I was going to send to you I leave to you now, with my knife. Carry it always, as I have you in my heart. And know that I’m watching over you. I love you, Slate and Greene. You’ll both be great men, I know it. I’ve always known it.
I love you, boys.
Slate could hardly read the words due to the tears in his eyes. He took the knife from the box, the knife he had seen his father reach for so many times. Holding the knife seemed to cut something loose inside. Tears began to flow like rain. Through the distortion of his tears, Slate saw his father’s strong, thick-skinned hands holding the knife instead of his own. They were a husband’s, a farmer’s. The strongest person Slate had even known. For almost a half an hour all Slate could do was weep, thinking of how he’d never be able to talk with his father again, would never be able to watch him work or hear him laugh.
When Slate stopped crying and came back to his senses, he realized Pilotte was lying at his feet. Slate reached for the wulf, who jumped up and nuzzled his huge face into Slate’s chest. Slate leaned on his friend and cried some more, until he didn’t want to feel such deep hurt any longer. He rose from the bench and went back into Guh’s shop.
“He’s dead, Guh,” Slate said.
“I know. I’m sorry, Slate.”
“Well what am I supposed to do now?”
“You don’t have to think about that. Are you hungry?”
“Do you want to sleep?
“You go ahead and sleep, okay? And if you’re hungry or you need anything at all, you just let me know, okay?”
Slate headed for the stairs without answering.
“I’m sorry, Slate,” Guh said. “I know it won’t ease your pain, but I lost my father unexpectedly a few years ago. I know how it hurts.”
Slate nodded and walked up the stairs, then fell into the bed Guh had prepared for him and pulled the covers over his head.
He stayed in bed for a whole day, sometimes sleeping but mostly not, thinking about his father and how he’d never see him again and how lost he felt now. He had only left home to find the man, and now he was gone. Where was he to turn? What was his purpose now? He didn’t know what to get out of bed for anymore.
But Slate had never been one to dwell on sadness. His thoughts eventually came around to what Hid had told him about a life’s purpose, and wondering what his might be. He had never wanted to be rich, or gain great acclaim, like most people so both of those were out. He wasn’t a great athlete or artist, so he’d never make a name for himself those ways, either. As he thought over what his life had been and what he hoped it might be, the one thing he kept coming back to was the Falls house. A place where everyone cared about and helped each other. A warm, comfortable place, with a massive library and a stocked kitchen and soft beds. He couldn’t imagine anything better than to be in such a loving place, and in turn couldn’t imagine that place without Arianna. And so he fixed that as his purpose, to have a home, and a family. Maybe he’d stay with Guh a while, so that he could work and have some savings to help build a life, but to find such tenderness as he had with the Falls, to return to Arianna as he had promised, was where he was going to devote his hopes and energies.
Guh’s insistence that Slate eat finally reached him, and Slate stumbled back down the stairs into the bookshop, then out the back door, to join Guh and Pilotte for dinner.
“Go ahead, eat all you want,” Guh said when he saw Slate had finally gotten up.
Slate stabbed at some food with his fork, but couldn’t bring himself to eat anything.
“So what are you going to do now, Slate?” Guh asked.
“I don’t know,” Slate answered. “I just got up.”
“Well you couldn’t sleep forever.”
“I know that.”
“Do you have any idea what you’d want to do?”
“I think I’ll go back to Aislin. Go back to Arianna.”
“Well, there you go,” Guh said. “I knew you’d figure something out. But before that, how about a trip, to take your mind off your father?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know that when my father died, I had to leave town, to get away from my memories and myself, before I could start feeling good again.”
“Would you like to do the same?”
“I don’t know, Guh. Another trip?”
“I have all the sympathy in the world for you, Slate, but I also don’t want to see you wallow in your sadness. One has to try to lift themselves up when they’re down.”
“They do. Now, I’m going to be leaving soon.”
“Slate, things are getting dangerous for me around here. But before I go, I need to ask one more favor.”
“Let me guess, you need some more books delivered?”
“Actually, yes. Listen closely,” Guh said gravely, as he leaned in toward Slate across the dingy table in the back alley. “Here is the truth: The Falls, from Aislin, are descendants of AlriFal!”
Slate could tell that Guh expected the news to be met with astonishment. “Who?” he asked.
“AlriFal. One of the seven great sages who wrote the Book of Knowledge.”
“When the seven sages who compiled the Books of Known Knowledge after the Fall grew old, they each retired to lives of solitary contemplation. AlriFal took his repository of knowledge to Aislin, as one of the first settlers of Aelioanei. The Falls own house was built upon the exact same location that AlriFal chose, on the foundations of his library.”
“Guh Hsing,” Slate interrupted, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“Just listen! The library at the Falls house protected AlriFal’s copy of the Book of Knowledge for hundreds of years. But there is now a search on for the Books. Who is leading it is not entirely clear, but they are traversing the globe in search of the ancient texts.”
“Why?” Slate asked, barely following.
“It is unknown. At least, to me. But they won’t find what they’re looking for in Alleste, will they?”
“Because you’ve brought it to me, of course!”
The old man now produced the package Slate had delivered. It was free of its wrappings, and so Slate could see its glimmering crystalline jacket. Guh handed the sealed book to Slate. He fumbled with it, unsure of how to react.
“…I think it’s locked,” he said.
“Indeed,” Guh murmured.
“So how do you know what’s inside?”
“Pieces of the knowledge have been whispered from generation to generation since the Fall. It is the forbidden lore that has spurned Proterse’s technological explosion! Why, the techniques that have begun to creep up even here in Airyel.”
“So if the knowledge exists outside the book, why is it so important?” asked Slate.
“Because the deepest secrets were for the longest time locked behind a language barrier. The Books that have been opened are untranslatable. But the city of Opal Pools, on the eastern coast of Proterse, has translated a copy,” Guh said. “And they are building a weapon of terrible, terrible destruction with what they have learned.”
“So why did Mrs. Falls want you to have the book?”
“She is a member of the Protectorate, as am I. We who have overseen the protection of the Gods’ books for the last three hundred years,” Guh answered.
“Protectorment?” Slate asked, still trying to wrap his head around all he was hearing.
“The Protectorate, yes,” Guh said.
Slate rubbed his eyes and frowned.
“Slate, you must realize the importance of what I’m telling you,” said Guh.
“Oh, I believe you. Sorry, Guh,” Slate said. “I, just. I didn’t even know about the whole Fall until a few weeks ago. And I just found out my dad’s dead. And now, what you’re telling me…”
“I see you struggle to believe. Come with me,” said Guh.
He got up from his seat and called for Slate to follow him into a hallway leading to the shop’s office. There, he led Slate through an opening revealed in the back of a fireplace. The opening went into a tiny passage that ended at a circular staircase, which wound down into the bedrock. Guh lit a number of candles at the bottom of the staircase and then Slate could see around him. The space appeared to be another library, one even more ancient and untouched than the bookshop upstairs contained.
Guh took from a shelf an ornate key, cut from quartz in a talon shape, with three ridges of incisions around its circumference. At the top of the talon was an asthern’s head, sculpted perfectly from the grain of the quartz. Black clane inlets for the asthern’s eyes completed the design, which even in the dim light of the cave was one of the most beautiful pieces of art Slate had ever seen.
“Are you ready?” Guh asked.
“For what?” Slate asked.
“I am going to open the Book. This’ll be our moment of truth,” Guh said. “Here, hold it so I can insert the key.”
Slate held the book from Mrs. Falls tightly as Guh carefully inserted the point of the talon key into the lock. When it reached the first ridge of inscriptions, the key stopped, and so Guh tried twisting it, which released one layer of diamondcrest bindings. This exposed a second keyhole, on the underside of the case, which released another set of bindings when the key was inserted into it up to the second ridge of inscriptions. When Guh tried to twist the key back out, the bottom of the key detached, leaving a flat bottom on the asthern-head. This fit perfectly into the wider rim around the hole on the top of the binding. A last twist of the key to the left popped the rest of the diamondcrest casing off completely, leaving the pieces of the key irretrievable from their keyholes.
“So now what? I almost expected an explosion or something,” said Slate.
“Well, we had to get the cover off.”
“And we did that.”
“Open it, Slate.”
The illustrated pages within the Book were full of incredible things. Machines, animals, plants, places, people, all so new and different that Slate couldn’t begin to understand. And accompanying all the illustrations was a strange text that Slate could not read.
“It’s amazing,” Slate said after flipping through the pages for some time. “Just... what does it mean?”
“I know it’s hard to comprehend, especially written in protoprotersian, but I try to understand. Like... this picture, here, with the arrows and the bizarre little creatures, I think it’s a medical text. I think the whole volume is medical. My friend, Voutre, has begun to experiment with an optical instrument that can magnify living particles to an incredible degree with glass lenses, making them visible to our eyes. What he’s seeing in the minutest examinations of the human body very strongly resembles the pictures in this book.”
“But if any of the stuff was at all relevant or applicable, wouldn’t we know about it, now? Wouldn’t it have been handed down? Or couldn’t we write about it in modern Protersian?”
“Certainly every age of man thinks it’s the brightest one, Slate. But perhaps what is in these ancient books is beyond our capabilities, yet. Perhaps fantastic machines and wonders are just around the corner, waiting for re-invention. I’ve done some research on my own, and if you compare it…” continued Guh, as he flipped through a second book to a section containing pictures of plants alongside human forms, “See, here, this picture looks just like a graybane flower, and it points to the head. And we all know that graybane calms headaches, right? So I tried another one, this one here that looks like a dead ringer for yiuyiu, correlated to the eyes. Tell you what; it made me half-blind. So there’s no positive or negative association with the correlations, just that they are linked. Also, there are plenty of plants that aren’t represented in the books, and there are some plants in there that I’ve never seen or heard of.”
“I’ve seen books on plants more extensive and relevant than this, ones that have been produced within the last few years,” said Slate.
“But you see, Slate, it’s the combination of information from the entire set of the Books of Knowledge that holds the true power. It is the summary of all the knowledge together that grants the possessor the powers of the Gods. And it is this power that Opal Pools has used to create their horrible new weapon.”
Slate stared at a page in one of the books, trying hard to take the drawings seriously, but he couldn’t. “I don’t mean to be rude,” he said, “But to an Allestian, it all just seems like a lot of nonsense.”
“What you think is nonsense may spell the end of freedom for many people on Alm,” said Guh.
“Well what can be done about it? And why are you telling me this?”
“Because I need you to take the three copies of the Book that I have here and transport them to Aurora Falls for me. For a meeting of the Protectorate, where the seven volumes will be reunited for the first time since the Fall, and we will decide what to do with them. I cannot make the delivery myself; there are already too many people looking for them. People like the men who were here this morning. Who know I’m associated with the Protectorate, and suspect I have them already. You would not attract such suspicion.”
“Where is it you want me to take them?”
“To Aurora Falls. Across the ocean. To Proterse.”
“All the way across the ocean to Proterse?”
“You would be paid handsomely for your efforts, and remembered forever. This is a very exciting opportunity.”
“Then why aren’t I excited? Guh, I don’t really care to be paid handsomely or remembered forever. I just want to go back to…”
“And that is why you are the right person for the task. I know you are still sad, and I understand. But doing this for me, for us, will shake you out of your sadness, and help a huge number of people. It will affect the entire course of the history of Alm.”
Slate sighed. “I’ll ask you the same thing I asked Mrs. Falls, back when I thought the books might be full of recipes or fairy tales: What if I lose them? What if I mess up?”
“They are safer with you than with me,” Guh said. “The searches are intensifying. If the Books stay with me, someone will surely take them. At least they have a chance with you to make it to Aurora Falls.”
“And there’s no one else you could ask?”
“Not that I could trust.”
“Why should you trust me?”
“Because Pilotte does. Because I’ve seen your character. I know you’re a good person, Slate. And they’re coming no matter what. It’s now or never. I give the books to you or I have them taken from me. And the consequences of that could be too grave to imagine. So will you help me? Will you help us all?”
Slate shook his head. “When would I have to leave?”
“As soon as possible,” Guh answered.
Slate stared at the ground and weighed the offer against returning to Aislin right away. The latter seemed like a much better option, but Slate knew that he’d have to answer for what happened to the Book when he got there, and didn’t want to disappoint Mrs. Falls or Arianna. And something to take his mind off losing his father would probably be good, too. Moreover, if only for all the help he had found along his way to Airyel, he felt obligated to pay some of it back. He rolled his eyes and answered, “Sure. Okay.”
“Yeah, I’ll take your books across the ocean,” Slate said. “But I don’t have any money…”
“We’ll pay for everything,” Guh said.
“Alright,” said Slate. “Can we finish dinner now?”
“I’m happy to hear your appetite is back,” said Guh.
“Yeah,” said Slate, feeling a little better. “I guess life has to go on at some point, right?”
“That’s right,” Guh said. “We’ll eat well; you have quite a trip ahead of you.”
The next morning, Guh prepared a huge breakfast for Slate and Pilotte, which Slate still didn’t have much of an appetite for, but Pilotte was happy to finish.
“The cats left with my friend Canaya this morning. I suppose there’s no reason for either of us to stay here any longer,” Guh said with light melancholy. “It was a good shop. But it’s time to go now. I’ll be waiting for you in Aurora Falls when you get there, alright?” He handed Slate a bag full of supplies.
“Alright,” said Slate. “I sure hope I can make it. What is going to happen to your bookshop?”
“Whatever must,” Guh answered. “It’s empty. All they can find now is the basement, which may confuse the new owners but no longer holds any secrets. Those go with you now.”
“Are you sad, to leave the place you’ve lived your whole life?” Slate asked.
“Only for the memories I have here. It was my father’s shop, you know. But I’ll take our memories with me. Remember, seek out the ship named Sefose in South Airyel. That will take you to Proterse. I’ve got to leave now. Enjoy your adventure, Slate Ahn. It’s going to be incredible! And I’ll see you soon.”
With this, the old man flipped the sign in the window from open to closed, and stepped out front door. He waved through the window from the street and then was gone, leaving Slate and Pilotte alone in the shop.
“You ready, Pilotte?” Slate asked the wulf.
Pilotte wagged his tail, knocking a whole shelf of books onto the floor.
Slate smiled. “Then here we go.”
He thought of happy memories of his father as he hiked the small distance between North and South Airyel. It was sad, that all Slate now had of his father were memories, but Guh was right; those memories would always exist, and so, in that way, Slate had never really lost his father, nor would he ever.
Towering chimneys of industry blew columns of smoke and steam up into the sky as Slate and Pilotte approached South Airyel. The Florian Ocean knocked at the city’s break walls, bejeweled with the lights of the harbor and the fires of innumerable ships. Even at the city’s edge, the air was thick and congested with the pollution from the waterfront factories, the crumbling streets strewn with garbage. Crouching beneath broken edifices and sagging pillars were sets of hungry eyes leering from the shadows. The place was a nightmare.
“Keep close,” Slate said to Pilotte. “We won’t have to be here long.”
Because the city sloped down to the ocean, Slate could see the harbor from nearly anywhere in town, which saved him the anxiety of having to ask any of the mean-faced citizenry for directions. He proceeded down through crumbling infrastructure, eventually finding his way to a park near the waterfront where he sat down on a graffiti-covered bench to eat, thinking how cold and uncomfortable the bench was compared to the mossy floor of the forest.
After Slate’s hurried meal, a grizzled old sailor told him where he could find the Sefose, the ship on which Guh had secured him board. Slate and Pilotte followed the sailor’s directions to pier seventeen, which was deserted, save for some junk fishermen who worked in heavy clothing to protect themselves from the waste choking the docks. Slate watched them for a moment before noticing a bill hanging from one of the pier’s posts. It read:
The Merchant Ship Sefose
Captain Alistair Slocum and Crew of Twelve
Available: ONE rooms quarters for
Transportation to Proterse via the Passage Islands
Docking in Jaidour
Those present at ten hour will be interviewed for consideration.
Slate was confused as to whether he already had a room on the Sefose or if he would have to be interviewed yet. As there was no one around to ask, he and Pilotte headed back into town to find a room for the night. The manager at the inn they found seemed reluctant to house the wulf, but a bribe erased his concern. The room was warm and the bed just the right amount of broken-in. Slate washed his clothes and himself in the small, communal bathroom down the hall, then set his clothes out to dry before climbing into bed and falling fast asleep.
Slate awoke hungry, and so roused Pilotte for help in scrounging up breakfast. The two stopped briefly at the front desk to settle their bill and ask directions toward something to eat before stepping out into the morning hustle.
After eating, Slate and Pilotte returned to pier seventeen, to find the Sefose waiting. Slate expected a crowd, or at least a few others looking to rent the bed available on board, but there were none but the shipmaster present.
“So, you’re the lucky lottery winner, eh?” the shipmaster asked drolly as he handed Slate a ticket.
“I... guess? I was sent here by a man named Guh Hsing. Do you know who that is?” Slate asked.
“No idea, son,” the shipmaster said.
“He said he secured me passage on this ship.”
“I didn’t hear anything about that.”
“But there’s a room available?”
“That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
“Yes… but is there anything else I have to do, or is that it?”
“That’s it. Just get onboard, that’s all. And make it snappy, we’re all ready now.”
“I’m sorry if I’m late,” Slate said.
“It’s fine. Come on,” the shipmaster said.
“And my wulf can come with me, right?” asked Slate.
“Yes, it can,” answered the shipmaster. “Now, let’s go. We’ve got a lot of ocean to cover. Ocean teeming with pirates.”
“Pirates?” Slate whispered to Pilotte as the two made their way up the gangplank.
The Sefose was tugged from the pier not long after. Slate stood beside Pilotte on the deck and stared back at his island, his whole life up until that point, as the ship drifted away from shore. He wondered about Arianna and the other Falls, about his brother. He wondered if the island might be different when he returned, or if he would. It wasn’t until Aelioanei disappeared behind the swelling fog that Slate’s thoughts turned to Proterse and what might lie ahead.