Breakfast had been something of a confusing affair, but Alice eventually settled for the flakes of what A Librarian said were some kind of toasted fungus. They were kinda cereal-like, if she ignored the weird tangy aftertaste. A Librarian had what he called ‘a snack’ at the same time; a small bag of what had, to her mild disgust, turned out to be compost, which he offered to share with her (she turned slightly green and politely declined).
Now, she was walking with A Librarian, through the streets of Seven-Twenty, between the pillar-shaped buildings that stretched to the roof of the wooden cave the town nestled in. The town’s footprint wasn’t very large, but it was nearly as tall as it was wide, whole buildings and walkways dangling from the roof of the cavern, built into the walls and pillars, linked by rail-less walkways and suspended bridges. It looked fantastically unsafe.
“Do people ever fall off those bridges?” she asked, still looking up. The streets and walkways weren’t exactly busy, but there was no shortage of A Librarians wandering, walking briskly or chatting in groups.
A Librarian (that name was already getting very confusing) looked puzzled. “Why would they?”
“Um, there’s no handrails, and some of those bridges are swaying quite a lot.”
“Oh! A Librarians don’t really… fall off things. I suppose that is a bit of an accessibility problem, if more of you human people show up.” He seemed lost in thought for a moment. “What are the towns like where you’re from, then?”
“Ah, flat, I guess. Or at least mostly flat. Some buildings are tall, I guess, but this town is practically spherical.”
“Not quite spherical, per se, but Seven Twenty is a- ah, the Market! I was worried it wasn’t fully extant today, but it seems like it’s paying attention. Excellent!”
Alice followed A Librarian’s sightline to see the Market, hunched like a plush patchwork giant over one of Seven Twenty’s main thoroughfares, a dense network of suspended tents and paths. Upon and around them, a crowd of A Librarians and other, stranger things thronged, audible even from the distance she and A Librarian were.
“You know, the Market hops around a lot, and I wanted to arrive before it ran away.”
“It’s a flee market.”
“What? It’s pretty obviously not a fly market, that flew out a few days ago. Plus, they have wings.”
“Please stop talking.”
– – –
The hubbub of the Market wasn’t as overwhelming as Alice would have thought, and the crowd moved smoothly, leaving her feeling less bustled than if she’d been walking down a street in her hometown.
A stinging odour of regret and onions filled the air around the stall of a somnelier, counter crowded with hundreds of handblown bottles – no two were alike in twists and turns of shaped glass, and each was filled with glimmering and swirling liquid, in which glowing shapes danced.
“My child, might I interest you in a dream?” the somnelier said, gesturing with long fingers at the selection on her counter. “An imagining? A nightmare?”
Alice politely declined, trying and failing to make eye contact with the somnelier, who didn’t seem to have a visible head. She turned to the next stall, where a burly four-armed person with craggy metallic skin was making oddly muffled ringing noises as they hammered sparks from the end of a glowing metal bar. Oh, they weren’t using a hammer.
They quenched whatever it was they were working on, and turned to her. “Hm?”
“Um, just browsing.”
“Mhh,” they grunted as they picked the bar up and started to blow on the end of it, their breath making the air shimmer with heat as the end of the bar started to glow. As Alice stepped away, before she looked round for the next stall that caught her eye, a poster next to the blacksmith’s stall loudly proclaimed that the proprietor was a “AUTHORISED USER OF FIRE”, by the authority of “THE FOYAN UNFIRE DEPARTMENT”. That made sense, in a place as flammable as the Library, she guessed.
The next stall came to her. “–. . – -.-. …. . .-. / .–. .-. .. — . … / …. . .-. . –..– / — .. … … —. / –. ..- .- .-. .- -. – . . -.. / -. — -. -….- ..-. .- -.-. – — .-. .. … .- -… .-.. . –..– / — .-. / -.– — ..- .-. / — — -. . -.– / -… .- -.-. -.- —.” the thing said, beeping and clicking as it ‘talked’. It gestured excitedly with its lower pair of arms at the tray of small tubs it was holding, like an usher with ice-cream at a cinema. Each of them had Roman numerals on their lids. The creature stood expectantly, alternately blinking its compound eyes.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m good on whatever beep-click-bleeps you’re talking about.”
“Delicatescent soaps, of the finest calibre! The tastiest you’ve ever encountered!” came the cheery exclaimation of a creature with the head of a frog mounted backwards on its shoulders.
“█████ ███ █████ ███ █” screeched a hooded figure at the next stall, holding out a bouquet of sinkplungers.
This was getting stranger and stranger, but not in an unpleasant way.
– – –
As they’d agreed, Alice met back up with A Librarian close to the edge of the Market, next to the extremely obvious tent of the invisibility salesman.
“How’re you doing?”
“I’m good. This place is weird,” she said, “have you found what you were looking for?”
“I’m afraid not,” A Librarian said. “Humans are kinda-sorta known, but only in rumour and hearsay. I don’t think they’ve been seen in any number for decades.”
Their discussion was interrupted by a salesthing. “Madam, madam, madam! Can I interest you in a future?” The man was distinctly amphibian, a pair of fins sticking out from the sides of his head, webbed hands, wide froglike eyes and almost luminously green skin. What caught her interest, more than his wild eyes and tatty patched clothes, were his teeth. He had the kind of grin that would scare a shark, a maw full of disconcertingly large pointed teeth and a smile that seemed almost permanently affixed to his face.
A Librarian interjected. “She doesn’t have any currency, leave her be. Surely you’ve got better people to scam.”
The frogman mock gasped, holding a hand to his chest. “I’m wounded! C’mon, I can tell that Alice isn’t from round these parts, and I’m hardly one to swindle some unsuspecting tourist!”
“How did you kn-”
“He’s telepathic, picked the detail from your thoughts. Plus, he needs to give me my purse back.”
“Spoilsport,” he said, sticking his tongue out at A Librarian and handing back his small brown drawstring purse. She hadn’t even seen his hands move to take it.
A Librarian’s tone was icy. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it!” His tone shifted to something a good deal more serious. “Now, Ms. Alice, you may think things are getting curiouser and curiouser, but I’m going to give you this warning for free.”
Warning? “Um, okay. Thanks.”
He leaned closer, “The Jabberwock is fast and foul, the references are getting out of hand, and speaking of hands, there’s something red in your future, right?”
“My future…” she said, thinking back to her future self.
“Ah, don’t worry about that grumpyguts. The future only has power over you if you think it’s inevitable.” The grin was back, and he was playing with a pack of cards, flipping them back and forth like a stage magician. With a flourish, he fanned them, face down, in Alice’s direction.
“Alice, are you sure about this? I know of him, he’s very rarely truthful at all.”
“A Librarian, you are very unimaginative for a talking bookshelf. Now, Alice, pick a card.” He waggled his eyebrows, and a twitch of his fingers made the cards in his hand ripple in a wave.
“Will you leave us alone, then?”
“For a chapter or two, probably.”
“Deal.” She reached out, plucking a card from the fan. She turned it over, looking at it. “What the hell? Is this from Cards Against Huma-”
“Shh! We’ll get a copyright claim!”
“What sort of mystical interpretation is there for a card with the word ‘bees’ written on it?”
“Well, look at it again.”
She rolled her eyes. “What kind of- what? How?” she turned to the fortune teller, the card clutched in her hand as she practically shook her fist at him. The stylised picture of her future self, the one she’d only seen in dreams stared out impassively, framed by a border of thorny vines and black roses. A single word, the title of the card, stood out at the bottom, on an illustrated banner.
? – THE OMEN
His smile was starting to get infuriating. “It’s a reminder. No matter how unchanging the future may seem,” he said, and waved his hand across the card, returning it to what it had been before, “The future is always bees.”
She was about to say something incredibly rude before he cut her off. “Now, I said I’d leave you alone, and my brother’s about to turn up and admonish me f-”
“Yes, yes, we know you can tell the future,” another frog person said as he arrived on the scene. “I’m Nik, by the way. Was he bothering you two?” The new arrival looked similar to his brother, but the green of his skin was darker, and broken up by asymmetric blotches of brown. In comparison to his brother’s patched shirt, scarf and trousers, he wore something approximating an agnostic cassock, orange and brown and slightly frayed at the edges.
A Librarian spoke before his brother could say anything. “He was just finishing telling my friend’s fortune, wasn’t he, Alice?”
The fortune teller cackled. “Guilty as charged. I’ll come quietly, officer. Red sky at night, delighted shepherds and so forth.”
The two brothers wandered off into the crowded market, bickering incessantly. A Librarian looked relieved.
“I’ve bumped into Nik a couple of times, and he’s pretty nice, but if his brother starts talking, it’s pretty much impossible to get him to stop. I didn’t quite catch the relevance of the things he showed you; the context was obscured, I think. Anything worrying?”
She thought back to her dream. “I’m not sure, entirely. I think he might be warning me about something that hasn’t happened yet.”
“Well, most fortune tellers do.” A Librarian looked around through the mild bustle of the market, and pointed at a stall with a maroon canopy, with the occasional sewn-on patch in a brighter red. “And that’s who we were looking for!”
“What do they sell, anyway?”
“Odds and sods, secrets and mysteries. I know of only a couple better deals in all the Realms. If anyone knows how to get back where humans come from, it’s her.”