The gangplank creaked alarmingly beneath her feet as she crossed it, and it was only A Librarian’s hand on her arm that prevented her from trembling. Once she was on ‘dry land’, she turned to watch as Tyrian scampered down the gangplank, producing what seemed like three extra limbs from somewhere within the folds of her patched and ragged clothes. Nik followed, strolling down the gangway with the same wide, opposable-thumbed webbed feet that his brother had.
“Now,” he was saying as they filtered away from the disembarking crowd, “I’m sure my brother’s getting into all sorts of trouble, but I’ve got someone to meet at the University. If any of you see him shaking down some tourists, grab him.”
“Who’re you seeing at the University?” Alice asked.
“A professor at the Foyer University, name of A Librarian.”
Alice glanced at A Librarian. “What?”
“Oh no,” A Librarian replied, “I don’t even know A Librarian, and I’ve only just made professor, before I went on a holiday for… reasons.”
“You can tell which A Librarian’s being talked about, when someone says it?”
<It’d be rather confusing if one didn’t know that.>
“You just… kinda know,” A Librarian said, looking as if he’d never considered the question before.
“Take it from someone who isn’t an A Librarian,” Nik said, “it’s confusing, at least to start with, but eventually you get the ear for it.”
“That sounds absolutely fake, but sure.”
Ignoring her, Nik continued. “Now, I’m going to go talk to A Librarian, and myself and my brother will be taking tomorrow’s Midpoint train to Index, so see you around, I suppose.”
“Oh, bye! It was nice meeting you, and maybe slightly less nice meeting your brother.”
He smirked. “I get that a lot.”
“Ah, um, Nik,” said A Librarian haltingly, “it was great to talk with another scholar in my field! I’d love to read some of your published work – I work in the Department of Realmic Dynamics at the Foyer University as the Associate Third Professor.”
“Thank you! I’ll see if I can send you something when I get back to my office,” said Nik, flashing a grin before he turned to head off into the crowded quayside, vanishing quickly from sight.
Alice looked around. The docks of Foyer were built into, around and through the gigantic tree. A twenty-foot gate into the interior of the trunk stood open at the far end of the haphazardly-paved courtyard across from the quayside, and while it didn’t throng with people, it didn’t ever stop moving. As she watched, a set of cablecars swung perilously close overhead, upwards and round the side of the tree. Ropes creaked between buildings, in the rigging of Ætherships, and vellum kites let out reverberating screeches as they flapped around.
Besides the green-to-yellow-haired A Librarians, among the crowd were scattered far taller figures wearing pale masks, each one at least ten feet tall. They moved with long strides and almost exaggerated care through the thin crowd, clothed in long robes and haphazardly-constructed armour. Some of them had candles on their heads or shoulders that glimmered with pale light, the dribbles of wax running down their armour and masks seemingly not bothering them in the slightest. Each of them had four long arms and stood on digitigrade legs, giving them something of a prowling and feline aspect to their gait.
“What are those tall guys?” she asked, pointing one out to A Librarian.
“Oh, those. They’re Bookbinders. Kinda like a joint… police force and tour guide presence. If you’re ever lost in Foyer, ask one of them and they’ll be happy to help you find me, or Nik or someone.”
She noticed that one of the bookbinders was carrying a struggling green-skinned figure in a patched robe and scarf, holding him aloft by his armpits as he kicked and flailed.
“Unhand me, you vile ruffian!” Nik’s brother was yelling, but the Bookbinder was unreceptive to his cries. “I did nothing wrong! I was framed! The statute of limitations is up on my last seven crimes! I have an alibi!”
<Should we… do something?> Tyrian looked about as concerned as someone could look with no visible face.
“Ehhhhh, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Alice said, watching him plant a foot on the mask-face of the Bookbinder and attempt to kick himself away.
“You traitorous quisling! Alice! Come and save me from this… this scarecrow of a ragamuffin!” he yelled. The Bookbinder briefly lost its grip on him and, following the ensuing scuffle, he ended up upside down, flailing in a manner that suggested that all of his joints were far bendier than they would be on the equivalent human.
“Ugh, okay,” she grumbled, walking over to the Bookbinder through the gap opening in the crowd around the spectacle. “Um, hi! He’s, er, with us.”
The Bookbinder turned its blank face to her, before pointing at Nik’s brother – held aloft by one leg and still struggling – and tilting its head to the side quizzically.
“Uh, yes. If you’d, ah, remand him into our custody, we’ll get him back to his brother.”
The Bookbinder shrugged, a very human gesture upon its enormous frame, and the lower of its right hands snaked into one of the pockets of its robe, pulling out a square of edged whiteboard and a dry-erase pen. Writing on the board with its upper right hand in large, fluid strokes, the Bookbinder turned the board towards her.
‘HE WAS RINGING DOORBELLS AND RUNNING AWAY’, the whiteboard read in beautifully stencilled script.
“Ah, okay. I’ll tell him off, then.”
“You can’t take me back to gaol! I’ll never survive!”
The Bookbinder flipped him right-side up and gently placed him down on his feet. Nik’s brother responded by attempting to punch it in the shin.
“Thanks!” Alice said brightly, taking the frogman firmly by the arm and dragging him away. He barely protested, besides to grumble under his breath about ‘police brutality’.
A Librarian was standing where she’d left him, talking with Tyrian. “Did you have to take him?”
“I feel positively welcomed,” Nik’s brother said, sticking out his tongue.
“Your brother’s gone to the University to talk to A Librarian,” Alice said.
A Librarian looked confused. “That wasn’t the A Librarian he was talking about.”
She glared at him. “I am attempting to use your weird psychic subvocalisations or whatever, so shush.”
“Oh, right. A Librarian. The one I can say correctly,” Nik’s brother said, neatly dodging the kick Alice aimed at his shin.
“Anyway,” A Librarian said, “the Midpoint train to Index will go this afternoon, and you’re to meet Nik there.”
“Rodger rodger. Dodger. Todger.”
A Librarian looked at Alice and Tyrian helplessly.
She rolled her eyes. “I guess we can take him back to Nik.”
“Yay! Can I get an icecream?”
“Don’t push me. Also, I don’t have any Library money. Which reminds me – I need to work out how to repay Kallie for the room.”
“Oh,” said A Librarian, “they knew you didn’t have any money, being an off-Realmer. They weren’t expecting any, it was purely a charitable move on their part.”
“Brave words from someone who still doesn’t have any money to her name.”
She stuck her tongue out at Nik’s brother. “Shush.”
<I’m sure you could send them a gift of appreciation, once you have the means to scrape it together.> Tyrian shrugged, somewhere deep in her layers of coats.
“So, where are you guys going?”
A Librarian glowered at him. “My lab. Or, well, one of the free metaphysics labs.”
“Applied metal physics? Now, there’s irony.”
“Please never talk again,” she said, turning away from him. “So, A Librarian, lead the way, I guess.”