“So this is, what, Knowledge Herself’s letterbox?”
A Librarian made a face. “Firstly, the big snake’s the Name of Knowledge Herself. Knowledge Herself doesn’t have a letterbox, due to being omniscient within her Realm and Domain, like all Dominions.”
“And secondly, it’s Her appointment box. There’s quite a queue, but it’s worth a shot, I think. Plus, you might get lucky.” He handed her a rectangular ivory token.
“What do I do with this?” Alice asked, turning the blank slip over in her hands.
“You write your name on it and put it in the box here,” he said, gesturing at the bright red, almost cartoonish-looking tiny postbox, its slot barely big enough to take one of the ivory tokens. “Then, the Name of Knowledge Herself is aware that you’re in the queue, and She meets with the people who request an appointment in order of how urgent their communications are.”
It stood dissonantly on a gigantic plinth in the centre of a ‘town square’, suspended by its corners with massive chains. All around them, the haphazard hanging buildings and walkways of Foyer filled the space inside the trunk of the Tree, gently rattling and murmuring with the sparse crowds that moved around the city.
“So how does that work? How can She tell how urgent my problem is from just my name?”
“She’s a reptile, so She controls everything at the highest levels! Surveillance, black helicopters, everything! All a reptilian Illuminati conspiracy! A con-hiss-pary!”
“That… that’s not even a pun. That’s just a terrible joke.”
“Anyway,” said A Librarian, “the Name of Knowledge Herself is one of the most pure emanations of Knowledge Herself into this Realm, and so She’s near-omniscient within Her Dominion’s Realm. The letterbox is just to draw Her specific attention, and She can then know what you wanted to talk to Her about once She knows your name. And once She knows that, She’ll know how urgent it is, how important the information She can provide is, and so forth.”
“Huh. That’s mildly Orwellian.” Alice finished writing her name on the slip with one of the pens-on-strings provided next to the postbox. When she pushed the token through the tiny letterbox, a bell sounded. Well, not exactly. What she heard was more like someone had said the word ‘DING’ in her mind.
“And that’s the graphite bell,” said A Librarian, “indicating that your query will be taken into consideration. She’ll get back to us within twelve hours, fewer if there’s something important.”
“I heard someone got a reply after two seconds, once,” said Nik’s brother.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“Whether they were being trailed by assassins. Turned out, them hearing their reply stopped them walking into the path of a poisoned dart.”
A Librarian rolled his eyes. “I’m fairly sure that’s apocryphal.”
“Are you suggesting that I’m repeating rumours?”
“So!” Alice exclaimed, trying to derail the impending name-calling. “Where to n-”
She was cut off when, with the suddenness of a light-switch flicking, about half the lights of Foyer turned off, bathing the city in a sudden mild darkness.
“Oh, huh. It must have just gone withering.”
“Wait, isn’t this more like… that twilight thing?” asked Alice. It was still light, after all.
“Gloaming? Well, that started eight hours ago, when we were busy doing science magic up in the University. Withering isn’t super dark in Foyer, but all the natural lights have gone off, leaving us with the streets-and-ladder lights.”
“Huh, okay. So it’s night now?”
“Well, some people argue that Gloaming is part of ‘night’, as-”
She cut him off with an “A Librarian.”
“Uh, yes. It’s night now.”
“Neeeeeerd,” whispered the fortune teller, just barely under his breath.
If A Librarian noticed, he didn’t rise to the bait. “I guess we’ll need to find a room. I technically have an apartment at the University, but I think A Librarian may have colonised it in my absence, and I don’t want to have that argument now. Also, I don’t have enough beds there for the three of us.”
“I know a p-”
A Librarian cut him off. “No. I’m not staying at Shub Niggurath’s.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“I’m not going to a self-described ‘well-known house for the pleasures of the more squamous and unguent fleshes’, and I’m not even sure they rent rooms for non-adult purposes.”
“So you’ve been?” said the fortune teller, “You sure know a lot about it for someone supposedly un-interested.”
A Librarian fixed him with a withering look. “I could make the same observation.”
“Wait,” said Alice, “is this place some kind of… brothel?”
“Yes,” said A Librarian, “and that’s why it’s not a very good guest house.”
“Oh, um, right.”
“He means it’s too noisy, what with all the-”
“Thank you!” Alice near-yelled. “I didn’t need that mental image!”
“Yeah, well, I bet A Librarian doesn’t have a better suggestion.”
– – –
He did, in fact, have a better suggestion. The Golden Bezoar was an egg-shaped building coated (or possibly made from) some kind of thick papery material pasted onto the inside surface of the Treetrunk, looking like some kind of massive wasps’ nest next to the more… architectural buildings that lay alongside it. An old-fashioned pub sign, bearing the name of the place, along with a painting of a lumpy-looking golden stone, the titular Bezoar.
“Ah, good. Last time I stayed here, it was in a completely different place, much further away,” said A Librarian.
“It moves around?”
“Yeah,” said Nik’s brother, “it’s a pub, so it crawls.”
Alice covered her face with her hands and groaned loudly as he giggled.
On the inside, the Bezoar was lined with dark wooden beams and plasterwork, something more like a British country pub than Alice was expecting inside a giant insect nest building thing. The shelves behind the bar held hundreds of bottles of all different sizes and shapes, colours and esoteric contents, from what she could see. There was no visible bartender, but there was a smattering of patrons, sitting at the tables, standing and sitting around the bar. Most of them were A Librarians, but there were some Masquerade, a Bookbinder sitting in a corner, and some other species she didn’t recognise.
A Librarian rang the brass bell on the bar, which promptly lifted upwards, rising unsteadily on a single long, knobble-kneed leg that stood barely two feet tall.
“Oi!” squeaked the bell-thing. “Keep yer hair on, mate! I’m awake!”
“Bellhop,” said A Librarian, “sleeping arrangements for the three of us for tonight?”
Bellhop rattled as they, well, hopped down behind the counter, before jumping back up, placing three keys gently on the wood, despite having no visible hands.
“There ya go, ya twats. Now git gone, so I can get back to clipping me toenails. I’ll put the rooms on your tab, and you can get your own slice of lemon and a straw if you want ‘em.”
As they left the bar area, she heard the bell clink down over Bellhop’s foot, followed by the sound of a revving chainsaw. She decided not to think about that too hard.
She must have been tireder than she had thought, because she fell asleep almost immediately.
– – –
The same paradoxically bright darkness where she had met her double the first time.
One more detail than before. A full-length mirror, which reflected something of a strange, slightly dark distortion of herself.
Her reflection’s eyes were dark pits in its head, leaking blackness down its cheeks like tears, or maybe running mascara. Its hands were strange too, she noticed. In the mirror, her fingers were twisted, deformed, some of them fused together. She tried spreading her hands wide, but the reflection’s right index and middle finger, its left ring and middle finger, remained stuck together.
She opened her mouth, her unease growing as she saw that her reflection’s mouth was filled with rows upon rows of irregular pointed fangs.
She took a step back, closing her mouth, but her reflection wasn’t mirroring her motion any more. It was smiling.
“Alice Huang,” it whispered in her own voice, stepping towards her, out of the mirror. “We meet at last. I’ve heard so much about you.”
She was trying to back away in earnest now, but it was like a nightmare where, no matter how fast she thought she should move, the reflection – the other her – grew closer and closer.
“W-who are you?” She fought to keep the edge of panic from her voice.
The reflection licked its lips with a tongue far longer than Alice’s own. “You are marked, Miss Huang,” it said, ignoring her question, “and you will bring most glorious ruin.”
It reached up, sticking two of its malformed fingers into the dark pit that was its left eye, and with a squelch, began to draw something long and silver, smeared with flecks of darkness and blood. Slowly, agonisingly, it pulled a long and ornate spear, taller than itself, out of its eyesocket.
“Now,” it said, winking at Alice with an audible crunch in its ruined eye, “what, Alice Huang, do you fear?”