“More bad dreams, eh?”
In reply, Alice grumbled inaudibly around a mouthful of breakfast.
“Fair enough. Now Crimmy’s doing their thing, it’ll be all echoey, alone in that big ol’ empty brain of yours,” said Aidra, giggling at the obscene gesture she made in response.
She swallowed. “Honestly, I wish I could have simple, meaningless dreams. Do they have those, out here?”
“Nah, it’s all dire prophecies and alternate selves.”
She rolled her eyes. “Really.”
“Absolute bona-fide 100% semi-skimmed pasteurised truth, with added vitamin D for healthier bones.”
“I… you know what, I’m gonna keep having breakfast.”
“Most important meal of the day!”
They were back in the Golden Bezoar, and the pub had crawled down a few tiers of the city, now resting near a dedicated feeding trough for sapient buildings – a concept that barely registered to Alice as particularly bizarre, now. How long had she been in the Library? She’d honestly lost count, but it was probably…
“It’s been thirty-five days,” said Aidra, “but it feels like it’s been a whole year. Give or take a week or so.”
“I… you know what, fine. Sounds about right.” She turned to the others. “When’re we seeing the Name?”
“Well,” said A Librarian, “whenever we do, I guess? You don’t really need to be counting the minutes in order to get there on time. I guess we’ll head thataways once we’re finished with breakfast?”
“She said She’d see us in, er, eleven hours last night though. Don’t we need to be on time?”
He looked genuinely perplexed. “I mean, we will be on time?”
“Something happens if we don’t?”
“Why would it?”
“Because you’re acting like not being on time isn’t an option!”
“But it isn’t.”
In response, she groaned and buried her face in her hands. “Why?”
“In general, or this particular instance?” Aidra asked innocently. “Because we already heard the longer one back in Chapter 13.”
“Oh. Oh! You’re wondering why She can give us such specific information as to when we’ll arrive?”
“I… sure. Sure, why not.”
“The note isn’t telling us when to be there, it’s telling us when we’ll be there. Like a fate. We’ll end up seeing Her then, barring – heh – unforeseen circumstances.”
“I’m not going to dignify that joke with a response.” She took another bite of… whatever this particular strange fruit was. “So, we just head down whenever we feel like it?”
– – –
“Ah, Ms Huang,” said the greeter, “right this way. She’s been expecting you.”
The greeter, an A Librarian in a long flowing robe covered with densely-packed images of eyes, moved with a disconcerting quiet across the floor from their post to a large set of double doors set in the inner trunk of the Great Tree. As the greeter reached the doors – also covered in symbols of eyes, carved rather than sewn this time – she heard a key turn in a lock, although she could see neither, and the doors swung slowly open. The greeter turned to face them and gave a little bow, gesturing for the group to head down a long, sloping tunnel that descended around a corner and out of sight.
The doors closed behind them with an almost imperceptible noise, and Alice turned to the others.
“Did anyone else notice that they were wearing a blindfold?”
[I Believe That Those Who Spend A Great Deal Of Time In Communion With Knowledge Herself Find Their Physical Senses Dulling In Proportion To The Growth Of Their More Esoteric Ones. They Were Probably Resting Their Eyes To Prevent Said Dulling.]
The tunnel widened, and then they were suddenly outside, descending the outer trunk of the Tree on a wide set of steps. Like most A Librarian-built things, the stairs didn’t have a handrail, so Alice was somewhat distracted from the wide, commanding view of the carved sandstone landscape of canyons and mazes by being careful where she trod. At the end of the stairs, a cablecar took them the final descent to a stone platform at ground level, jutting from the sandy floor of this Layer of the Library.
And, ahead of them, she saw the snake. About the massive trunk of the Great Tree, the parchment-yellow body of the Name was coiled, long enough to circle the Tree at least three times and thicker than a train car. Neither head nor tail was visible, just the jagged scales of Her coils, occasionally shifting slightly as She breathed.
“Do I have to-” Alice began to ask, but before the words had fully left her mouth, the enormous coils of the Name shifted. With a rumble that she felt, rather than fully heard, the titanic serpent moved, partially uncoiling from around the Tree to reveal Her head. With a lazy undulation, She bought herself across to the platform and down to Alice’s eye level, a head the size of a fire engine turning from side to side, regarding her out of each of her four luminous eyes. Above her head burned a silent and endless burst of white fire, resplendent with a symbol that looked like a lowercase ‘I’.
“GOOD MORNING,” She said. Her mouth did not move, besides the occasional flick of Her enormous tongue, but the words rang in Alice’s head like a choir of bells. It wasn’t a loud voice, per se, but it carried with it such an air of vastness and age that it made her feel dizzy.
“Uh,” she squeaked, “hi?”
“I AM THE NAME OF KNOWLEDGE, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS JÖURNALMUNGANDR. WELL MET, ALICE.”
“Journal- oh god damn it.” She realised with horror what she’d just said. “Er, um wait, I mean, sorry ma’am!”
A melodic chuckle. “NO OFFENCE TAKEN. I AM NAMED AS KNOWLEDGE HERSELF MADE ME, FOR BETTER OR FOR WORSE.”
“You’re a Name with a name?”
“INDEED. AND GREETINGS TO YOU TOO, YOUNG AIDRA, TWELFTH ZEPHYR, NIK AND A LIBRARIAN.”
“I’d offer to shake your hand,” said Aidra, “but-”
“YOU WISH NOT TO ADMIT YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN THE SECRET HANDSHAKE? FOR SHAME, AIDRA.”
Alice looked from Aidra to the enormous snake. “You know each other.”
“TECHNICALLY SPEAKING,” said Jöurnalmungandr, “I KNOW EVERYONE. BUT YOU ARE CORRECT, WE HAVE MET BEFORE, ME AND AIDRA.”
“There was fire. And also Gyran was there.”
“I BELIEVE SO. SPEAKING OF YOUNG GYRAN, GIVE HER MY REGARDS WHEN YOU NEXT SPEAK. IT HAS BEEN A WHILE SINCE WE CONVERSED.”
He smirked. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate the irony of being mothered-at.”
“I AM SURE I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU MEAN.” Her gaze once more fell on Alice. “AND ALICE, I BELIEVE YOU HAVE A QUESTION?”
“Well, a number of questions, I guess? How many am I allowed?”
“AS MANY AS YOU NEED. I ARRANGE THESE APPOINTMENTS TO BE AS LONG AS THEY NEED TO BE. YOU ARE NOT IMPOSING ON ANYONE’S TIME.”
“Right. So, cutting to the chase I guess, how do I get home?”
Jöurnalmungandr, the Name of Knowledge Herself, sighed happily. “WHAT A GOOD QUESTION.”