The train wormed its way through tunnels and along tracks, through landscapes of twisted, crackling silicon archives and into the low terraced hills that Index sat in. The area was, to Alice’s eyes, not quite familiar. The jagged inclines of the hills looked the same, the tunnel openings that pockmarked their surfaces looked very similar, but it was as if the whole landscape had shifted, adjusted somehow, but on such a long timescale to be unnoticeable in the moment. The station of Index looked exactly the same, squat and plain, stark against the rolling hills of stacked bookshelves.
As the train slowed, sidling up next to the platform, she noticed a figure sitting on one of the benches. She only knew one person whose head appeared to be made of smoky glass, and Madame Pythia greeted them as they alighted on the platform, apparently sitting in exactly the right place so that, once the train had stopped, the group stepped directly out of the doors in front of where she was sitting.
“Good to see you again, and you found Aidra’s name for him! Well done.” she said, nodding to the group, before turning back to Aidra. “And you, I’m still expecting you at the Eternal Grill.”
In response, he bowed deeply and sarcastically. “Madame, I would never forget an appointment. Verily, I would forget my own name before… okay, bad example.”
Madame Pythia snorted. “Well, with an assurance like that, why’d I even worry?”
As she stepped closer to him, Aidra raised an arm, allowing her to neatly fit next to him, her shoulder pretty much at the level of his armpit. “What brings you here to Index, anyway?” he asked, resting his arm across her table-shoulders.
“Ah yes,” she replied, smoke in her head swirling briefly with annoyance. “The Ringmaster tried to turn the screws on me, so I decided to remind her that the best prognosticator who can stand to work with her can just walk away at any time.”
“She tried to ‘recruit’ me when I visited, you know.”
“She did, did she? Unrelatedly, when she comes crawling back to ask me what I’d accept to be employed Carnival-side again, my offer will be fifty percent steeper than what I was planning to ask for.”
“If you’re quite finished,” said Nik, rolling his eyes.
“Nah. The makeouts haven’t started,” Aidra retorted, accompanied by a hollow chiming giggle from Madame Pythia.
“I have no idea how that would work,” said Alice. “And I don’t want to know,” she added when Aidra opened his mouth to respond.
“Aidra dear,” said Madame Pythia, “I know you’re just passing through, and I think I shouldn’t hold you and your friends up further.”
“‘Twas a pleasure, Madame. Through winding skein of far-wrought time-” he began.
“-till once more our fates do align,” she finished, detangling herself from Aidra’s arm and bobbing the group a quick curtsey. “It was lovely to see you all again.”
– – –
The slow changeability of the landscape had rippled around the Petersons’ house. The fence around their garden appeared to stop the gentle undulation of the hills dead in its tracks, a clear demarcation between the civilised and the wild. With none of the trepidation of her last visit, Alice strode up to the door, seized the knocker and rapped sharply.
There was no immediate response, and Alice was turning back to the rest of the group as they caught up when she heard the cry of “Meat lady!” and a small, fuzzy creature collided with her, nearly bowling her over with a strength she wouldn’t have expected from one so small.
“Hi Liz,” she wheezed. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m very powerful!” was the cheery response, as Liz climbed over Alice’s head to sit on her shoulders.
“Liz, sweetie, if you’re terrorising the postfolk again, I-” said A Librarian as she walked round the corner of the house, trailing off as she saw Alice and the rest. “Oh, hello! I wondered what the yelling was. She’s not terrorising you, is she?”
Alice finished getting her breath back. “She’s… enthusiastic, I’ll give her that.”
A Librarian sighed. “Elizabeth.”
Liz leaned right over Alice’s head, so she could look her in the eye. “Sorry, Miss Alice Meat Lady.”
“A little warning next time, okay?”
[Well Met, A Librarian And Elizabeth. We Were On A Passing Course, And Thus Decided To Visit.]
“Also,” said Aidra, “I want to teach your kids vandalism!”
“Aidra.” A Librarian paused a second, confused. “Firstly, please don’t. Secondly, I don’t think you had a name last time you visited.”
“I’m a merry wanderer of the night, mysterious and everything.”
A Librarian raised an eyebrow.
“Okay fine,” he capitulated, “I may have had a run in with the Accusative Devourer, sometime… fairly recently, I suppose? Now I’ve got my name back and it was all emotional and stuff, but the more important thing is why you’re being a square.”
“Liz, could you please find your brother and distract Aidra?”
“Sure, mum!” She practically leapt from Alice’s shoulders and scampered into the house.
Aidra narrowed his eyes. “You win this battle, A Librarian Peterson, but the war is just beginning.”
She rolled her eyes, and gestured for the group to follow him through the door. “Uh-huh.”
They found Alan inside, wearing an apron and slicing some kind of polka-dotted root vegetable in the kitchen. His face lit up when he saw them.
“Back so soon?”
Alice chuckled. “We’re just passing through.”
“Oh? Do you want some tea, while you’re here?”
A Librarian wrinkled her nose. “Surely she had enough of that the last time she came to last her a lifetime?”
“My dear,” he replied, “you are naught but a philistine in the fine art of boiling leaves in water.”
“Sure, I’ll have some!”
“You’re a braver woman than I,” said A Librarian, but she grabbed another mug from the cupboard.
Once they had filtered back into the living room with their choices of beverage, they arrayed themselves across the various sofas and armchairs. Well, Twelfth was folded up behind one of the chairs, but she was tall enough to easily see over it. Aidra was playing some kind of card game with the help of Liz and Ed and under the watchful eye of their mother.
“And that,” he was saying, laying out more of his seemingly inexhaustible deck of cards, “is how to count cards. Now, it requires some quickness of wit, but once you get the knack for it, we can start on some of the less legal means of-”
A Librarian cleared her throat loudly.
“- Okay, fine. I’ll tell you about that stuff when you’re older.”
Red, who had been awkwardly sitting next to Alice, pulled a face as she took her first tentative sips of the tea. “I can’t believe you actually drink that stuff.”
She stuck out her tongue. “Weakling.”