Ink lapped quietly against the houseboat’s flank, causing ripples to spread slowly across the dark mirror sea. Across the sound, a beach of pale, smooth stones stood, the black ink washing across them as it rose and fell. It left strange jagged symbols behind, stark white shapes on the stones where the ink didn’t touch that vanished as the black liquid drained away.
“Yeah,” said Zkrith, looking over the gig they’d be taking ashore, “I’m staying here in my boat. I have zero interest in heading to whatever place you’re heading to.”
The rest of them sat in the gig as Zkrith watched them over the handrail of the houseboat.
“You don’t want to come to wormy toothplace?” asked Aidra, doing his best to appear plaintive.
“The last weird building you went to-” she said, indicating the imposing form of Wyrmstooth Keep, high on the crag above the Atrament – “it exploded. Ask me to come along on your shore leave when you’ve displayed that this isn’t a habit.”
“I mean,” said A Librarian, “I’d say that was more of an implosion, but-”
“Normally, people don’t have the opportunity to argue that the building they were in imploded rather than exploded. Since I don’t wish to become one such person, I’m staying here. Where it’s safe. Maybe I’ll catch up on some reading.”
“Okay then,” said Alice, “see you later?”
“If you’re spared,” Zkrith replied, and with that she finished untying the rope connecting the gig to the larger houseboat and threw it down.
As they pushed off, and as Twelfth started to row in the direction of the strangely-scrivened beach, Alice attempted a salute in the general direction of Zkrith’s boat.
“Ah, no,” said A Librarian, “for a naval salute, you hold your hand the other way around. I think it’s something to do with tarry palms from working all the ropes.”
“Wait, I think I remember it working something like that on Earth. Why’re they the same?”
A Librarian just shrugged, so Aidra took the opportunity to open his mouth and produce words. “They say history doesn’t repeat, it rhymes!”
She frowned at him. “Go on?”
“Since history is largely a product of geography and the people who live there, it can be deduced that history equals geography times people, and thus that there’s some rhyming factor in either geography or sociology. Since the Library doesn’t look like your Earth Home Place, it stands to reason that it’s the social stuff that rhymes, hence the similar naval salutes. Ip’s So Fact-O.”
“No, I take that back, don’t go on.”
“But I was about to get into meta-Realmic axiomatic theory!”
“A Librarian, is that a real thing?”
A Librarian pursed his lips and gestured vaguely. “I mean- some of what he said was kinda true, if you take it at its most simple and absurd conclusions?”
“People call me simple and absurd all the time, and I dunno what that means.”
“I cannot believe you.”
“People say that a lot, too.”
“Ye gods. Twelfth, can you row faster?”
[If You Wish To Try Rowing, Do So.]
The stones of the beach didn’t crunch, they whispered. Random words, muttering up from the stones as she stepped across them in strange quiet choruses.
“This is really weird, right?” she asked, as she attempted to help Twelfth pull the gig ashore and secure it.
[I Would Not Know, I Have Not Been Here Before,] she replied. [Ah, Thank You, Alice.] She took the offered rope and, almost quicker than could be followed, tied it to a particularly imposing looking rock, which whispered something about logarithms.
“Ah!” A Librarian exclaimed triumphantly. “I think I know what this is!”
“What, the beach with the whispery rocks?”
“Yep! On the map, this place is called the Whispering Sound. That’s why the beach is talking! We’re in an inlet, see.”
He gestured at the cliff walls that surrounded the beach and stretched back out across the dark ink behind them.
“I know some geography now,” said Alice, “and I already hate it.”
“Don’t worry about the names of things,” Red replied, “I’m sure there’s some… sound reasoning.”
She punched him – gently – in the arm and set off up the beach, towards hopeful sanity and freedom from the Whispering Sound.
Beyond the murmuring beach whose shingles shivered with strange sayings, cliffs and crags stretched up towards the ominously looming dental castle that was Wyrmstooth Keep. Across the faces of these rocks, set into the stone, were thousands upon thousands of alcoves. Each were maybe a foot or so square and several feet deep and contained a small pile of clay scroll tubes, stone tablets carved with cuneiform, or — in the case of the one she saw when she walked up to the cliff and looked in a hole — a small colony of crustacean-like, somewhat metallic creatures that appeared to be living in discarded ink bottles, withdrawing into them as she approached.
“Any idea on how to get up there?” she called back to her companions, looking around for any sign of a path, or some stairs, or something along those lines.
“I mean, it’s climbable?” said A Librarian, looking up.
“Yes, there’s ample handholds, but they’re huge, this is nearly vertical and if I hit the ground, I go splat.”
“That’s a fair point,” he replied. “I’ll look at the map and see if there are some stairs.”
“There might be a gondola!” Aidra exclaimed, and Alice was so unsurprised by how silently he’d approached before yelling that she overcompensated, and was unstartled enough to nearly jump back into her skin. “And there’d be gondoliers, and striped shirts, and I want to say straw hats?”
Alice sighed. “You mean a gondola cablecar. A gondola with a gondolier requires something to sail on, and I guess something to punt off.”
“Oh, ye of little faith!”
“I have a steadily-dwindling amount of faith in this not being a setup for some disastrous pun.”
“Hmmmmmm,” he said, distractedly. “D’ya hear that?”
They paused a moment in relative quiet, and then Alice heard it and her heart sank like a leaden cannonball dropped directly on the toe of her hopes and dreams.
O sole mio, being sung off-key, and getting steadily and ominously closer.