The ropes, ladders and creaking bridges of Foyer stretched overhead and underfoot, swaying gently with the footfalls of the thousands of strange creatures that crowded the streets. The group of them had found a smallish ‘park’, dangling on steel cables between two great pillars, and sat about a pair of picnic benches beneath a gigantic mushroom the colour of parchment and ink.
“Ahhh,” said Aidra, closing his eyes and smiling. “Great to be back.”
“We’ve been here for at least an hour, now.” Alice retorted.
He ignored her. “Just smell that bookish air. Smells like nerds.”
“Why are you bringing this up now.”
“It’s like I never left!”
“Hokay,” Alice said, giving up, “I guess the plan is to see if I can get an appointment. Maybe Jöurnalmungandr will know how to find Zkrith’s boat.”
“There’s no ‘maybe’ about whether or not She knows things,” said A Librarian. “She’s an emanation of Knowledge Herself.”
“Well, that works too. Maybe She’ll help, since we dealt with that evil Red clone.”
“I mean,” said Aidra, “surely Red here could be the evil clone, and that one could have been—”
Alice held up a hand. “Nope.”
“Bup bup bup! Good clone Reds don’t try to kill me.”
“That’s a pretty low bar.”
“And yet some of him apparently fail it!”
Red, who was sitting at the other picnic bench, sighed. “You’re talking about me like I’m not within earshot.”
“Well,” she replied, “the you who did try to kill me is out of earshot.” To emphasise that she was making a logical and sensible point, she stuck her tongue out at him.
“Unless killing the other him means he absorbed his power.”
“I’ve been hearing about whatever got you running away from that exploding tower in dribs and drabs,” said Zkrith, “and everything I hear just raises more questions.”
[Do You Want Us To Explain It Further?]
“I’m not sure. There was an evil Red, apparently. Maybe I don’t want to know.”
[That Is Fair.] Twelfth stood up, and stretched, an odd gesture on her lanky, inhuman frame. [Hm. I Will Head To Tarlûlaaork’s Workshop, There To Seek A Repair Person. Being Disassembled By A Madman And Put Together Again By A Pair Of — In The Most Polite Way Possible — Amateurs Is Not Good For One’s Joints, And This Is Getting Tiresome.]
“Okay,” said Alice, “good… luck? I think? I don’t know if I should wish you good luck for what sounds, by analogy, like someone visiting the doctor.”
Twelfth gave a little nod, and patted her on the head. [It Is Appreciated, Either Way. Good Luck With Your Appointment, Likewise.]
She headed off, her gait disrupted slightly by the jerkiness in her movements.
“Don’t worry, Red,” said A Librarian, “we did a pretty good job. Normally, it takes a full course of schooling and an apprenticeship in the arts and mechanisms of Tarlûlaaork to conduct a servicing on a Bookbinder.”
“Mmm. Well, I doubt we made the service priests’ jobs that much harder,” said Red.
“Certainly easier for her to walk around, rather than us carrying her Shem around, and also the rest of her body and gear. That’d be heavy,” said A Librarian.
“That’s how you found her?” Alice asked, horrified.
“I mean,” said A Librarian, “dismemberment isn’t as, er, deadly for Bookbinders as it is for A Librarians. I’m less sure about humans, but I can make assumptions.”
“Those assumptions are correct,” she replied, turning a little pale.
“Well,” he continued, “you described Bookbinders as having a ‘single internal organ’ a little while back, and while that’s pretty close to correct, it might be more correct to say that Bookbinders are that internal organ, and the rest of their bodies are just thaumomechanical suits that they use to get around.”
Aidra raised a hand. “So is Twelfth more accurately described as a Gundam, or a dalek?”
“I think,” said Alice, “that I could get you to shut up pretty sharpish if I threatened to explain those references to her, once she gets back.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
“I do. Now,” she said, standing up, “I think I spotted one of those little postboxes round the corner when we came here, so I’m going to go get an appointment with Jöurnalmungandr. Be right back, since this conversation is clearly going nowhere.”
“‘Kay, have fun not getting that appointment,” Aidra said cheerily.
Startled, she looked back to him. “Wait, wh-”
And then she walked into a door that had opened out of the wall.
“Ms Alice Huang?” asked a familiar voice that brought with it traces of an indefatigable delivery and sacred duty.
“Ow,” she said, rubbing the side of her head. “Yes?”
“Missive for you,” the mail-carrier said, passing her a scroll they drew from the smokey and tentacular insides of their mailbox head, sealed with an out-of-place postage stamp.
She took it, wafting away the sulphurous fumes. “Is this from anyone in particular?”
“It was provided to me by Jöurnalmungandr’s worldly heralds.”
“Again? Huh. Well, tell her ‘thanks’ from me, if you could.”
“I shall. Good day,” the tall creature said, stepping back through their door and closing it behind them.
Alice turned, and made her way back over to the picnic bench. “So, is this what you meant, when you said I wouldn’t get an appointment?”
Aidra nodded. “As far as you know, yes!”
“So no, then?”
“Hey! I’ll have you know that knowing the future is pretty tricky, when there’s an omniscient snake around, and She also knows the future and knows it better than I do!”
“Ah,” she said, breaking the seal on the scroll, “so there’s competition in the futures market?” She then realised what she’d just said. “I’ve been here too long. I’m making puns too.”
Aidra cackled. “One of us, one of ussss…”
“Well!” she said brightly, opening the scroll. “Let’s change the subject, shall we!”
“Search your feelings, you know it to be true!”
“Hush. Now, let’s see here…”
She peeled off the stamp and opened the scroll, catching the brief scent of ancient books wafting from within. It wasn’t an unfamiliar scent in the Library, but it was still stronger than what she was used to, the general ambiance of the place that faded into the background.
“Eau de tomme,” Aidra whispered. “A prime fragrance.”
“I’ll have none of your fake French, here.” She glanced over the beautiful calligraphy upon the scroll, cleared her throat, and began to read.
“‘Ms Alice Huang, this letter will find you in a reasonable state, upon your return from the Necropolis’ — I see what you mean about her always knowing things — ‘and it will find you and your friends in need of some answers to various questions—’” Alice paused as she deciphering the stage directions printed neatly between lines of correspondence on the scroll.
Zkrith leaned forwards, back into the conversation. “Well, I do have a question about where my boat is.”
“‘Well, Ms. Zkrithlinos, I hope it mollifies your worry that your home has been found, gathered and towed to a drydock in the roots of Foyer, where it is currently partway through a repair. Consider the repair the docks’ token of thanks for your assistance in removing the danger present on the Inkstone Isles.’”
“Oh,” said Zkrith. “Oh! Good to hear, um, thanks?”
“Is that you saying that, or Her?”
“I’m, uh,” said Alice, “no, it’s all written here. There’s pauses in this for you to ask your questions and stuff.”
“How very forward-thinking,” said Aidra. “Hey! Namesnake!” he said, raising his hand like an overeager schoolchild. “Do we all get gifts, because I think Nik needs a brain. And maybe Red needs a heart, and… Alice gets courage? Or a more thematic name.”
“Aidra!” Nik hissed. “Behave.”
“‘Ah, young Aidrailomon. It would indeed be my honour to extend my city’s thanks for the neutralisation of a dangerous cultist of the Red Right Hand from the Inkstone Isles, the reward for which will reach you in due course. If you are interested in procuring your own heart or brain, Aidra, I am sure that could be arranged.’”
“Is ‘Name-Emanation of Knowledge Herself’ the highest-profile snark you’ve ever received?” Nik asked, raising a brow.
Alice cleared her throat on Jöurnalmungandr’s behalf. “‘I would not wish young Aidra put into the position of snubbing anyone or embarrassing himself in order to answer that question.’”
“Hey now,” he protested, “I’m sure I could have threaded the needle.”
“What was that you said about Her being able to tell the future better than you?” Nik asked, clearly enjoying himself.
“There’s one last bit here,” Alice said, starting to speak before everyone could start arguing. “‘Now, before I occupy too much of Ms. Alice’s time, I have a few more pertinent questions I could answer.’”
Aidra raised a hand. Nik grabbed his hand and pulled it down to the table. Aidra raised his other hand.
“‘No. If you want to cheat at the raffle, you’ll have to use your own precognition. And, for the final question, since Ms. Alice hasn’t been able to ask any questions herself — in preparation for your arrival in the city, your Realmic Resonant Signature has been examined by the Causeway, and are currently in a position to open one such to your home Realm when you are ready.’”
Alice paused for a second, failing to process. She read over the end of the scroll again.