I was going to start this by saying that there are two types of librarians. Mind you, last time I said that we ended up with a brawl. Somebody immediately leapt up and shouted that there were are least four types, male, female, shy, and intimidating. Another listener told him he was an idiot. He had known librarians who were tall and thin, whilst others were short and stout. A third person hissed at them and told them to be quiet and when they ignored her, she banged their heads together and told them to shut up. I hadn’t the nerve to ask whether she was a librarian.
But ignoring the cavilling of the buffoons at the Misanthropes Hall, or at least who drink in the upstairs bar, I will repeat my assertion. There are two types of librarians. There are those who cherish books, treasure them and would find it unthinkable to part with even the most battered of folios. The other type secretly hates books, will dispose of them at the slightest excuse and seems to think that a library is supposed to be an open space with minimalist décor and a handful of popular books which are borrowed so regularly you don’t need much shelf space for them.
The librarians at the Great Library in Port Naain fall happily into the former category, but the Sinecurists who provide the funding tend towards the latter end of the spectrum. Thus there is not a happy atmosphere when budgets are discussed and costs analysed.
It was late one morning and I was sitting reading a book of verse. It was light, frothy stuff. Whilst not flush with funds, I was sitting in the small salon next to the entrance of the Great Library, sipping a mug of coffee which I fully intended would last all morning. The book was repaying investigation. I had already noted down half a dozen verses which I could use.
Here I present a warning. Some think to find a lost book of verse and hope to pass it off as their own. This is foolish. It might work, after all there is a lot of forgotten verse out there. But beware, it is often forgotten for good reason. Thus your own reputation might be besmirched, not because you are a plagiarist, but because people listen to the verse you quote and assume that you are a mediocre poet at best. As you drop the verse into conversation, always attribute it to the true author. Thus you gain the reputation as a person who is both honest and well read (not bad attributes surely?) and any censure falls upon the broad shoulders of a poet long dead.
I glanced up to see Velonica Maudwheel pass the door of the salon. At that very moment she glanced into the salon and noticed me. She hesitated not at all, but turned and headed directly to me. “Ah Tallis, I have a job for you.”
Given that Madam Maudwheel is the senior librarian, I adopted the pose of a busy man, eager to be helpful in such little free time he has available.
She sat down next to me and glanced at the cover of the book I was reading, “It’s good to see the minor poets getting an outing.” Then she ostentatiously glanced at my coffee which was chilling unpleasantly in the mug. “As you’ve almost finished I thought you could give me a hand collecting some papers from a friend of yours.”
I was intrigued. “I shall finish my coffee and will be at your disposal.”
As I raised the mug to my lips, she said, “Yes, Maljie is donating some of her archive.”
It was only pure chance that I had a coughing fit rather than spraying coffee across the salon.
“Surely the Watch would be a more appropriate recipient?”
“No, Tallis, you don’t understand. These are papers she acquired as a usurer.”
“My comment still stands!”
I put the empty mug down. “Command me, what is the worst that can happen.”
I accompanied her, not to Maljie’s house but to a warren of lawyers and usurers’ officers in the Business Quarter. Initially it had been a short terrace of perhaps eight houses but over the years they had been sold off, one or two rooms at a time, until now nobody owned any particular building. Similarly as partnerships had acquired new rooms they had put in new doors, created short corridors with stud partitions and had prospered mightily. Until they decided to downsize, sold off a room or two and others put in their doors and partitions. Now whilst each of the eight front doors had a series of brass plates by them, and visitors were told which door to enter for their appointment, for those who knew the building, it was possible to enter by any door and leave by any other.
Velonica led me through what I hoped was an appropriate front door, up a short staircase which stopped, abruptly, for no reason. We turned left along a narrow corridor, then up another staircase before turning right down a further corridor. Eventually she knocked at a door and entered without waiting for an answer.
Maljie was standing by an open fire, dropping papers into it.
“Good, I’m glad you’ve come, I’ve put the stuff you might like on the table.”
I looked around. One wall was entirely bookcase, stuffed with legal and banking tomes. “What about them?”
“Oh they go with the room, I bought them with the room and I’m selling them with the room.”
Velonica was sorting through the books on the table. “Obviously we’ll have them. I’m just intrigued as to how you acquired them?”
“Oh thirty years ago I took them as security for a loan. They’ve been cluttering the office ever since.”
I glanced through the books. They looked like the library of somebody with an interest in antiquarianism.
Velonica said, “Well we’ll take them away for you. I’ve fetched Tallis to help me carry them.”
“If you ask at the door, they’ll lend you a sack truck.”
Maljie picked up another pile of papers, flicked through them and made to throw them into the fire. Then she stopped. “You might as well have these.”
When she put them on the table I looked at them. A lot were drawings, notes, descriptions, but in a language which used graphemes I didn’t know.
Velonica asked, “And where did these come from?”
“One of my less successful Partannese ventures. There was a lordling of one of the northern keeps who wanted some money for a device he was making. He was something of an alchemist. So I loaned him the money, these papers were to guarantee the loan.”
I joined Velonica in looking through the papers. There were quite a few pictures. “Obviously he never paid the money back?”
Maljie gave a shrug, “No, he disappeared.”
“Aren’t there people you can send after him?”
“When he disappeared, most of his keep disappeared with him leaving nothing but rubble at the bottom of a circular depression. Apparently it’s now a small lake.”
I pointed to a phrase I could read, even if I couldn’t understand it, ‘Heat-pressure’. “This appears quite often?”
“Yes, I remember him burbling about it when he was negotiating the loan. Apparently he thought it would be the perfect way to clear ground for agriculture.”
“Clearing it of what?”
Velonica held up one of the sheets showing some sort of almost spherical container. “We could make up an exhibition of this stuff, it could cause some interest, get people into the library.”
Certainly it was all quaint enough to attract interest, and after all, what harm could it do?
It has occurred to me you might wish to learn more about Port Naain.
When mages and their suppliers fall out, people tend to die. This becomes a problem when somebody dies before they manage to pass on the important artefact they had stolen. Now a lot of dangerous, violent or merely amoral people are searching, and Benor has got caught up in it all. There are times when you discover that being forced to rely upon a poet for back-up isn’t as reassuring as you might hope.
As a reviewer commented, “What starts off looking like a theft at sea, followed by a several findings in the mud when the tide is out, soon morphs into an intriguing tale where Benor, Tallis, Shena, Mutt, and a plethora of other folks, get involved in dealing with dark deeds in Port Naain.”
Or take a look at