I just submitted this story to fantasy-writers.org for the December 2020 contest. I’m really pleased with it, and hope you will be, too.
Penelope Nuru Tesfaye, Librarian of the Third Annex of the Endless Library and youngest in the known history of that dimension-spanning institution, threw her crystal glasses onto her desk and glared at her assistants. “No ideas?” she demanded. “Not one?”
They looked back at her: Alexander, a shaggy-haired boy in bare feet and patched clothing; a one-winged owl pacing the tops of Penelope’s book cases; and a nervous shelving squirrel grooming his tail under the owl’s attentive watch. What am I asking them for, the Librarian chided herself. I might as well ask the walls. Then she remembered that sometimes the Library walls would answer, if you asked nicely. Oh! It was maddening—especially since she should really be able to come up with a solution herself. Some Librarian she was turning out to be.
“A book,” Penelope repeated, twisting a long, beaded braid around a brown finger. “I need a book special enough to win the Librarians’ Cup.”
“Well...” said the boy.
Penelope leaned forward. “Yes?”
Alexander shifted his gaze from his fingernails to his toes. “Oh, I don't know.”
“Alex!” Penelope’s best friend alternately frustrated and delighted her, usually at the same time. “You’ve lived here your whole life. You know the Library better than anyone. You must have an idea.”
“We could grow one,” he mumbled.
Grow one?! For goodness sake. “Books don’t grow on trees.”
“Tell that to the owls in the Sixth Annex. Right, Racer?” The flightless owl bobbed his head. The squirrel barked in agreement.
Penelope wrapped her mind around the idea of a book tree. It was no more outlandish than anything else she'd experienced since coming to the Library. She had so much to learn. Here she was, catapulted unexpectedly into stewardship of the Third Annex. She knew she wasn’t half qualified. But if there was one word to describe Penelope, it was _determined_. She was determined to be the best Librarian she could be; determined to make the squirrels, the owls, and Alexander proud; and determined to prove to the other Librarians and that stuck-up, interfering snob of a Circulation Manager that she could be as good as any of them, which right now meant winning the annual Librarians’ Cup by discovering the finest, rarest, most beautiful book of the year. The thought of walking into the great banquet with such a treasure under her arm thrilled her. She especially wanted to see the prune-faced CM’s face when she waved the golden trophy under the awful woman’s nose.
Alexander was talking excitedly with the squirrel. Uh oh. Whenever those two started planning, it was a sign that problems were on the way. Well, she didn’t have time to worry about them. She returned to the notion she’d been resisting all day, and, finally, she decided.
“I’m going to the troll market.”
That stopped Alexander cold. “Hey, Pen. That’s a really bad idea. Remember the last time you bought a book from a troll?”
She remembered. But how was she supposed to have known the book had been stolen from the Circulation Manager’s private collection? You'd have thought the CM would be grateful to have the book back, even if Penelope had made her trade a lovely, little spell book for it.
“I’ve decided,” said Penelope, with a finality she tried to feel. “I’m going right after I make my rounds.”
“Well, maybe I should still go over to Sixth Annex after shelving school. We need a back-up plan.” As if Alexander needed any instruction in shelving. He’d been found abandoned as a baby right between 612.6 Pregnancy/Childcare and 613 Health and Nutrition. The squirrels raised him to know everything a squirrel needed to know, but it was taking much longer than Penelope had hoped to teach him how to be human.
She waved him out of her office, her mind already on her duties. She was already three minutes late.
Her first visit was to Retrieval, not because she was needed there, but because it delighted her, even if it was impossible to hear over the chatter of hundreds of squirrels as request slips arrived by pneumatic tube from the Circulation Desk, an impatient patron behind each one. Request slips in hand, teams of eager squirrels raced off to the Stacks, returning minutes later with their book baskets full.
If Retrieval was orchestrated chaos, Returns was single-minded order. Retrieval was for the young and competitive. Returns was for the mature, who worked through each night to ensure every volume was back on its appointed shelf. Without Return’s careful attention to detail, Retrieval would bog down in mis-picks and missing books.
Solving and preventing that type of mayhem was Penelope’s job, along with many other duties. Fortunately, it was a quiet day, with only a few tangles to unsnarl, and those quickly resolved.
When Circulation closed, Penelope picked up Racer, and selected a few interesting volumes she was willing to trade. A full kilometer’s walk later, they reached the central hub. Hearing the Circulation Manager berating an unfortunate clerk, they detoured through the maze-like Card Catalog and exited the Library through a side door. They emerged blinking into the sunlit, cobblestone streets of Pagenwick.
Penelope had forgotten how wonderful it was to be outside. Anxiety faded under the warming touch of the sun. In her home city of Ophir—miles and months away—she’d loved to bake in the crystal light off the white buildings and turquoise waters. A wave of home sickness surprised her. She pushed it away, and focused on finding a book worthy of the annual prize.
The Endless Library stood at the nexus of the twelve known worlds, dedicated to collecting and protecting their knowledge. Merchants and scholars could travel between worlds by passing through its doors, trading goods and knowledge. The Library controlled it all, and the currency was books. Want to borrow a book? Lend a book. Want to sell wine from the Second to the Tenth world? Pay your passage with a book. The rarer and more magical your offering, the more valuable.
Like any library, the Eternal Library prized quiet, so they’d founded Pagenwick for the hubbub of stores and commerce. There were upper class book shops for the genteel, and middle class ones for the middling. Penelope knew every book on offer, and none of them would win the Cup. She needed something beyond gold leaf and leather binding. The Troll Market was her best hope.
She heard the shouting a block away.
“You’re an idiot! Tolapek was a far greater illustrator than Parendyke!” At the first shop, a ten-foot tall, green-skinned bookseller threw insults at his competitor across the aisle, who hurled them back.
“Parendyke couldn’t paint his way out of a paper bag, you twit!”
Penelope had heard it before. “They were both wonderful, guys,” she called, as she navigated the crowd.
“Listen to the great Librarian!” the first troll sneered. “You wouldn’t know art from an armpit!”
It was the same at every stall. Trolls insulting each other, trolls insulting their customers. It could be fun, if you didn’t take it seriously.
Penelope tuned it all out, and hunted through the shops. There were books on garden pests and books on pest gardening; books on lost books—those were interesting—and many books on lost love. She had a weakness for romances, not that she’d ever kissed a boy, hadn’t even thought about it, really, except that one time with Alexander when they’d... but that wasn't really anything.
After a while, her energy lagged. She was tired of carrying the books she’d brought to trade, tired of thinking she could outdo the other Librarians. They were so much older and knew so much more. They likely hoarded their finest books, strategizing which to bring out each year to win the Cup.
“Not such a good idea, huh, Racer?” Penelope said to the owl on her shoulder as they arrived at the very last shop in the market. She sighed as she read the sign over the door: The 13th Annecks, Malgrad Gorbag, Chief Librarian. It would be Malgrad, a strange, self-important troll who claimed to be his own branch of the Library. Penelope had had to fine him for overdue books many times already. She braced herself and pushed through the door. The little owl tucked his head under his one wing.
“Penelope! Librarian!” Malgrad, eight feet of malodorous green troll draped in shimmering purple robes that only resembled a Librarian's uniform in the way that a peacock looks like a canary, flung open his arms in welcome, nearly knocking over a teetering tower of books. “Finally!” bellowed the troll in ecstasy. “Finally, a colleague graces my own Thirteenth Annex! I’ve waited so long!” He brushed non-existent tears from his eyes.
The shop was a disaster. Books were piled everywhere, with no hint of order or care. Dust and cobwebs coated every surface with a crust of neglect.
“What are these?” Before she could stop him, Malgrad plucked the bundle of books from Penelope’s arms. He grunted at the first title, laughed at the second, and tsk’d at the last.
“Well,” he said, tucking all three into his robes, “I’ll take these off your hands... if you release me from all of those oh-so-unfair library fines.”
Penelope opened her mouth, discovered she couldn’t find the words, closed it, and opened it again. “Take them off my—?!” she demanded. “Those are mine, and you get to keep them if—and only if—you’ve got something I want to trade for.” She thrust out her hands, palms up.
Malgrad seemed to consider for a moment, then tossed them at her as though he didn’t care one way or the other. “Well,” he said, “If there’s anything in my library that catches your eye, I’ll be in the back.” He twitched aside a curtain behind a wall of piled books. Penelope caught a glimpse of a long, rumpled bed.
“You live here?” she asked.
Malgrad sighed dramatically. “My house, my castle, my prison. You can’t leave a collection like this unattended for a single moment. These minor booksellers I’m surrounded by are so jealous, and...“ He leaned down close, his yellow eyes boring into Penelope’s. “You can never, ever trust a troll.”
“By the way,” he continued, giving her a long, knowing wink, “If you’re looking for something special, something that might impress your colleagues at a certain banquet tomorrow night...” He placed one huge hand on Penelope’s head and turned her to face the rear of the shop. “Look in the glass case.” He disappeared behind the curtain.
Penelope surveyed the haphazard maze of books that overwhelmed the shop, and decided that she’d take a quick look at whatever it was that Malgrad called “special”, then go home. The taste of failure was bitter in the back of her throat.
The glass case was so dusty, she had to rub a hole in the dirt before she could see what was inside. Hmm. Apollonius’s A Night on the Sun. Interesting, but not exciting. A three-inch wide condensed short story by Sanderson. Ridiculous. “See anything you like?” Penelope asked the owl, pointlessly.
Then she saw something that snagged at her memory: on the bottom shelf, deep in black dust, a slim volume no bigger than her spread hand, its cloth cover filigreed in silver with a three-eyed dragon holding a globe in its claws.
**The Book of the First World**?
It might be... it could be...?
Penelope forced herself to breath. Nearly every writer on the First dimension referenced that little book, but all they knew was snippets. No one had seen the full text for hundreds of years.
Penelope slid behind the glass case and drew out the little book. She opened to a page in the middle. Blank. Uncertainty and disappointment warred with hope. She needed to get the book back to the Library, where she could do the kind of careful study a find like this deserved. It might be a forgery. It might be a bad imitation. But here it was, and likely her last chance to win the annual Cup.
“Can I help you?” Malgrad popped through another curtain, right beside her.
Penelope gasped and snapped the book shut, sending up a puff of black powder. She hurriedly put the First World back in its place and pulled out its neighbor.
“This is nice,” she said, holding up the Apollonius.
“Nice!” squealed the shop keeper. “Of course, it’s nice! It’s one-of-a-kind.” He noticed some of the black dust on the book, and pulled out a harsh-smelling rag to carefully wipe it away.
“Not really,” said Penelope. “In fact,” she continued, a plan coming to her, “there’s not much in your shop worth my time at all. What you need is better books.” The troll started to protest angrily, but stopped when Penelope pulled out the three books she’d brought to trade. Greed lit his eyes. They began to bargain.
“We’re really close on this, Malgrad,” Penelope said after some minutes of haggling. “But for this to be worth my time, I need... oh, something else small. What if I picked the smallest, dirtiest book you have. Maybe I could do something with it.” She put the third and last of her books into his hands. He sighed, and hugged it to his huge, sparkly chest.
Heart pounding, Penelope slid the little book back out of the case. She could almost see the trophy in her hands, see the Circulation Manager looking like she was sucking an onion. She wiped black powder off on her coat.
Malgrad blinked. “Wait. That book—“
“Mine,” said Penelope, stuffing it into her bag next to the Appolonius.
Penelope rushed through the stacks of books to the front of the shop. “Thanks, Malgrad!” she called, laughter bubbling. She’d done it! She pushed away any doubts about the book and a niggling curiosity about the black powder. Nothing was going to dampen her spirits.
As Penelope raced off through the market, Malgrad looked after her, laughing to himself. A little bit of revenge was always sweet. Fine him for overdue books, would she? A fellow Librarian! A colleague!
He removed the cloth he’d used to wipe the Apollonius, then carefully lit it on fire off the lamp on his counter.
It was past dinnertime when Penelope finally got back to her office, tired, hungry, but still elated. She hung her coat, tossed the Appollonius on a shelving cart, fed Racer, and, finally, settled herself at the desk to examine her find in proper light. Crossing her fingers and holding her breath, she brought out the little book and--
“You're back!” Alexander bounced into the room, one squirrel clinging to his shoulder and five others capering at his heels. “We did it!” he crowed. “We got one!”
“One what?” laughed Penelope. She didn't know how she’d get through most days without him bringing a little fun into her life. “Never mind. Tell me later. I need to study this book. I think it could be—“
“No, you don’t. You need to come with us!” Alexander grabbed Penelope’s hands and had her dancing out of the office before she could gather her wits.
“Wait. Wait,” she protested. “My book, I can’t just leave it there.”
Alexander tossed an order to the troop of squirrels. “You lot, put the Librarian’s precious book away safely, then come on after.” He marched Penelope away, chattering about book trees and how they’d snuck one out right from under the beaks of the Sixth Annex owls. Penelope laughed and scolded him the whole way.
The squirrels pondered the little volume for a moment. Where was it supposed to go? They conferred, and decided it should join the Apollonius on the cart. Someone would be along soon to take the cart to Returns. _Someone_ there would enter the two books into the Card Catalog, and _someone_ would put them away safely. Satisfied, they chased after the two humans, trailing little black powder paw prints on the hallway floor as they went.
Penelope and Alexander emerged from the main hallway into the many-tiered atrium at the center of the Third Annex. Alex had been dragging her, but now she rushed forward with delight.
“It _is_ a book tree!” Slim-boled, its highest branches only a few feet above Penelope’s one-and-a-half meters, the little tree stood in a beat up kitchen cauldron. It had papery bark the color of parchment and glowing golden leaves. Among them hung tiny book-shaped fruits, which on closer inspection turned out to actually be real books. She tried to open one, but the pages were stuck together.
“They’re not ripe yet, but they will be,” said Alexander, glowing with pride.
Penelope was awestruck. The Library and everything in it continued to amaze her. She rubbed some of the purplish dirt it was planted in between her fingers. “Ink?”
“Of course! What else would you use to water a book tree?”
Penelope found a deep sense of love and gratitude filling her. Love for this magical, little tree, for Alexander, for the Library itself. Then, as always seemed to happen with her, a shadow of concern crossed her mind. “It must need a lot of sunlight.” The high atrium windows let in some light, but there seemed no way that a tree could thrive here.
Incapable of sitting still, Alexander set his hands on the floor and lifted himself upside down. “Just read to it. That's what the owls do.”
She touched a golden leaf, and another thought occurred to her. There was no way the little book fruits would be ripe by tomorrow night for the banquet. Oh, Alex. He’d called this their back-up plan. Well, maybe for next year’s Cup.
No. It would have to be the Book of the First World, or nothing. Pulling her eyes away from the glowing tree, she walked slowly back to her office. She tried to rekindle her excitement over her troll market treasure, but somehow it was gone.
And so was the book. She stood in her office doorway, confused. It wasn’t on her desk where she’d left it. It wasn’t on one of the carts the squirrels used to bring books to her office and return them. That’s right! She remembered now. Alex told the squirrels to put it somewhere safe. Where would a squirrel put a book? With a sinking feeling, she scanned the room for the Apollonius. It was gone, too. Someone must have taken it for shelving. Oh! Nothing was going as she’d planned.
She headed off to Returns to recover the two books. Partway there, something on the floor caught her eye. She stooped and ran a finger through a smear of black powder. Ink? But not the liquid feeding the roots of the book tree. This was dry, as though the ink had been scraped off parchment then been ground to dust. Just like the substance that had sifted out from Book of the First World.
Something didn’t feel right. She looked at the hallway ahead and then behind her. Black powder dusted the floor in both directions, with tracks of squirrel feet and long wavy lines from the wheels of a book cart running through it. No, not right at all.
She scraped enough of the powder together to cup a thimbleful in her hands and went to find Alexander.
“Ink blight. That’s ink blight, Pen.” They were back in her office again. “You can’t let that get into the stacks, or...“ Alex hesitated.
“Or what?” Penelope felt a prick of panic.
“It peels the ink right out of a book. Then the powder gets into another book, and then another. Like when one squirrel gets a cold, they all do.”
“Oh, no,” Penelope whispered, closing her eyes against the horror. Her entire Third Annex, maybe the whole Endless Library, might be at risk.
“When I was little,” Alexander continued, “the Seventh came down with the blight. They lost lots of books before they got it under control.” He took Penelope’s hands and carefully tipped the awful powder onto a blank sheet of parchment from her desk. “Where did you find it?”
“In the hallway. And, oh, Alex!” Penelope moaned. “I think I brought it here from the troll market.” She explained about her wonderful find—which didn't seem so wonderful now—and how she’d just assumed the black powder was dust. “But the first page I checked was blank. Is that from the blight?”
“Probably,” Alexander said. “That darn Malgrad. How could he sell you a book with ink blight?!”
“Maybe he didn’t know.”
“Acorns! I bet he did. One day, he needs to get what he deserves.” Alexander set the blight-covered page onto the desk and folded it on itself. “We have to burn this.”
“Is that how you—?” Penelope started to ask.
But Alex interrupted her. “Where’d you find it, again?”
“In the hallway to Returns.” As she said it, horror sprang to both their faces. “Returns!!”They ran all the way.
Nighttime in Returns was the busy time. With Retrieval closed, the teams of shelving squirrels could catch up with the crush of carts piled with books ready for the stacks. It was orderly and calm, but still deafening from cart wheels squealing, book baskets clattering, and squirrels barking.
Penelope and Alexander threw themselves into the vast room like pebbles tossed into a river, hardly noticed and with little effect. Alex swept up a troop of squirrels to inspect every waiting shelving cart, but they hardly knew what they were looking for. Penelope accosted a supervisor, shouting to be heard. “The cart from my office! It had a little book on it next to a thicker book.” All she got was a polite, blank look.
Little by little, the news spread that something was wrong. Rumors ran through the huge room. Owls from Annex Six were about to invade. A market troll had insulted Their Libriarian and needed to be taught a lesson. The Circulation Manager was on her way to quarantine them all. The careful work of Returns collapsed into mayhem.
The youngest Librarian in history stood in the center of it all, holding back tears. Her fault, all her fault. Her pride. Her wanting to prove herself. She’d tried to show them all, and so she had: shown them how truly unready she was for this wonderful, terrible responsibility. She wanted to give up, to go back and soak in the luminous light she remembered from childhood.
In the distance, Alexander danced across the tops of the book carts. He’d never give up. And he’d never stopped believing in her. Maybe he should have.
A cart toppled over in front of her, sending a heavy book thudding across the toes of her shoes. It flipped open. Before her eyes, the text at the bottom of the page dissolved.
That fast, she remembered herself. This wasn’t about her; it never had been. It was about the books, in all their wonderful, fantastic, stupid, vulgar, beautiful variety. She had to save the books. Which meant she needed help, and she needed it now.
“Alex!” she called, determination strengthening her voice. “Alex!” Somehow, he heard her over the clamor. She shouted what she needed —whom she needed — into his ear, and though he protested, finally he nodded and raced off through the crowd, down the hall, past the tree shining in the atrium, and through the doors of the Third Annex into the greater Library.
Some minutes later, a tall figure in black robes marched into Returns. She shook her head at the chaos, then raised a long, stone-tipped staff and struck the floor three times. Boom! Boom!! BOOM!!! A wave of quiet swept outward from her, freezing squirrels and carts in place. She strode to the center of the room, where Penelope waited, tears glistening but head held high.
“Madame Circulation Manager,” said Penelope, curtsying deeply.
“Librarian,” the CM returned, coldly. “Alexander says you have a... situation.”
Penelope took a deep breath and told her story. When she’d finished, the CM made her tell it again. In the middle of a third telling, Penelope lost her patience. “But what do we do about it!” she demanded.
“Oh that,” said the CM, dismissively. “Burn every book in this room. You can’t know which are infected, and which are not. Fire is the only thing that can stop the blight.”
“No!” Penelope protested, looking wildly around at the hundreds, maybe thousands of books. “We can’t!”
“You must!” the CM hissed. “It’s that or lose the whole collection. As it is,” she added, sweeping the assemblage with her hard eyes, “The Third Annex of the Endless Library is forthwith closed until the contagion is eliminated. No one and nothing gets in; no one and nothing gets out.”
But the banquet! Penelope almost blurted. It was the very next night. She’d have to wait another year to—then she got a grip again. The books. It was about the books. “There has to be another way!” she pleaded.
The CM snorted. “There is. But I doubt you have what you need to make it work.” She paused, but Penelope glared, waiting her out. “Fine,” the CM said at last. “Blight loves beauty. Show it a truly wonderful book, one fine enough to win the Librarians Cup tomorrow night—if you have something that special.” She gave a brief, mocking laugh. “Lure the blight into that book, and then... burn it!” Penelope stared in horror. The CM’s harsh smile softened with something like pity. “That’s the choice, Librarian. Sacrifice your darlings, or lose much, much more.”
The CM marched out of the room as abruptly as she’d arrived. Penelope let out a sigh of relief and frustration.
Every creature in Returns turned to look at Penelope. She didn't have a book to win the Cup, no less something beautiful enough to lure out the blight. Penelope felt very, very young. But she was the Librarian, and it was her decision.
“You heard the CM,” she said to the gathered squirrels. If they were under quarantine, they couldn’t take the bad books into town to burn. “Take all this to the atrium. We’ll open all the windows and burn it there.”
Penelope helped to pile the books onto carts, careful not to get any of the black powder on her hands, while Alex went ahead to prepare the atrium. There were tables and chairs to move, curtains to hang to guide smoke out the windows and keep it out of the corridors, and water buckets to gather to put out any sparks. When she felt confident that the squirrels knew what they were doing in Returns, she followed him.
Alex stood in front of the book tree while squads of squirrels worked around him. “What do we do with this?” he asked Penelope, nodding toward the book tree. She’d nearly forgotten. It healed her heart just to look at its beauty. It was truly special.
Suddenly, Penelope had an idea so awful she shuddered at it. Sacrifice your darlings? Sacrifice something perfect for the good of everything else? What a terrible choice. But terrible choices come with great responsibility. She told Alexander what they had to do.
It took them the rest of that night and all through the next day to prepare the tree and the atrium. As the setting sun gilded the golden leaves of the book tree one last time, she thought she could hear the sounds of the feast, far off in the Library.
She looked around for Alexander, but he was gone. She lit a match.
Alexander let himself out a third floor window in the Stacks, since the CM had locked the Third’s exits. He slid down a drain pipe and slipped into the streets of Pagenwick.
Malgrad. The thought of the bookseller made his blood boil. The troll must have known about the blight. He’d wanted to hurt Penelope, for whatever reason, and he’d succeeded. He needed to be taught a lesson.
The book tree had done what the Circulation Manager said. The blight caught one whiff of its perfume and rose in smoky tendrils from every infected book. They groped for the tree, found it, and wrapped its branches in black. It shivered, leaves falling like rain, and the little fruits withered. Alex couldn’t bring himself to watch as Pen held the match to the papery bark.
Next year, he thought. Next year, he’d help her win the stupid contest. And since she was missing the banquet, he’d bring her back something from town.
But first, he had a visit to make. It was easy to reach the roof of the market; easy to find Malgrad’s shop, where the troll counted books in his little house behind the curtain. Alexander slipped through a window. He removed a little, silver-embossed book from his shirt, where’d he’d been carrying it.
**The Book of the First World**. It still had a touch of the blight. Alex fanned the pages, and watched as black powder spread into the jumbled piles of the troll’s horde. He left the book on the troll’s counter where he’d be sure to see it.
Mess with Penelope? They were a team, she and Alexander; and if there was one thing he’d learned from the squirrels, it was that if you mess with one member of the team, you mess with them all.