Another Fantasy-Faction contest winner, this one from December 2015. The story prompt was "Young Love".
The Library of Alexander
The wizard’s apprentice sighed and took off her mistress’s magical translation glasses, then set down the last of the books she'd pulled from the Eternal Library’s shelves. "It’s not this one either,” she said to the boy sitting across from her. “The title translates to Gardening for Dragons, though it sounds much fiercer in firetongue.” It certainly wasn’t The Nightmare of King Barouk, which was the last book the wizard had sent her to find. She’d already fetched and delivered ten others, but her mistress would not stand for even the smallest failure from her apprentice.
Her companion had a stack in front of him too, and although Alexander couldn’t read any words at all, he knew the Library’s system of location dots on their spines, as he’d proven during their trek through the stacks. He was smart, and not unattractive even though he could have passed for a street beggar, with his patched clothing and ragged hair. The bright intelligence in his eyes fascinated her, not to mention the four squirrels perched on his shoulders.
"I'm sorry, Penelope,” said Alexander, shaking his head, with four grey heads bobbing back and forth in unison. “Books don’t go missing. The squirrels make sure of that. It has to be here, somewhere.”
Alexander and his bushy-tailed companions had found Penelope wandering the Library early that morning with a useless map of the ever-shifting halls, and had adopted her on the spot. She'd never have found the other books without them. Now, after discovering the last was missing from its proper location, they’d spent hours inspecting book spines and covers in case it had been mis-shelved.
“Will your mistress be angry with you?”
"Oh, no," she lied. Oh, yes. We did not, the wizard would say, travel four months by sea, suffer camel rides, and hire mule trains to reach the Library just for you to indulge your incompetence. When Alexander, who seemed to know everything about the Library, had promised to help her, she’d thought her problems solved. In return, she’d promised to teach him to read at least one of the millions of books that surrounded him every day.
“Alright,” she said. “Let’s put all these away.” She rose and inspected her dress for dust and wrinkles. “Why don’t you –“
But the boy and his squirrels were already in action. Alexander placed a book into a wire device strapped onto the back of one of the squirrels and called out a location in the chittering squirrel tongue. The squirrel leapt up the shelves, ran to the right spot, and triggered a spring that popped the book out of its basket and exactly into place. A second squirrel was ascending by the time the first returned for more orders. Penelope smiled in appreciation at the efficient little team, and when they’d finished, she applauded. It startled Alexander, who looked at her hands in confusion.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I’m clapping. It’s a way of saying thank you.”
“Oh,” he said. “You’re welcome.” He spoke to the squirrels, the four answered back, then disappeared down the hall.
“Where are they going?” she asked.
“Well,” said Alexander, a bit sheepishly, “We made them late for school.”
“School?” laughed Penelope.
“Of course,” said Alexander. “Shelving school. Soon, they’ll be Senior Shelvers.”
Penelope took a long look at the shelves around them – so many books, one after the other after the other. But… how odd.
“Alexander,” she said, “is there a gap between those two books over there?” In the middle of one shelf, between a thin blue book and a thick red one, was a book-sized gap. The two looked around them, equally puzzled, then Penelope realized she’d left one book sitting off to the side, a thick tome with carved wooden covers. “I checked this one already. Why isn’t it on the shelf?”
Alexander picked it up and studied the spine before handing it to her. “It doesn’t have any location dots."
"I didn't check," said Penelope. "I just read the words."
The carving on the cover showed twelve doors. Eleven were open, but one was closed. Her training told her this was to represent the eleven known worlds, plus the twelfth, lost world. A metal hasp latched the front and back covers together. She tried to work the mechanism, but it was stuck.
Alexander had stepped closer while she worked. She glanced up and found he was looking at her, not the book. She felt a blush rising. He started to say something, but the book latch popped open and they both looked down.
The first thing Penelope noticed was that the pages were completely blank. She flipped through the leaves, then inserted a finger midway, revealing a cache cut into the pages. Concealed inside was another, smaller volume in dark leather.
“You’ve been hiding,” whispered Penelope. She opened the little book, and yelled in pain as green flame burst from it. The book flew from her hands and the tome banged to the floor. Fire consumed her hands and shot up her arms.
“Penelope!” said Alexander. “Penelope!”
“Oh!” she moaned. “Oh. It hurts.”
Alexander reached for her hands, but she pulled them away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you alright? Let me see.”
Penelope held her hands out and gritted her teeth at the sight of angry welt rising on her brown skin.
“We need to go to Damus,” said Alexander.
“The Great Squirrel. He can help.”
“The Great Squirrel,” she echoed numbly.
Carrying both books, Alexander led Penelope through the maze of hallways at something like a sprint. Soon they emerged into a vast chamber echoing with chattering squirrels, thousands and thousands of them. The noise and smell were like a slap.
"Wait here," said Alexander. He scrambled straight up the brick wall with what looked to her like amazing dexterity, but must have seemed ridiculous to the squirrels, who barked with laughter all around.
He was back in moments, followed slowly by an large squirrel of great dignity. His fur was white as salt, his eyes were clouded with age. "This is Damus, the Great Squirrel,” said Alexander. "You don’t have to bow or anything. None of us do.”
Damus studied Penelope’s hands and summoned another squirrel who listened, then skipped away. The old squirrel extended a hand and Alexander passed him the books. After inspecting them, Damus spoke, and Alexander translated. "Damus says he knows this book. The histories say it was last borrowed over three hundred years ago." Penelope started to speak, but Damus stopped her with a raised paw. The other squirrel returned, bringing a scented ointment which it rubbed onto Penelope’s hands.
Damus and Alexander continued. "It is a very dark book. It was the obsession of a wizard who visited the Library day after day to learn its secrets. He returned to his lands, and within days, the twelfth world was a burning ruin. Squirrels remember. We vowed never to retrieve this book again. We hid it and protected it. I am very sorry you were hurt, young human, but we cannot allow anyone to read this.”
The ointment was easing the burning in Penelope’s hands, and she could think again. “Couldn’t you just have destroyed it?”
Alexander and the squirrel stared at her in shock. “Destroy a book?” Alexander exclaimed.
Damus said a farewell and left them. Alexander turned to Penelope, his normal cheer clouded. “I'm sorry. I promised to help you find all the books.”
"And I promised to teach you to read," she answered.
"That's alright," he said, looking away. “It's not really important. I can read the dots.”
Penelope's thoughts turned back to her mistress. She was already in trouble; what was a little more? She slipped the magical glasses from her skirt and passed them to Alexander. "Keep these for tonight. Find a book, any book. Look at it through the glasses, then with your own eyes. Think about the letters, the characters, the words. I don't know if this will work for learning to read, but it’s worth a try."
As Alexander cradled the lenses, she was already regretting giving them to him. What if her mistress was so angry that she sent her home? She'd never see Alexander again.
Far off, a bell chimed. “The Library is closing," said Alexander. "We need to get you back to the front rooms. Will you come tomorrow?"
Penelope started to give him a hopeful lie, but stopped. "I don't really know," she said. "I hope so."
They walked side by side and were there all too soon. Alexander stopped before the door to the great foyer. He leaned over and surprised her with a light kiss on her lips. He pressed the glasses into her hands, and walked backwards down the corridor. "Come back! You promised to teach me!" he called.
Penelope stared after him, her fingers touching her mouth. How surprising a trip to the library could be!