The child was wretched. He was skin and bones, unwashed and unkempt. When the Chief Librarian tipped the child’s head up to get a better look at him, his dark eyes flashed briefly at her before going dull again. She considered him for a moment, then released his chin, and as she’d expected he did not drop his head but continued to stare back at her. There was intelligence in that gaze, buried somewhere beneath the snarled mass of black hair and the stoic, hallow look that came with prolonged hunger.
“Do you know how to read?” she asked.
Eyes narrowing sullenly, the boy shook his head.
The Chief Librarian smiled as though he had said something amusing, though her eyes flashed their own message. She would only overlook a certain amount of insolence and not a jot more. “Would you like to learn?” she asked.
He took a long time mulling over the question.
So far she had treated him fairly. There had been no blows or kicks, none of the insults or ridicule that he was used to from the shopkeepers and stall owners of the nearby towns. No one had ever offered to teach him much of anything before but he did have some notion of the power of the written word. He had watched the people in cafes looking over hand-sized cards and, from the marks on them, knowing what foods they could ask for. He had seen magic too, performed by witches and hedgewitches with varying levels of skill, and in his mind the two feats were quite similar.
Here, in the great Clefeld Library surrounded by shelves upon shelves of books, the hush of secrets waiting to be read was palpable and enticing. His fingers itched to reach out and touch them. What stopped him from doing so was the knowledge that the yellowed pages would not be able to tell him any of what they held.
Slowly, he said, “Yes. I want to learn.”
Later, he learned that not touching the books was precisely what had saved him.
It took several Librarians to clean the boy. He had never had a hot bath that he could remember and kept trying to escape no matter how often he was reminded that cleanliness was one of the conditions of the Order.
There were many conditions that came with the title Librarian-in-Training, cleanliness was merely the first. After that came manners, poise, and sewing. He was doubtful about the last, but the Teaching Librarian told him that it was a vital skill for repairing damaged bindings. And, of course, he learned to read and write on practice slates, but he was not yet allowed to touch any of the actual books.
It took him two years to master these skills to the Order’s satisfaction and become, to his surprise and disappointment, a Librarian-in-Waiting. He still was not allowed to touch the books, but he was taught how to make his own journals and encouraged to write often to keep the skills fresh. The difference now was that there was no Teaching Librarian dictating practice sentences or looking over his shoulder at his own compositions.
Once he had learned to tan skins for new book covers and made his own instruments for leather tooling, his duties widened to include every imaginable chore. He helped in the kitchen, from butchering and curing meats to carrying the serving dishes to the high table at dinner. He cleaned rooms and laundered linens. He all but gave up on ever being allowed to read the books and tried to content himself with his own writing, for he was meticulously documenting his observations of life at the Library and the surrounding gardens. After all, since the Cataclysm there were not many books left; it seemed only right to him that his contribution to the library would be worthy of joining the rest on the venerable shelves.
Because books were so scarce, they were valuable. The volumes of Clefeld Library were not allowed off the premises but that didn’t mean that, occasionally, someone tried. It was on one of these occasions that he was called to meet with the Chief Librarian for a second time.
She watched him for a long while, her expression composed and thoughtful. Finally she asked, “Are you happy here?”
“Yes,” he replied without hesitation.
“And would you like to stay?”
“You have no regrets?”
Here he paused, then answered, “Only that I’ve not yet been made an official Librarian.”
The Chief Librarian smiled thinly and handed him a paper package that felt heavy in his hands. “Then you’re ready for the final test. Our most sacred rule has been violated, and someone must avenge that wrong. Are willing to take the necessary measures?”
He unwrapped the paper and lifted the knife in one hand. The blade was dark with age but still sharp, the handle worn to a polish by the many different hands that had wielded it in service of the Library.
By sundown the next day, he had tracked the book thief down to a lonely house on the far edge of a nearby town. He waited until the thief slept and crept in, verified that the missing books were accounted for and whole, then slid the blade into the thief’s heart. The rest of it was just like the boy’s usual chores; the skin was carefully cut away and set aside for tanning later, the meat carved from the bones and wrapped up for curing once he returned to the library, and the bones washed in preparation for their new lives as tool handles. Everyone had a part to play in the world. Even the book thief was to become a part of history, a part of something grand and important.
The Librarians of Clefeld had been kind enough to take the boy in and teach him that.