Guess who was landed with the job of looking after the foul-mouthed book?
‘Get this horrid thing out of my library!’ said Val, and it was unmistakeably an order, but she looked at me in a desperate, pleading way which, as her friend, I could not ignore.
‘Something must certainly be done about it,’ I agreed, though my mind was blank as to what, exactly, one could do with an unusually lively sixteenth-century tome with all the tender sensibility of a guttersnipe.
‘Base, beetle-headed fool!’ raged the book, hovering still before poor Valerie’s face. ‘Thou hast cracked my spine!’
‘Beetle-headed?’ whispered Jay to me. ‘Now it’s just making them up.’
‘I have not!’ protested Val, and truly, I could hardly think of a more vicious insult to direct at our head librarian. She’d probably die before she would handle an old book so carelessly as to damage it. ‘But I will, if you don’t stop,’ she added, and I blinked, shocked.
‘Cracked,’ repeated the book. ‘Next thou shalt bend thyself to the creasing of my pages! To the turning of my very corners, and the pinching of them, until, full broken, they have not the means of righting themselves!’
‘I suppose “dog-eared” must be a recently coined term,’ reflected Jay, watching the book with the dispassionate, arms-folded stance of an intrigued scholar.
‘I like his version,’ I protested. ‘Verbose, elegant, poetic—’
‘Windy, flowery and over the top.’
I had long suspected that Jay lacked something in the way of soul. Here was all the proof I needed.
‘Jay!’ thundered Valerie, making both of us jump. Admittedly, she did have to raise her voice considerably in order to be heard over the abominable book, which ranted on and on, unabashed. ‘This is your doing, and you will fix it at once!’
‘Mine?’ gasped Jay. ‘How is it my fault?!’
‘You brought it here!’
‘Together with several other works of great historical interest, and far better-behaved,’ I reminded her.
‘Yes,’ said Valerie, and smiled. ‘Thank you for those, Jay.’
‘But get rid of this one!’
Jay looked not only reluctant to saddle himself with such an object (and who could blame him), but also completely at a loss as to what to do with it if he did. It was only about his third or fourth week with the Society, after all, and this was a species of magickal heritage that even the veterans amongst us had never seen or heard of before (most assuredly including yours truly). So I hastily stepped forward and, feeling heroic and martyred, swept up the book.
‘Thank you, Ves,’ said Valerie, instantly mollified.
I only sighed. ‘May I ask how it came to start talking? For it was as silent as any a book should be, all the way here from Farringale.’
‘I opened it.’
‘That’s it. It started shrieking blue murder at once, and I did not even get to read any of it because the vile thing kept slamming itself upon my fingers.’
‘Deserved, craven wench,’ the book informed her.
Valerie cast it a look of intense dislike. ‘Sorry to land you with that, Ves,’ she said. ‘But I can’t have it in the library all day. It’s making far too much noise.’
She was right, of course. We were only in the library’s entrance hall, in fact, where Val’s grand desk stood; the library itself was through a handsome archway a few feet to my left, whereupon it stretched away and away for some distance. Nonetheless, I had no doubt that the book’s ringing tones could be distinctly heard all the way at the bottom of the library, which would be pleasing the Society’s scholars to no end.
‘I don’t suppose you have any suggestions…?’ I ventured, feeling almost as much at a loss as Jay.
Valerie massaged her temples. There were deep shadows under her dark eyes, and I wondered how long she’d been grappling with the book before we’d finally arrived. ‘I don’t know exactly, but there’s no doubt this is one of our weirder acquisitions. A curse, or a haunting? You might try—’
‘Zareen,’ I said. ‘This is right up her alley.’
‘Good luck.’ She gave me a wan smile, which I just about managed to return.
Away went Jay and I.
Ordinarily, Jay is much better at finding his way around than me, and I am forced to follow him about like a trusting little lamb while he marches us off to wherever we’re going. But not at Home. It’s a huge, sprawling old place, and while it was built in the sixteen-hundreds it’s had all kinds of additions, alterations and expansions made in the centuries since. Having spent more than a decade wandering its winding passages, I know it extremely well, but it will take Jay a while yet to get the hang of it.
Thus I was able to sweep out of the library, chin high, and strut confidently away, with Jay trailing meekly along behind me. Felt good. I waited for Jay’s inevitable complaint — on the topic of Zareen, most likely, towards whom he has reportedly developed an instant (and mutual) antipathy — but he was silent.
So was the book.
This surprised me so much that I stopped walking, having travelled only about twenty paces down the betapestried corridor. ‘Hello?’ I said, tentatively.
‘To whom do you speak?’ said the book, after a moment’s pause.
‘Why, to you.’
‘Well met, lady.’
‘How polite. I had rather expected curses.’
‘Thou hast not merited such treatment.’
Jay said, ‘Better not open it.’
I had to agree. Cradling the book carefully, I ventured on, and Jay fell in beside me. We had not far to go. The structure at Home is as chaotic in the organisational sense as in the geographical; we are loosely separated into divisions but there is so much bleedover between the daily duties, challenges and obstacles faced by our various groups that the structure often falls down. Jay and I, for example, are officially part of Acquisitions, but I’m periodically seconded into Research (happy days, those), and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Jay ends up handed off to Zareen’s division more often than he’s going to like.
Technically, Zareen is part of Research, albeit in an unusual capacity. But she consults for Development from time to time, and I bump into her in Research here and there, too. She runs an obscure little division almost single-handedly, clumsily shelved under Research because nobody knows what else to call it. And since it has never been given its own, official name, we’ve collectively dubbed it the Toil and Trouble division.
In other words: when anything particularly weird comes up, we all call in Zareen.
She’s usually holed up not far from the library, in a tiny nook of a room buried deep in the west wing. The door is always shut.
‘Would you mind knocking?’ I said to Jay once we had arrived. ‘I don’t want to risk dropping the book.’
‘Perish the thought.’ Jay shuddered, and knocked smartly upon the door. He then adopted a pose of such studied nonchalance as clearly displayed his discomfort, and I tried my best not to notice.
‘Hang on a minute!’ yelled Zareen. There came some clattering noises from the other side of the door, and we were left to enjoy the chill of the dim, stone-walled corridor (bare of tapestries, paintings or anything else in this part of the House) for half a minute longer.
Then the door swung open, apparently by itself, revealing Zareen seated at a desk tucked into the corner of the room. The place was a mess, as usual; books and notepads were stacked everywhere, along with a host of such peculiar paraphernalia I’d have no idea where to begin in describing it. Case in point, though: a collection of skulls, apparently human, clustered at one end of her desk, except that they were palm-sized, and as usual she had an odd contraption made of woven string, jewel-charms and bones hung upon the wall above her chair. Her curse-catcher, she calls it. I’ve never been able to figure out whether its purpose is merely decorative, or functional — and if the latter, what its function is supposed to be.
The lady herself looked me over with considerable goodwill, and Jay with rather less. She had green streaks in her black hair today, very neat ones, and she sported a matching green jewel in her nose ring.
‘Peridot?’ I enquired.
‘It’s new.’ Zareen grinned and swung around to face me, giving me a full view of the new jewellery.
‘Doesn’t it?’ Zareen turned her amused gaze upon Jay, who bore it rigidly. ‘I’m still working on Ves. What do you think, nostril or septum?’
‘I’ve told you,’ I said hastily. ‘I’ll think about it when you find me a good unicorn stud, and not before.’
‘You can’t wear a unicorn in your nose. Pick something smaller.’
‘I can’t? Then I’m not getting my nose pierced.’
‘Navel maybe,’ murmured Zareen, but she was watching Jay.
‘Do the women of this miserable country commonly engage in bodily mutilation?’
It was the book speaking, of course, but since I had yet to warn Zareen of its capacity to do so, she narrowed her eyes at the only male in the room: Jay.
‘That was not me!’ he protested. ‘Did you see my mouth move?’
‘Just the kind of prissy thing you would say,’ retorted Zareen, ignoring his question.
I headed off what was clearly an impending fight by laying the book in front of Zareen. I’d been clutching it to my chest until then, with my arms wrapped tightly around it, and since she was used to seeing me carting books everywhere (who wasn’t, indeed?) I don’t suppose it had occurred to her to take note of it. But the book got her attention at once, as I’d known it would, for on the front of its dark leather cover there was engraved a motif of a complex star, a flame blossoming at each of its twelve points.
‘Ooh,’ said Zareen, captivated.
‘Don’t open it yet,’ I warned.
She was itching to do so, already reaching for it. ‘What?’
Zareen was not impressed.
‘You’ve brought me a centuries-old book from Farringale,’ she said with emphasis. ‘A book no one’s read since the sixteen-hundreds, containing who knows what esoteric wisdom, and I can’t open it?’
‘Well, you can,’ I allowed. ‘Only get some ear plugs first, maybe.’
‘And watch your fingers,’ put in Jay.
Zareen scowled at him. ‘I’ve handled difficult artefacts before.’
Jay rolled his eyes. ‘By all means, try it.’
Zareen did, though to her credit she looked a little wary, and opened it with a hesitancy not at all characteristic of her.
‘Fool-born haggard! Dost thou dare to venture upon mine innards? Thou wouldst disembowel me of all my goodness, wouldst thou, and with narry a by-your-leave!’ The book slammed shut with a crisp snap of disapproval.
‘Ow,’ said Zareen, shaking the pain out of her fingertips.
Jay, wisely, refrained from airing the I-told-you-so I could see hovering upon his lips. Instead he said, ‘We’re calling him Bill.’
‘As in Shakespeare?’
‘Slightly less elegantly verbose, I’d say?’
‘His full name is Bill the Boor.’
‘Churl,’ said the book.
‘Boor,’ said Jay.
‘So,’ I said brightly. ‘Bit of a problem, no? Val would’ve skinned me alive if I hadn’t taken it away at once, and I’m afraid nobody could think who could possibly fix it but you.’
Alone among those who had come into contact with the wretched book, Zareen looked intrigued — even a little bit excited. ‘Nice,’ she murmured, and turned the book around on her desk, examining all the features of its covers and spine. She ignored its ongoing diatribe with admirable grace.
‘Curse or haunting, do you think?’ I asked, remembering Val’s words.
‘Could be either! Really interesting stuff.’
‘I can’t tell you how glad we are that you think so.’ I had no hesitation in speaking for Jay as well as myself, for I could see the relief on his face.
Zareen was barely listening, already absorbed in the many questions posed by the book. ‘Thanks, Ves,’ she said vaguely. ‘I’ll call you when I’ve figured it out.’
What bliss it was to walk out of that room, and close the door behind us! We walked quickly away, pursued by the muffled and increasingly distant sounds of sixteenth-century cursing.
‘She’s got a strong stomach,’ I offered.
‘Madwoman,’ he replied, though he didn’t sound as negative as I’d expected. Perhaps Zareen had actually won herself a few points with Jay for her willingness to take the thing off our hands.
‘Cup of tea?’ said I.