Grabbing hold of the sill, I heaved myself through an upper window in Lord Stavernley’s tower. It was a warm night, and Old Grob, the librarian, had left the shutters open to air the books. He was good at his job, but not as good as I was at mine.
Grob looked up as I emerged between the stacks.
“Hello, Alina.” His smile buried his eyes in wrinkles. “Did the guards let you in?”
“Not exactly.” Whispering a charm, I flung a handful of grave dust in his face. The air sparkled for a moment, and then he slumped across his desk. When he woke he wouldn’t even remember that I had been here. My debt to Mad Sal would be paid, my cover still intact, and I could finally settle down.
I left Grob’s lamp on the table. I knew the layout of the room blindfold, had practised crossing it that way while re-shelving tomes for him. I might not be a writer or engraver, but I was still an artist of sorts, plying my trade within the world of books.
“Who’s that?” One of the portraits of past librarians blinked, staring through the gloom at me. “What are you doing?”
His voice was rising, and if he kept talking the guards would hear. Around him, the other portraits were waking – every librarian in the history of the castle, except for those who had failed their lords. Those ones did not keep their heads, never mind being immortalised on canvas.
I pinned a small square of banshee skin to the frame. The incantation on it was crudely sketched, but good enough for now. The painted face froze. I pinned charms to the others for good measure, and then returned to the shelves.
Creeping to the back of the room, I approached the cage housing Stavernley’s special collection. The lock was simplicity itself to pick, and I knew exactly which tome I needed. It was heavy, the iron binding cold as I carried it back to the desk.
Grob snoring beside me, I slid a long knife from my sleeve, along with a bundle of papers to replace those Mad Sal wanted. If Grob was lucky then the difference might not be spotted until after he was gone, though the odds weren’t good.
Opening the book to the gathering I was after, I laid my knife carefully against the threads binding it in place. The art on the pages was beautiful. Even without the spells recorded there it would have been worth a fortune. No wonder both Sal and Lord Stavernley prized it enough to threaten violence over its possession.
I hesitated, glancing from mild mannered Old Grob to the book and then back again. One of the portraits twitched as my charms started to wear off.
Still I hesitated, looking from Grob to the book and then to that line of portraits, the absent faces as significant as the present ones. I took my knife from the binding, placed it there again, drew it back once more. At last I pressed against the strings until one of them gave way.
The snap of the string was like hearing a tiny heart break. Something inside me snapped in response.
I put away my knife, closed the book and returned it to its cage. As I reached the window I hesitated once more, contemplating the terrible things Sal did to those who failed her.
Never mind. I always left town in the end. This time it would just be a little sooner.
I took a moment to memorise Grob’s wrinkled and genial face, the replacement pages lying beside him – a memento of a close call he would never know he had. Then I slid from the window and out into the night.
* * *
This story was inspired by a recent post by A C Macklin on the challenge of trying to show rather than tell moral dilemmas in stories, and by an article on 19th century book thief and con artist Guglielmo Libri.* Libri’s crimes included stealing sections of priceless and unique books from French archives, which he added to his collection or sold for vast sums.
If you liked this story then you might also enjoy By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy stories, which is only $2.99 on Amazon. But don’t even think about cutting pages out of it – it’s an ebook, you’ll ruin your Kindle.
* Anthony Hobson (2004), ‘Guglielmo Libri’, in Against the Law: Crime, Sharp Practice and the Control of Print, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote.