Friday, July 01, 2011

A Place to Stop

After a morning of searching, I found my way between the cities this afternoon, through a twisty little alley draped with yellow-blooming tassely vine. The buildings on both sides overhung so far that they met in the middle; the only sunlight in the alley came in through the openings at the ends. I left behind the glint and whisper of Thrass Kaffa's constant rain and emerged into the dusty streets of Karkafel. Scraps of paper blew across the cobblestones. I couldn't make out the writing on most of them. I can speak enough of the Golden Desert's various languages to understand most of what I hear, but all I can see in their writing is the calligraphy - graceful, but silent.

Most of the streets in Karkafel lead to the Library sooner or later. Some lead directly to it, while others spiral in gradually, like the strands of a spider's web. This was one of those. As usual, it was full of people carrying piles of books and scrolls. Many were reading as they walked. When they bumped into each other, they would mumble some unintelligible apology and keep walking. This is normal in Karkafel.

I reached the Library eventually. It's the largest building in the city. It was grand even when it was first built, nearly a thousand years ago; it's continued to spread since then, sprawling out into new additions and engulfing every neighboring building. It's almost as bad as the Creemer Museum by now. Even the senior librarians don't know where everything is. I spent several hours just wandering through the shelves, pulling out the occasional book or scroll to see if I could read it. I did find a book of legends, three travel journals, and a guide to raising scorpions; most of the time, though, I didn't even recognize the languages in the books. It didn't matter. There's something wonderful about being surrounded by books, even if you can't read a word of them. All those patient blocks of knowledge, resting in quiet stacks until someone needs them… It's as close as I ever get to truly feeling at home. The Golden Desert has no end of stories about treasure chambers and Caves of Wonders, but none of them can compare to a library.

The silence was so deep, I could almost swim in it. Then Blue showed up.

It's impossible to go to the Library of Karkafel and not meet Blue Fir. He goes everywhere. I met him several years ago, on my first visit to the city; we had a long conversation about the work of Millici Trappilack, queen of the dreamlike novel. The conversation continued over dinner at his house, then over the following week while I worked on a mural for a newly built temple. He talks all the time (when he's not reading), and I'm happy to spend entire conversations listening. We get along splendidly.

This time, I ran into Blue in a dusty back corner of the library, by a shelf of mechanical philosophy treatises. He resembles a kangaroo, with dusty blue fur (the color of the tree for which he's named) and rather amazingly long ears. They perked up when he caught sight of me.

"Nigel!" he said, literally leaping over to me. He continued in a stage whisper.* "Where have you been? I haven't seen you in years! I had almost forgotten what you looked like, though obviously you don't look the same now anyway, I think you had hair the last time I saw you, but I can always tell it's you because you carry about a million bags of stuff and your face squishes up that way when you smile, yes, just like that, even when you look like a lizard. I was just telling a lizard about you last week, actually! He landed on our house on his way to Hram - he was the migrating kind of lizard, with a little suitcase and everything - and he wanted to know about that mural you painted the last time you were here, you know, the one with the saxophone elephants, so I told him it was by a traveling artist and that you made the whole thing up out of your head, except for the bits from that Ozmit legend about the cyclone and the sidewinder."

He kept talking as we left the Library and walked back to his house - I walked, that is, and he bounced. Blue never has prolonged contact with the ground unless he's reading. He spends most of his time in the Library; the rest he spends… finding things. He works for the Museum of Antiquities, and sometimes for the Library as well, visiting ruins and scriptoriums and obscure ancient cities. I think his job has something to do with research or exploration - possibly both. He's tried to explain it to me a few times, but he has enough energy for two and a half people and rarely stays long on a single subject. He used to go on expeditions with a friend named Achelyes, a cat with green fur who was good at listening. (No wonder they got along so well.) They lost track of each other years ago, though - easy enough to do when you travel so much - and he hasn't been able to find her since.

"Did you know that the Library has the oldest written copy of that legend? Chrysalie Chalk brought it back from one of her expeditions to the Hatchery ruins. The secretary birds let her take what she likes, because they're inventing better forms of language and they don't have any use for the old ones anymore, or if they do they can just send a messenger apprentice here to get it, because the apprentice birds get all the hard jobs. Chrysalie said the birds were inventing a language that's impossible to forget. She recited a whole a whole poem to me that she'd only read once, but she doesn't know the language and neither do I, so it didn't really do us much good except that it sounds pretty. I want to learn the language if they ever finish it."

Blue is already verbose in at least fifteen languages, five of them extinct. I suspect that he'd be horrified to meet someone and not be able to talk to them.

"Can you imagine how useful it would be to never forget things? Just last week I was trying to remember the name of that corkscrew thing that plunder snails use to drill into boats, and I couldn't! I had to go look it up! It's called a stellithork, by the way. How could I forget a word like stellithork? It sounds like a creature that delivers baby stars, except that that's a siltrath, at least in Silvani mythology. Hardly anyone even knows about Silvani mythology. I don't know if I would even have heard of it if the Hideous Queen hadn't been mentioned in that book, I think it was called Uglification - you know, one of the last books Lord Halda wrote before he completely lost his mind and started writing his Ode to Soup. The library has that, too, but hardly anyone ever bothers to read it, and if they do, they usually give up around the two hundredth verse, because that's when it stops making any sense at all. I never knew there were so many words that rhyme with "herring" until I read that book."

I'm fairly sure that Blue has read more books than anyone else I know, though I'm not sure when he ever stops talking long enough to read. I suspect that he doesn't sleep. He lives in a semi-ruined castle near the edge of the city with his rather large adopted family; they grew up in an orphanage in Thrass Kaffa, in one of the swampier parts of the city, and made a rather spectacular exit from it about ten years ago. That's all I'm sure of. The rest of the story is different every time they tell it (every time Blue tells it, usually), and no one else in Thrass Kaffa will talk about it.

Blue's sister Muriel, who resembles a long-horned cow, studies fencing and is teaching her scriptoscarab to use a typewriter. Thefoi, another sister, is a mammal with coppery red fur and a mane of scarlet hair that reaches to the floor. She's quite easy to get along with, provided you agree that she's the most beautiful mammal in Hamjamser. This could easily be true. As is so often the case, the only flaw in her beauty is that she's aware of it.

Their avian brother never seems to be home. Whenever anyone asks where he is, the others say he's "out working" and quickly change the subject.

Blue was still talking as we reached the house. "There was a man in town last week who said he had a herring he'd trained to sing, but I'm pretty sure it was really a lungfish, because herrings don't usually last this far into the Desert, and their eyes don't bug out like that when they sing. Have you ever heard a lungfish sing? They sound like frogs, all yawp yarp yeep, but they can certainly carry a tune. My friend Snark had a baritone lungfish he'd trained to sing Moldomer's Left-Hand Concerto no. 6, and it did all the oboe trills and everything. He would plop it down on the table at dinner and conduct it with a spoon, which made people complain if they were still eating, because it sort of got slime all over the place. That's why I have my slug eat on the floor - that, and she doesn't really fit on the table, because she's grown since you were here last, and it's getting hard to pick her up anymore. Are you staying for dinner? We're having figs and a cactus-hen that Jill blew up this morning."

Jill is yet another adopted sister, a tall, thin avian who spends most of her time standing on top of things. Her full name is Jillgog Javamarn Jandramaxil Fiogaja; apparently, her family used to be royalty in Specklemax, hence all the names. She's the last one left. She likes blowing things up,** but contents herself with dropping pumpkins off the roof. She usually checks to make sure there's no one underneath.

Dinner was surprisingly good; Anna (yet another sister, though you might think she was the mother of the family if she didn't look like a griffin) has become something of an expert at salvaging exploded meat. There was a hint of gunpowder in the flavor, but it was well-cooked, and it was already in such small pieces that we didn't have to cut it.

The conversation over dinner consisted of Blue talking, just like the last time I was here. Muriel and I nodded and gave the occasional single-word response when it seemed appropriate. Thefoi only interrupted when people neglected to look at her. Fortunately, she keeps a pair of small horned moles who spend all their time gazing at her adoringly, and one of her current admirers was also there to help. Thefoi has a constant procession of young men (and not-so-young men, and quite often women as well, not to mention a few hermaphrodites and at least one talking plant) who come to gaze upon her beauty. Some are artists; others, less lucky, are in love. Thefoi encourages them all equally, which is to say not at all. If she chose one, the others might stop paying attention. As far as I know, she's not interested in love - she just likes having an audience. She certainly gets one. Some of her admirers have been hanging around for years now.

It was after eleven o'clock when I left the table. I would have loved to stay and listen more, but after walking all morning and afternoon, I was exhausted. Everyone refused to let me go back to the inn I'd been staying at in Thrass Kaffa; instead, Anna showed me to one of the empty rooms upstairs. The castle has a lot of them, full of books and explosives and the creative plumbing that a six-hundred-year-old castle needs if you want it to have running water. This room also has half a sofa. The other half has been rebuilt with onion crates and cushions, and it makes quite a comfortable bed. It was hard to stay awake long enough to write.

Someone came into the castle around midnight; I heard a door shut, then the sound of claws on the floor. Whoever it was had vanished into another room by the time I looked up.

I think I'll be here for a while. There's always plenty of work for an artist in the two cities, and I didn't get to explore nearly enough the last time I was here. Besides, I have friends to stay with.

As I write this, my salamander lies in her lantern, curled around her eggs. Their fire provides light to write by and warmth against the cold Desert night. There's a postbird in the window, patiently waiting to take my letter once I finish writing.

This is likely to be my last letter for some time. Farewell, and safe travels. You'll hear from me again next year.


* Blue has perfected the art of the stage whisper. When you work in a library and are incapable of not talking, it's a necessary survival skill.

** There's a reason the Fiogajas don't rule Specklemax anymore.

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