A Door to Day’s End
There was no concealing what had happened from Geraldine, who dropped her coat the moment she saw me and cast a frantic look around the apartment as if expecting signs of a battle. Agnes insisted on examining my hands. I had already cleaned the grazed palms but recognised the request for what it was, a desire to do something useful while Geraldine and I pulled ourselves together. The terror of the afternoon had ebbed, leaving me exhausted and dull. I told them what I knew in the briefest possible terms.
“The Transcendental Library?” Agnes started, my hands lying forgotten between hers. “You saw it? Christ, Robert, tell me everything, what was it like?”
“He didn’t go inside,” Geraldine exclaimed. She crossed her arms, clutching her elbows. “Who owns this library, what would they want with Robert? Is it the Gentry, have they found him? What should we do?”
“No one owns it,” Agnes said, sounding a little scandalised. I had never heard her sound scandalised by anything before. “At least not that I’ve ever heard. It’s the sort of story you don’t know whether to believe or not, someone’s cousin’s neighbour who once set foot in the History section…And it invited you, Robert, that’s incredible, where was it again?”
She insisted on going to look. Which meant we had to look too, because we did not trust this Library with her and letting her out of our sight was out of the question. It was hard to remember the way without the flowers to guide me, but I recognised the alcove when we reached it and the door was not there any more. None of us had really expected it to be. I gave a small sigh of relief. Agnes gave one of disappointment.
“Oh!” she said a moment later, stooping to retrieve a paper petal. Holding it close to her eye, she read aloud, “Your face, my thane, is a book where men may read strange matters. Is that Shakespeare?”
“Macbeth,” I said distrustfully. “Why is the flower quoting Macbeth?”
“Are there more?” Agnes asked. Despite her hopeful searching, there were not. We walked home in the long dusk, Geraldine looping her arm through mine, less out of tiredness than silent worry. We could not speak our fears any more because if we did, I didn’t think we would ever stop. They would drown us, if we let them.
* * *
The Library did not take no for an answer.
I didn’t tell Agnes when I opened the balcony doors the next morning and paper petals blew across the floor, just gathered them quickly into my pockets before she came to breakfast. In the afternoon I looked out the window and saw them trailing down the street like beckoning fingers. Fortunately, it rained. They fell apart in the wet, melting to nothing on the pavement.
The day after that I did not venture so much as a look outside, occupying myself with cleaning every available surface in the flat and repainting all the kitchen cupboards a slightly alarming shade of orange. When a pattering came against the windows I assumed it was raining again and glanced that way, only to watch in horror as white petals blew against the glass.
Fortunately Agnes and Geraldine did not come home until late, when it was too dark to see, and I had the floral debris all swept away before they woke in the morning.
This attempt was followed by a lull that I didn’t take for defeat in the least. It broke after several days of waiting with a knock at the door that I didn’t answer; when I opened it hours later, a bouquet sat outside with a beautifully written note in such large letters I could not avoid seeing what it said.
Will you just give the bloody things a chance? They will give me no peace.
It was so close to what I was thinking that I picked up the flowers despite myself. I dared not bring them into the flat, in case whatever forces had sent them could take that for an invitation, so I climbed the foyer tree and read through them for clues as to the sender’s intent. The writing on the petals was so small and cramped I had to squint for some time to interpret it.
Why would a garden, or a library, or a mythical institution that was some improbable combination of two, hound me with obscure poetry?
More importantly, how long before Agnes realised what was happening? She would not make me act upon the invitation, but her enthusiasm seemed such that she would take it up herself. If anything hurt her I would feel responsible. Agnes had been so good to us.
“Are you being courted?”
The winged child was back, wearing an inquisitive look and a yellow smock embroidered with animals I didn’t know. She reached out to the bouquet on my knees and plucked a petal. “Mama says that’s what suitors do,” she informed me. “Give you flowers.”
“I don’t want to be courted.”
“Oh,” she said, with a perplexed frown. “I can ask Mama – “
“You needn’t,” I sighed. Her mother’s advice would not be meant for a human, let alone one in hiding from the Gentry. The child stole another petal and popped it in her mouth. “Should you eat that?”
“It smells nice,” she told me.
“It might disagree with you.”
She just wrinkled her nose and ate the other petal. I prudently moved the bouquet to my other hand before she could snatch any more. We sat in silence for some time after that, me staring at the doors and wondering what to do, her staring speculatively at my flowers. Flowers I did not want. Perhaps I should let her have them.
“They must like you,” she announced at last. “The paper tastes like promises.”
I looked at her. “Promises?”
“Sometimes Aunty catches paper birds for supper. As a treat,” the little girl whispered confidingly. “They taste like secrets.”
She seemed to know what she was talking about. I gave her the bouquet to take to her mother and aunt and whoever the third woman was, providing she did not eat it all herself first, and went home to prepare supper. Agnes was very tired that evening, going to bed early, which gave me the chance to explain about the bouquet to Geraldine.
“Our door?” she hissed. “They know where you live!”
“Should I ask the upstairs neighbours what it means?”
“You know what it means, Agnes said, it’s this Library trying to catch you. You had better ignore it. Who knows what it wants? It knows too many things already. Where you live. It quoted your favourite playwright.”
“Everyone likes Shakespeare.”
“I don’t.” Geraldine squeezed my hands. “Ask upstairs if you must, but be careful. Don’t accept anything unless you know what they want in return – “
I squeezed back. “I won’t.” It was as if we thought repeating the same strictures to each other would make them protect us better.
As it happened, I did not go upstairs. One of the winged women stopped me in the foyer the next day as I was carrying out a basket of sugared petals for Geraldine. I had not spoken to these neighbours before; that was why I liked them. The woman covered her hair with pretty patterned cloth and had swirling signs painted in blue on the backs of her hands. She paused at the sight of me, bowed her head briefly, unsmiling.
“Your gift was generous,” she said, “but we cannot accept it.”
I was stricken. “Were they really poisonous? The little girl said they weren’t – “
The woman regarded me skeptically. “They are not poisonous. Only more valuable than I am willing to take from someone I do not know. I apologise for the child, she does not understand these things yet. Whatever she took I shall repay.”
“I don’t want the flowers,” I assured her. “I don’t need repayment.”
Her gaze turned incredulous, almost angry. “You cannot mean that.”
Agnes would be angry with me, too. I had had an idea the flowers would be valuable in bartering, but to treat them like that was surely to accept them? And then I would owe a debt to this Library. Giving the flowers away felt a different thing.
“Burn them if you don’t want them,” I told her. “Please, don’t give them back. I only want to be left alone.”
“You want them to go away?” she asked, appalled.
“Yes,” I said fervently. “Do you know how to make that happen?”
She simply shook her head, as if too shocked to speak. I thanked her for her time and went outside with the basket. The Chamomile Heart was about half an hour’s walk away at a brisk pace, a well-known route, and I kept my eyes fixed ahead so as not to notice if paper flowers bloomed in the gutters or in other people’s window-boxes. When I reached the tea shop it was in the middle of the mid-morning flurry, Geraldine whirling between tables with a tray of cups and Agnes busy at the counter, so I slipped into the back room to deposit the basket. I did not like the shop when it was this busy but it was reassuringly familiar just the same, a grounding point. Even the strangeness of the customers seemed muted here, less alarming than on the street outside. Taking a deep breath, I unpacked the basket and slipped out the back door.
My feet crunched into a layer of paper.
“Dear God.” I leaped back onto the step. Staring down, I saw the flowers made recognisable shapes this time; coiling along the alley, they spelled the entirely unexpected word please. I stared for a while, not knowing what to make of that. I wondered if they would go away when I did and doubted it.
With a sigh, I sat on the step and tucked my feet carefully back from the edge. “What is it you want?”
The flowers rustled. I did not see them move but several blinks later a different word was written across the cobblestones. Gardener.
I stared some more. “A…really? I’m not a gardener.”
The rustling was louder this time, almost indignant. Are.
“Who are you?”
“What does that mean?”
“If I ask you to leave me alone, will you?”
A long pause. I considered going back inside, but it could not be easy trying to communicate through flowers, so I waited and at last received a reply.
I was not at all sure whether to believe that, but I nodded and stood up. “Then I will think about it. How shall I let you know my answer?”
* * *
Once upon a time there was a horse and a rider and a rabbit hole, and the man thought he was safe but he wasn’t, he thought he knew where he was but he didn’t, he thought he knew fear – by all that’s holy, he thought he knew fear from those months in Crimea, waking up with the smell of blood and gunpowder even when he was sent home to his father’s estate – but fear was not a feeling, it was a vast strange land where he could be lost, and the man forgot there was anywhere else to go.
Until a stranger spoke my sister’s name and green eyes the colour of my own told me without a word, I know you. Fear was mapped into my bones, but I didn’t live there any more.
* * *
I thought about it.
My instinct was to say no to whatever the Library wanted, but instinct had not served me very well in Candlebridge to date and so I plodded each tangle of reasoning with care. If they thought I would not come willingly, they might send someone to change my mind, with a spell or potion or a threat. I could do very little to stop them if that happened. Just the thought made my skin crawl and my lungs tighten. If I said no and they accepted it, Agnes might continue seeking the Library on her own. Would it take her if it could not have me? Would it try Geraldine? I couldn’t be sure.
If I said yes, it would make Agnes happy. That was some repayment for what she had done, the kindness she had shown. If the flowers meant me no harm, then Geraldine would be happy too, because she would know I was in no danger. The Library, presumably, would have its desired gardener. And I…was curious. They were a wonder, those flowers, their fragrance and texture. I would like very much to understand how they grew. What varieties might there be? If bees gathered their pollen – if, for that matter, they had pollen – would the honey taste like promises?
What was I being promised?
“This is very irregular,” said the winged woman who opened the door at my tentative knock. Over her shoulder I saw an aerie open to the sky, rocky walls veined in shimmering quartz, sandy floor layered with beautiful rugs, not at all in keeping with the plain oblong door frame between us. I saw the little girl sitting on a low settee, playing with some sort of reptile. She looked up and beamed. The reptile hissed.
“Will you tell me what the flowers mean?” I should have asked Agnes how these transactions were done, but that would have required more explanations than I wanted to give. Offering a small, uncertain smile, I concentrated on being inoffensive. “Upon my honour, madam, I want nothing from you but advice, and that only if you have time. Consider the flowers I gave to be fair exchange, if it is owing me that troubles you.”
She considered me gravely. The little girl scrambled up and was sternly pushed back, hushed with a pointed look as her mother or aunt weighed my request.
“Very well,” she decided. “Wait a moment.”
She shut the door. Several minutes later she returned with a large stoppered jar and the little girl eager at her heels. “Stay here, Tamathil,” she said firmly, closing the door again and sitting at the top of the stairs, wings folding into a gossamer shawl across her back. I sat on the stair below hers, watching as she opened the jar and retrieved a petal. “We are agreed on the terms?” she asked, pausing. “I shall translate to the best of my ability, and you relinquish all rights to the flowers currently in my keeping?”
I nodded. She placed the petal in her mouth and closed her eyes. It was akin to watching a connoisseur of wine testing a new variety; my father had friends who savoured his cellar with such concentration. When she opened her eyes, she regarded me intently for a long moment.
“You are promised safe passage,” she said. “I have never tasted anything like it. You have been granted a very great privilege. What is your name?”
“Did I not introduce myself?” Embarrassed, I made an awkward bow from our position on the steps. There was a time I would never have made that kind of mistake; sometimes it felt I was hanging on to any graces at all by my fingernails. “I apologise. I am Robert Musgrave.”
She inclined her head. “My name is Nur al-Huda.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“It has been interesting to make yours.” She rose, taking the jar with her. “Should you wish to do such business again, my family are at your service.”
* * *
So at least I had not made enemies of our upstairs neighbours. And Nur al-Huda had seemed very certain. I walked up and down the floor in Agnes’s flat until I grew sick of the walls and went instead to pace the street outside.
What had the flowers meant, write? What should I write? Dear sir or madam was hardly an appropriate salutation for greenery. Which was not green. How did they grow, it didn’t make sense – would different varieties be as nuanced in their scent as the flowers I knew, did they like different sorts of soil, did they…
I did not know what to do. I had questions. I had doubts. I had a powerful desire to lock myself indoors for a week and not talk to anyone until this roil of uncertainty died away to something I could manage.
But I could not do that. I had been noticed, now, by something stronger than I was. If I did not pay close attention, it might very well devour me.
Something crumpled under my foot and I looked down, crouching to retrieve a broken white flower from between the paving stones. Only the one. I turned it between my fingers like the answers to all mysteries might be written upon its petals but closer inspection showed only a few stage directions from As You Like It. I took a pencil from my pocket and wrote over the beautiful script.
Then I went upstairs to the flat, leaving the flower behind on the path. Agnes was a careful woman; the place where she lived had been well-warded with herbs and charms when we arrived and Geraldine had taken precautions of her own since, with a kitchen drawer of little iron talismans, muslin bags of rowan berries and salt, whatever she could think of to discourage the fey. Nothing we had would work on everyone, of course, or we would never have been able to afford it – the goblins at Fortune Bridge knew full well what any iron was worth in Candlebridge – but I took two of Geraldine’s bags and an iron nail in the hope that they would keep my vision true. Then I pried up the loose floorboard under the kitchen table and retrieved the one thing in this flat that was truly mine. The white armour I had worn as a knight was long gone, but the sword remained.
It was a great risk, to keep it. A greater risk to throw it away, for I had no other weapon. Buckling it onto my belt, I shrugged on an unseasonably heavy coat to hide the scabbard and went to a mirror to make sure it would go unseen.
This thing, this Library, had come for me. So I would face it with what I had.
By the time I came downstairs, paper flowers were blooming in a looping line down the street, like a ball of thread unrolling. They did not lead me to the same place as last time. Down Silver Street they went, where trees of living metal filled the air with chiming music every time the wind blew; sideways through downhill streets of cramped shops and past a pub called the Fool’s Head, where rust-coloured stains formed drips down the door; across two small streams, around a hill covered in gravestones and into a lane behind a bakery. There, the flowers ringed a plain wooden door, grew between the planks of it, carpeted the step before it.
I laid salt in the mouth of the alley, to prevent its shifting about. Holding the nail in my pocket, praying it would be enough to keep my sight clear of glamour, I turned the doorknob.
Doors in Candlebridge – was anything less trustworthy? They appeared where they would, went where they willed. You could never quite tell where a door would really go. But when I saw what lay over the threshold, I did not think of those things. Just for a moment I was the little boy in the wildflower meadow, the one who believed in wonderful things. Long enough to step through. Long enough for the door to swing shut behind me.