The young woman settled at the table with the volume she wanted to read, while the Keeper and I returned to our pocket pets. I tried to distract them with other conversation, so they wouldn’t spend as much time with the new devices. Keep them new for as long as possible.
Then, after my hour was up, I would say my farewells and ascend the steps once more. Sixty seven steps upward to take with my eyes closed. I waited at the top of the stairs, hands against the separation between the passageway and the Library. I was right on time. The Librarian opened the way in only a minute and I stepped out, back to pretending I was searching for another book. I picked one up soon after (I had decided upon it the last time I was here) and meandered my way to the front to check out.
I did not see the Official. My way home went without event.
“I wish she would be sent somewhere else,” I couldn’t help but gripe. “It’s not like others aren’t sent off to do things all the time.”
“It depends on what the person’s role is,” the young woman told me. “The Official watches over this sector. We aren’t to be rid of her unless we begin to be rid of the entire establishment.”
Those words made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one, because I could hear the old man cough from where he was sitting. Our conversation hadn’t been all that quiet. The Keeper said nothing.
Like that, the young woman dropped the subject. She ran her hands over the top of the tome, the hard look in her eyes fading into the same sort of monotonous dread that the rest of us knew all too well.
It was not the first time someone had said something of that nature. It always ended this way, with nothing coming of it. No one here knew what to do, even if we felt as though we had the courage to try. I certainly did not. I’d never had that sort of courage. I had spent it all in keeping the secrets of the magicians around me. I spent it for the Keeper, as it didn’t matter if they had courage or not. They would live here, out of sight, as long as this lasted.
Their father would live, in full sight of everyone but them, as long as this lasted. And there was nothing they could do about that.
The Keeper reluctantly let go of their pocket pets long enough to scramble up one of the ladders and grab a sheaf of papers, bound in ruby leather. They dropped it down into the young woman’s hands. She caught them, though the suddenness of it obviously startled her. “Thank you.”
“I thought you were going to be here sooner.” The Keeper almost sounded accusatory, but they might have been. The Keeper was very adamant that their time not be wasted, whether it was waiting for someone to show up or how they spent their time within the Keeper’s presence. Keeping the Keeper happy was each of our prerogatives.
Even if the Keeper’s prerogative should have been the same toward every person who entered this place, in case of coming across someone with a bad enough temper that they would take a perceived slight out on the entire Library.
The young woman’s lips turned down. “The Official was in the cooking section. I didn’t feel like being obvious about my escape.”
None of us liked talking about the Official, for good reason. The Keeper had never even met the woman. They never would, because the moment they did would mean the end of everything. The end of this library. The end of their father. The end of them.
The sound of the passageway being accessed caused as much heart failure as it did anything else. Even while knowing the sound would be different if it was someone the Librarian hadn’t let in himself, the sound always made me panic. If for some reason someone came in who might let the regime know what lay down here… I wondered if the old man thought that about me – some child who showed up here so often. Did he think I was trustworthy?
Were all of us waiting for the other to break?
I recognized the woman who entered. She had the odd habit of touching her forehead in greeting, even if she didn’t say a word to the person. I watched as she went through the motions toward the old man, myself and the Keeper. I instinctively returned the gesture, as if that was how one was to respond.
The Keeper merely waved her over. “I found the volume you were looking for.”
The young woman joined us.
“How do they play together?” the Keeper demanded of me.
I murmured a quick thanks for the conversation before moving myself closer to the Keeper. We spent half an hour with the devices. This would hopefully keep the Keeper occupied, on and off, for the next several days. Weeks. Months. However long it would be.
“What did you do during school today?” the Keeper went on to ask.
I answered the question with as much detail as I could muster. I wasn’t fond of school, especially now. However, it was unfair to keep it from the Keeper, who obviously craved for that time. We moved away from the table in the centre of the chamber (remembering to take my bag) to the corner of the room where the Keeper kept all of their belongings. Shelving which had been emptied from the books which remained in here to in turn be filled with the trinkets from life before and the life during. As always, I could see each of the gifts I had brought them in the forefront. The newer, the more accessible.
“What did you bring today?”
I should not have jumped. I knew we were not alone. The older man sat where he always sat, in the corner. I could see the magic on him. A part of me found it to be show-offish, but I knew this was the only place left he could do that. Let the magic shimmer over his hands, leaving trails through the air as he moved his fingers. It may have been a display, but it was a display for himself.
“Those little electronic pocket pets,” I told him. “From back before they had more than black pixels. Back before they had all of those online capabilities.”
The old man chuckled. “I remember those! Four of them, too? That couldn’t have been cheap.”
I glowered, but thankfully the Keeper did not seem to be listening to us, focused in on their latest presents.
“I brought you something!”
The Keeper looked at me with hunger, something I never used to see on their face, but now hardly saw them without. I moved over to the large table in the middle of the chamber. The surface was strewn with the tomes of this hidden place, of the tools of their and their father’s trade, shut away here out of sight. Much like the Keeper.
There was some empty space, plenty of it, across the long end which faced the only way in and out to the library. I set my bag down there, pulling out the pocket pets.
The Keeper’s eyes went round. “You know you’re not supposed to bring electronics in here.” Their voice remained rife with desire.
I shot them a smile. “It’s old. It doesn’t have all of those hook ups. The only things it connects to,” I pulled a couple others out of my bag, putting all but one on the table, “are others which press up against these sensors here.” I tapped at the top of the small device. “Your dad gave me the go ahead, I asked to make sure. These ones are yours.”
They leaped upon the devices, examining them with relish. I sat down, keeping explanations to myself. After all, the longer it took them to figure it out, the more they had to do.
“What took you so long?” The Keeper spoke with impatience. I never used to hear that from them, but now it had become more common.
“I had school.”
With those words, I felt freer. Free, trapped within this place. I tried to hide those feelings, because I knew how the Keeper would feel about them. But here, I could say anything and it would be all right.
The Keeper would always be able to say what they wanted, because of this place. The corner of their lips twitched down, then up. They folded their arms in front of their chest. “Oh, right. It’s Monday, isn’t it?”
“Tuesday,” I corrected. “We didn’t have school yesterday.”
“I miss school.”
I wasn’t surprised. I did think it better to change subject.
I followed the Librarian through the shelves. I didn’t watch him when we arrived at the space between two of the tallest bookshelves. I had seen it many times before. I looked at the bookshelves as the opening appeared. I felt relaxed as he gently shoved me through the opening, which disappeared behind me with the rest of the library.
I walked down the stairs, trusting in my familiarity with the space between the steps more than anything else. There were sixty seven steps, all in complete darkness. I had done this often enough I could feel the hum surrounding me.
Warning those below someone was coming.
When vision returned, I was in the chamber. The entrance was behind me, a hole within the walls of bookshelves. It looked like an extension of the library. Once, it had been.
Much like the other common folk, I made sure not to bring any undue attention to myself when I went to enter the Vault. Just another reader, another student, another well-behaved member of society. No one for the Official to notice.
This is part of the reason I stopped writing in my diary. Why I burned everything I had written before. No one could know what I did on my own days off. No one would ever find out what actually happened here. I would not be the one to betray what little we could keep. Even if it means I can’t write about the Keeper anymore, or their father, the Librarian.
Our names are unimportant.