It was the year of Greatwinter 1696, and for those who worked in the huge and rambling library, Libris, the universe had changed. Highliber Chartos was dead at a hundred and six, after forty one years in charge of the largest library in the known world. His successor was a mere twenty six years of age. That was unusual, because Charltos had been a mere Dragon Orange at the age of twenty six. His successor was female, but that was not at all unusual. Slightly under a third of all highlibers throughout the centuries had been female, even allowing for five women masquerading as men, three men masquerading as women, and Highliber Bertrould who took to wearing women's clothing after an unfortunate incident in the duelling gallery in 1473 GW. True, there was no precedent for a Dragon Silver librarian being appointed Highliber over those with the rank of Dragon Gold, but this did not breach any rules. Indeed, there was only a single objection to the fact that a Dragon Silver was to be promoted to Dragon Black, and would this very day attempt to be enrobed. Zarvora Francelle Cybeline was to be appointed on merit alone.
The two elderly attendants were sweeping the floor of the library's duelling gallery, even though it was quite clean. At either end of the gallery were teams of attendants hanging banners in front of the sandbags that were meant to catch any balls that did not strike those who were duelling. The slabs of bluestone paving extended one hundred yards to either side of a thin strip of white marble inlay that marked the centre. The bluestone had been touched by the blood of many thousands of librarians who had fought there throughout many centuries.
"That new Highliber's to fight again," said Closter as he swept dust that did not exist into a grating pan.
"She's killed five since she was appointed last week," replied Lermai.
"This will be different. It's rapiers. She's a deadly shot, but rapiers is different. You need skill, but also endurance, strength, reflexes and experience."
"Why are so many senior dragons challenging her? She's nice enough, she even gave day's compliments to me yesterday. Like, I'm a Library Attendant, Class Orange, Subdivision 5. Old Charltos never even noticed we existed."
"Old Charltos never noticed anyone existed for his last fifteen years. He had dotard's disease."
Somewhere nearby a handbell was rung, and the Moderator of Librarians appeared. He asked the rangemaster to declare the gallery ready, and Rangemaster Mallin quickly ordered everyone clear of the blackstone flooring. Closter and Lermai stood ready beside a trolley, then there was a fanfare that echoed through the stone gallery for a disconcertingly long time. The judges paraded in, then came the seconds, each carrying a duelling rapier in a scabbard. Next came twelve tiger dragons, constables of the corridors of Libris. They were armed with half-long muskets, the type used when accurate shooting was required indoors.
"That dragon blue leadin' the muskets, she's Vardel Griss," hissed Closter.
"Nice set o' tankards on her," observed Lermai.
"No, no, I mean she's a Tiger Dragon what's been made a dragon blue! They're only ever dragon red. It's this new Highliber, no respect for tradition."
The duellists now appeared, approaching from opposite ends of the long gallery. Cassin was tall, lean, fit and generally athletic, but had a certain edge about him that came of killing people for a living. Zarvora had long, black unbound hair, and was almost as tall as Cassin, but while also fit and lean, there was something different about the beautiful librarian's bearing. She already had the relaxed swagger of a victor. They stopped a yard apart, separated by the thin line of marble in the floor.
"Dragon Red Cassin, champion of Dragon Gold Landarker of Acquisitions, and Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybleine, for yourself, you are here because all attempts at conciliation have failed," declared the moderator, with a foot on either side of the white marble line. "In accordance with the letter of law, I declare you to be under the command of the Rangermaster."
The moderator stepped back, turned, and walked from the duelling chambers. Because he had failed to avert the conflict, he was required to leave for the actual fighting. The rangemaster stepped forward to straddle the white marble line.
"Medicars, check for armour!" he ordered.
Two medicars felt the torsos of the duellists, then declared that neither was wearing any more than cloth.
"Disputants, take your weapons and make ready," he ordered, his voice clear, steady, and devoid of emotion.
The duellists turned to their seconds, who presented them with their rapiers. The Tiger Dragons cocked their muskets and took up positions to cover both of them, ensuring that neither would live long if they attempted to cheat. The five judges now took up their positions.
"Disputants, salute the Overjudge!" the rangemaster ordered, and the two duellists brought the hilts of their rapiers up to their faces, then swept the blades down in the direction of the overjudge, acknowledging his authority. "Disputants, salute the hand that opposes you." The duellists saluted each other. "Make ready your guard."
Closter leaned over to Lermai as they two duellists brought their blades up to the guard position.
"That Cassin, watch his parry, riposte, continuation. He's the devil's own mother with parry, riposte, continuation."
"Highliber in two, five coppers," said Lermai.
"Done," replied Closter.
"Bladework!" barked the rangemaster.
Zarvora immediately stepped into a lunge-feint, Cassin responded with a parry-riposte-continuation ... then Zarvora withdrew her blade from Cassin's eye. Cassin fell dead.
"How'd she do that?" muttered Closter, slipping five coppers to Lermai as they pushed their trolley forward.
"She parried his riposte, but kept her quillons up on deflection and dropped point. Because Cassin was committed to continuation, he stepped into her straight-arm."
"But she didn't have right of way."
"Straight-arm doesn't require right of way."
"It's not traditional."
Closter and Lermai loaded the body onto the trolley, then pushed it back to the wall of the gallery.
"Disputant Dragon Gold Biallenter of Mobile Collections, attend the rangemaster!" called the herald.
Zarvora was calm, composed, and entirely without perspiration as Biallenter entered the duelling gallery. He was wearing green tights and a white shirt of Northmoor silk, with his golden sash of office across his chest. The dismay was clear on his face as a medicar checked him for hidden armour, because Zarvora appeared fresh and alert. He had obviously been counting on Zarvora having had to endure a lengthy bout of bladework if she survived to confront him. The sight of Cassin's body on the trolley did nothing to improve Biallenter's confidence, but to order Closter and Lermai to take it away would have meant loss of face. The duellists took their weapons from their seconds.
"Make clear the gallery!" shouted the rangemaster, and everyone moved well clear of the blackstone pavings.
"Salute the Overjudge."
The duellists both put their left hand over their heart and bowed, their guns pointing to the floor.
"Face the banners, Heels to line."
Zarvora and Baillenter stood back to back at the line of white marble, flintlocks now pointing to the roof.
"There will be a count of twenty paces, and at the word twenty you may turn and fire at will. Turn and fire before the first syllable of the word twenty, and you will be shot by the range constables. At my count, one, two, three ..."
At the word twenty Zarvora turned just her head and extended her arm, then fired as Biallenter was turning his body and sweeping his weapon around. A small, neat hole appeared in his gold sash of office, then blood began gushing out over it as he fell. The rangemaster walked to the body through the dispersing gunpowder smoke, nudged the dragon gold with his foot, then looked to Zarvora.
"Frelle Dragon Silver Cybeline, the order was to turn and fire at the word twenty," he called, his words echoing along the gallery. "You did not turn. You will account for this or face the muskets of the range constables."
"Your order was that the duellists may turn and fire at twenty," replied Zarvora. "I thus had the option of turning or not turning. I chose to turn my head, but not my body."
The rangemaster blinked, then turned to the overjudge and gestured to the live and dead duellists.
"Based on your choice of words, she could pointed the gun back and fired without even turning her head," declared the overjudge.
This was a clear decision, so the matter was now out of the rangemaster's hands.
"Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybeline, you are declared victorious," he announced. "Leave this place with me and report to the moderator."
Zarvora removed Biallenter's gold sash, then left with the rangemaster. Closter and Lermai pushed their trolley forward to collect the second body. A Library Attendant, Class Yellow, Subdivision 2 followed with a bucket and mop.
"Funny, don't you think?" asked Closter.
"Not very funny for Dragon Gold Biallenter," replied Lermai.
"No, no, I mean that now's the only time that a Library Attendant, Class Orange gets to go near a Dragon Gold. I mean if either of us even touched Biallenter's cloak while he was alive, he'd have it away to the laundry."
"Aye, and make us pay the bill. That Highliber, Frelle Zarvora, she's not like that, though."
"True, she'd probably just kill us."
Investiture Hall was nestled in the shadow of the six hundred foot beamflash signal tower that linked Libris with the other mayorates of the Southeast Alliance. The hall had seen more than highlibers and centuries come and go, it had seen the previous millennium on its way as well. Every dragon librarian in Libris had been enrobed with their new colours in the hall. A single, very bored Dragon Gold would suffice for the lowest colours. The entire department's staff, foreign envoys, plus everyone ranking above dragon green would attend a dragon gold was enrobed. The position of Highliber had been conferred on Zarvora a week earlier, by the Councillium of the Mayorates of the Southeast Alliance, meeting a few hundred yards away in the mayoral palace. This was because the Highliber was considered to be a head of state, being in charge of the vast network of libraries and beamflash towers that unified the mayorates of the continent's southeast.
The Peerage of Dragon Golds had taken exception to being subordinate to a Highliber who was of lesser rank than them, and they had voted by a two thirds majority to deny Zarvora's petition for the rank of Dragon Black. What the Peerage was saying, in effect, was that while Zarvora ruled the library system, the Dragon Golds ruled Libris. Zarvora had challenged the vote, and had not accepted conciliation. In Libris, there was only one way to break a deadlock, and that was in the duelling gallery.
The sashs of enrobement for all candidates for promotion were guarded by the dragon gold of their department from what was defined as 'The breaking of day until enrobement.' This was normally a few minutes after dawn, after which the dragon gold would return to bed. In the case of Dragon Black, there was no head of department, so the combined membership of the Peerage of Dragon Golds had to sit guard. It was turning out to be a very long vigil, but they were sitting on high-backed chairs piled deep with cushions. There were nine chairs, but only seven of them were occupied. The remaining dragon golds sat uneasily as they awaited news from the duelling gallery, two holding swords that gleamed with jewels, three with golden flintlock pistols, one with a musket inlaid with freshwater pearlshell, and the seventh with a battleaxe so finely wrought in gold filigree encasing fire opals that nobody would ever have risked damaging it in a fight. Between them, on a dias of blackwood and draped over a violet cushion of Northmoor silk, was the sash of Dragon Black.
The actual sash was of black silk, with an ornate rendering of the letter L with a dragon entwined around it, both picked out in electrum thread. This was the symbol of the dragon that guarded Libris, the dragon whose hoard was knowledge, and the dragon that prized knowledge above all else.
A dragon silver librarian hurried in through a side door, stopped to catch his breath and compose himself, then walked forward to address the Peerage.
"Moderator of Librarians, what news do you have from the chamber?" asked Dragon Gold Cotteram, nervously toying with the striker of her flintlock.
"Frelle Speaker, it has been reported to me that Fras Dragon Gold Biallenter has been shot dead by Highliber Zarvora Cybeline, and Dragon Red Cassin, champion for Dragon Gold Landarker, has keen killed by a rapier thrust to the right eye, also by Highliber Zarvora."
In her agitation, Cotteram released the striker of her flintlock, but the weapon was equipped with a large garnet rather than a flint, so no discharge resulted. She rose slowly and imperiously to her feet.
"How dare you refer to Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybeline by anything other than her exact rank?" the large and imposing woman demanded.
The moderator dropped to one knee at once and bowed deeply, but "My deepest apologies," were all that he managed to say before Zarvora walked up behind him.
"Dragon Gold Landarker, put down your weapon and get out!" barked Zarvora sharply as she strode up to stand beside the moderator.
The dragon gold's champion had been defeated, so he automatically dropped to the rank of dragon silver and left the Peerage. Zarvora faced the remaining dragon golds.
"Moderator, Frelle Cotteram challenged the form of your declaration just now," said Zarvora, staring down her rival. "Do you wish to accept her challenge? I offer my services as your champion, I am very good at killing dragon golds."
The moderator, while not ambitious, was nevertheless a good judge of the political landscape. He got to his feet and symbolically folded his arms. Cotteram looked away as her nerve broke, then she sat down.
"Challenge withdrawn," she muttered with bad grace.
"Splendid, and now let us return to the business at hand," said Zarvora. "Peerage of Dragon Golds, I again challenge your vote to deny me the rank as Dragon Black!"
As long as Zarvora continued challenge the vote, and as long as she continued to kill dragon golds or their champions, the Peerage of Dragon Golds was obliged to either put up a new champion or capitulate. The heads of Reference, Beamflash, and Research were in favour of Zarvora, and of those who had voted against her, only Cataloguing, Accessions, and Diplomacy were still in their seats. Frelle Juvelar of Research raised her flintlock.
"Frelle Speaker, I motion that a vote be taken to revoke the denial of the petition of Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybeline to be made Dragon Black," Juvelar declared.
A vote could be called at any time, but only on the day that the sash of office was first displayed. After that, the enrobement was considered null and void.
"Second?" Cotteram asked, and the head of Beamflash Networking raised his musket.
"This issue is about who is in charge of Libris," warned Zravora, "and I shall keep killing you one by one until it is established that I am in charge."
"You are out of order, Highliber, kindly respect the procedures of the peerage," muttered Cotteram. "In favour?"
Two flintlocks and a musket were raised.
A sword and a flintlock rose.
"I declare an unclear majority, and cast my vote as speaker," said Cotteram, raising her axe. "The motion is deadlocked."
"I challenge the result," said Zarvora, with a tone that suggested boredom.
"Check the rules of procedure, Frelle Highliber, you cannot challenge a deadlock," said Cotteram smugly. "We shall remain until sunset, and you will never be Dragon Black."
To her surprise, Zarvora gave way to neither outrage nor tears.
"I have already checked the rules of procedure, Frelle Speaker, and I know that it is now time to lobby," she announced, then left without bowing.
Cotteram and Aymoran abandoned their vigil in the Hall of Investiture, and walked out into the corridors, where voices echoed so strongly that words were quickly garbled. The imposing woman and intense little man were an odd sight together, but none of the lesser ranks dared to laugh as they hurried past them.
"She is not one of us!" muttered Cotteram, her hands balled into fists. "Were I thirty years younger -"
"She would still kill you in a duel," said Aymoran. "Leave her alone now, we have won."
"Were she one of us I would not oppose her, even though I hate her. Merit be damned! She is a pawn of the mayors."
"With respect, Frelle, Zarvora Cybeline is nobody's pawn. They did not make her Highliber because they think they can control her, they put her in charge of all libraries because they think she can make them great! She has peddled them a dream. Unity, through the library service, an end to the dominance of the Southmoors, more wealth, lower taxes, greater strength and smaller armies."
"It cannot be done."
"She has somehow convinced them."
"Well, that will do her no good. We will deny her Dragon Black, we only have to hold out until sunset. After that, she will rule the library system, but not its greatest library. Her star will fall, and the mayors will notice."
The enrobement of Zarvora as Highliber had been the occasion for great ceremony, and the mayors of eleven mayorates, along with envoys from another two dozen nations and trading cities had gathered in Rochester to participate. In a sense the matter of Dragon Black was a minor dispute of arcane library politics, and not at all important. Now that the prospects of the Dragon Black enrobement ceremony going ahead were not good, a lot of important people found themselves at a loose end. Lunch for the dignitaries was an extended and lavish affair, and was hosted by Zarvora as Highliber. Leaving the dragon gold for Diplomacy to keep the vigil on the Dragon Black colours, the remaining dragon golds attended the lunch as well. The general mood was cheerful, and although Zarvora did not drink, she did give the illusion of becoming a little tipsy.
"Now well may you wonder why we dragon librarians guard Libris so assiduously!" declared Zarvora loudly, standing up and raising a goblet of rainwater.
"Dirty pictures!" shouted the Mayor of Tandara, and everyone roared with laughter.
"Mere dirty pictures, Fras Mayor?" replied Zarvora. "Why the ancients had such extreme refinements of perversion that your wildest dreams could not conjure them. We have their books, you know."
"I can dream with the best of them!" the mayor called back.
"Gentlefolk, let me issue you with a challenge," said Zarvora.
"Don't listen, she's already killed two challengers today!" cried the Mayor of Rutherglen in mock alarm.
"What say this, gentlefolk? I shall take you on a tour of the most interesting chambers in all of Libris, and if you are not shocked to your very core, I shall one wish, be it something within my power, to the mayor who sponsors me."
"I'll sponsor!" shouted the Mayor of Rutherglen.
The rowdy gathering streamed out of the door, led by Zarvora, and with Cotteram and Aymoran following in the rear, wondering what was behind the challenge. They walked along corridors, down stairs, through courtyards, and up yet more stairs, then down into the lower basements of Libris.
"Hah, the little vixen is about to lose more than Dragon Black," laughed Cotteram as Zarvora opened the doors to the Oblivion Chamber. "This is the most boring part of all Libris."
"Indeed, her sponsor is known to savour virgins, and she is reputed to be one," agreed Aymoran. "Who is that scrawny old dragon green who is never far from her side?"
"He's Lewrick, of Research. He tends Mathematics Archives, or somesuch."
Nobody above the rank of dragon yellow normally worked in the Oblivion Chamber. Here there were books that could take in excess of a lifetime to progress from Accessions to Cataloguing. They were not so much the forgotten books, as the unknowable books, for a book that cannot be located does not exist. Minutes of the Felt Hatters Guild meetings, the self-published biography of a paraline warehouse manager, Flatworms of the Tandara Region, and Theological Questions of the Commoners with Approved Responses all resided here, inching their way toward eventual cataloguing and possible use in centuries to come.
Each book had a white accessions band that bore an accessions number on the spine. The numbers were broken into blocks of four numerals, and there were four blocks per number. The code designated whether or not the work was important, its value, the subject, the size, and even whether or not the subject matter was lewd. The content of the Oblivion Chamber was utterly predictable, because only a quota of one shelf the oldest books was removed each year, and a new quota of one shelf added. The shelf with the oldest books was designated with the Venerablian pennant, a small rectangle of tasselled silk on a stick that had outlasted most of the mayorates that had been in existence when it had been fashioned.
"Now does something seems a little odd about the Oblivion Chamber," said Zarvora as they entered.
"I see nothing unusual," whispered Aymoran, and Cotteram nodded.
"I see no dirty pictures!" bawled the Mayor of Tandara, who still had a jar of wine in his hand.
"There is no dust," observed Zarvora. "This place is clean. It has the look of extensive use, even though it is the most neglected collection in all of Libris. Can someone explain that? Frelle Cotteram, can you explain why this place should be dusty?"
"There are a few requests for the books here, one or two per year," said Cotteram, annoyed at being forced to speak by Zarvora. "The Oblivion Chamber is under the domain of Accessions, but Cataloguing has access when books are removed for coding. Reference also has access , for when readers occasionally request books from here."
"Such a thing is very rare," added Aymoran. "The books are not catalogued and of little interest, you see, and access is via a special card catalogue in order of accession number."
"Presumably to discourage use of the Oblivion's stock," commented Zarvora, her voice suddenly sharp. "Readers must go through every card, and there are thirty thousand cards."
"Quite rightly so," said Cotteram. "Readers may use the collection on our terms alone."
"Yet it has been used a lot recently, enough for the dust to irritate someone, had had it cleaned away."
"As Reference," suggested Aymoran.
"I have. Certain characters of dubious repute, identified as Alton the Sly, Slogghern, Rank Derris, and Lurking Horace have all been seen to use it."
That fact had certainly not been known to Aymoran and Cotteram, and the very sound of the names immediately had them alarmed.
"When a book is requested, the card from the Oblivion Chamber catalogue is removed and kept in the usage tray," continued Zarvora. "They stay there a long time, because the shelvers only return the books and their cards every six months. Each place is tagged by a coloured blank card. Anyone looking through the catalogue can see what number is not there from the sequence. Anyone looking through the Oblivion Chamber can see what is not there as well. It's the spaces on the shelves, it gives them away."
"With all respect, Highliber, is this all that we are to see?" asked the Mayor of Rutherglen. "I'm getting anxious about my wish, because I'm certainly not shocked."
"The working of libraries are of interest to librarians and nobody else, just as the workings of my bowels are of interest to myself and nobody else," added the Mayor of Echuca.
"Quite so, and there is now the prospect of my wish, because I am definitely not shocked," added the Mayor of Rutherglen.
"Ah well, do forgive my little obsession with seeking out patterns, and noticing things that are out of place," said Zarvora as she produced a sheet of poorpaper. "Permit me to read a decoded passage from a beamflash transmission: Suddenly he raised my skirts as I gazed out of the window of the tower, with my elbows resting on the sill, saying 'In truth this way you could tell your husband that no man lay with you.' 'Just as well,' said I, 'or there would surely be war.' Thereupon he grasped me firmly by the cheeks of my buttocks and entertained me to great effect. Are we shocked as yet, gentlefolk?"
"Er, may I see that?" managed the chalk-white Mayor of Rutherglen, reaching for the paper as the other mayors and envoys stared wide-eyed and silent.
Zarvora held the paper behind her back
"That is from a beamflash transmission, decoded by means of the codes in this room. Look here, mayors, dragon golds. Twenty Six books are gone from each row. Twenty six books designated by sixteen digits. The first digit of the first book represents a, the second digit of the second book represents b, and so on. At seventeen, the progression goes backwards, and the remaining ten digits are for 0 to 9. How many codes are stored here, do you think? There are about thirty thousand books in the chamber."
"The beamflash codes for all mayors, they are stored here?" gasped the envoy for an absent mayor.
"There are books missing for a number of rows equal to many dozens of codes. The Chamber of Oblivion is storing the beamflash codes and subcodes for a lot of important people."
"In your backlog chamber!" exclaimed Cotteram, suddenly turning on Aymoran.
"In your output chamber!" retorted Aymoran at once.
Zarvora turned to the other mayors and envoys, producing yet more papers from beneath her cloak.
"I could hand out transcripts of recent messages to each and all of your diplomatic missions," she said sympathetically, "but I can see from the expressions on your faces that you would prefer me to burn these papers, then return all books to their spaces, and file their cards back into the Oblivion Chamber's catalogue before less trustworthy eyes than mine continue make use of the codes stored so cleverly in here, for those who know how to find them."
"One of you two is to blame!" shouted the Mayor of Rutherglen, now confronting Aymoran and Cotteram.
"No, no, Reference removes the books!" cried Aymoran.
"Alton the Sly, Slogghern, Rank Derris, Lurking Horace, and many others have been under surveillance for some time," said Zarvora."They have stolen the codes from somewhere, and hidden them here, for all to see but none to read. They can be arrested -"
"No, no, they will tell more lies, and before a magistrate, in open court!" exclaimed the Mayor of Rutherglen at once. "This could be the makings of a war."
"Lots of wars," added the Mayor of Tandara.
"Not if the Tiger Dragons make the arrests, and bring all concerned back to Libris for discrete questioning," said Zarvora. "I can oversee that, once I am Dragon Black."
"But the Peerage can oversee that now!" protested Cotteram.
"Two members of the Peerage share control of the Oblivion Chamber, and have allowed it to be used as a public code exchange," Zarvora pointed out. "I do not."
"Reference, Reference removes the books for the users," said Cotteram.
"Quite so, but Accessions staff leave the books unshelved for six months," said Zarvora. "Whose order allow that?"
Zarvora's enrobement ceremony finally took place in the late afternoon. The staff of Libris had been on alert all day, waiting for the word to rush to the Investiture Hall, and the vigil candles had burned down twice and been replaced. Suddenly a bell began ringing, and was quickly joined by others. Presently every bell in Libris was warning that the staff should hurry to the Investiture Hall, and the corridors became jammed with librarians, attendants and external guests.
The Peerage was seated and armed as the audience streamed into the hall, but there was an important departure from the ceremonies for lower ranking dragon librarians, and even from the investiture of the previous dragon black. the area behind Dragon Gold Cotteram and Dragon Gold Aymoran had been cleared, and before them were two dozen Tiger Dragons, twelve kneeling and twelve standing, all with the fuses of their matchlocks smoking. Beside them stood several of the mayors of the Southeast Alliance, and their expressions were grim and unsympathetic.
The light was streaming through the leadlight windows at a nearly horizontal angle as Zarvora entered. The older members of the staff at first thought that she was one of the Highliber's retainers, for she was dressed in a black cloak over a black tunic, gathered at the waist by a black leather belt with a haematite clasp. In a complete departure from tradition, she wore trousers that vanished into calf-length black boots, and as she walked her boots made no sound at all. This was because she had affixed black sheepskin to the soles of her boots with resin, but nobody else was to know that. To all the onlookers in the hall, Zarvora seemed to have the footfall of a shadow. Some looked to the darkening windows, and wondered if there was some symbolism in the gathering darkness.
The Mayor of Rutherglen drew his sabre and pointed it in the direction of Dragon Gold Cotteram and Dragon Gold Aymoran, who were by now so thoroughly alarmed that they scarcely dared to breathe.
"Form to!" ordered the mayor.
The Tiger Dragons took two steps on the spot, the action in perfect unison and sounding like two gunshots in the echo-prone hall.
The two lines of Tiger Dragons held their weapons forward, and the mayor walked slowly up the double line, then back again, nodding his approval, and even allowing himself a little smile.
Two dozen trigger bars clicked free. Urine began to drip from beneath Aymoran's chair.
The matchlocks came up, and twelve barrels were trained on each of the two Dragon Gold librarians. The mayor raised his sword.
"Dragon Librarians of Libris, we are gathered here today to celebrate the enrobement of Dragon Silver, Highliber Zarvora Francelle Cybelene to the rank of Dragon Black," declared the mayor. "There is, however, the small formality of an endorsement by the Peerage of Dragon Golds of Libris. I now call upon the Peerage to proceed with this vote. Please excuse the presence of the firing squad, there are matters of security and treason currently under investigation, but I am sure that it will all be resolved in the days to come."
The mayor allowed his arm, still holding the sabre high, to tremble slightly. Cotteram's mouth dropped open a fraction. To her surprise and relief, she found herself still alive.
Dragon Gold Lucoste of Diplomacy very, very slowly raised her sword.
"Frelle Speaker, I motion that a vote be taken to revoke the denial of the petition of Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybeline to be made Dragon Black," Lucoste declared.
"Second?" asked Cotteram, and the head of Beamflash Networking raised his musket - although much more slowly than at the previous vote.
"In favour?" Cotteram asked.
Very slowly, four weapons were raised. One of them was the sword of Frelle Lucoste, who had enough experience with diplomacy to know when to change sides. Aymoran did not move.
"Against?" asked Cotteram.
Aymoran still did not move, mainly because he was paralysed with terror. Cotteram did not raise her weapon.
"Four in favour, one abstention," declared Cotteram. "Because there is an unassailable majority, the Speaker's vote is not required. I -"
"Hurry up, my arm is getting tired!" snapped the Mayor of Rutherglen.
"Frelle Speaker, I motion that a vote be taken to enrobe Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybeline to the rank of Dragon Black," declared the Head of the Beamflash network.
"Second?" asked Cotteram, her voice suddenly reduced to a squeak.
Dragon Gold Lucoste raised her sword..
Four weapons were again raised.
Cotteram's eyes darted to Aymoran, but he still sat petrified.
"Four in favour, one abstention, by an unassailable majority I declare Dragon Silver, Highliber Cybelene -"
"You will use the correct form of my name or you will not live to see another dawn!" said Zarvora sharply.
The Mayor of Rutherglen grinned, and allowed his sword to tremble a little.
"Four in favour, one abstention, by an unassailable majority I declare Dragon Silver, Highliber Zarvora Francelle Cybelene to be enrobed to the rank of Dragon Black!" babbled Cotteram.
"Stand weapons, secure guards!" ordered the mayor, and the rattle of two dozen trigger bars locking down whispered through the hall.
The mayor slowly lowered his sword. Cotteram stood up, walked to the dias and took the Dragon Black sash from its cushion. Approaching Zarvora, she spread it wide to drape over the Highliber's neck and right shoulder. With a speed that showed why she had won so many duels, Zarvora snatched it out of her hands.
"Protocol dictates only that I be presented with the sash of office," said Zarvora, who then removed her cloak and draped herself with the sash.
"On behalf of the mayors of the Southeast Alliance, I congratulate you on your enrobement," declared the Mayor or Rutherglen, and Zarvora acknowledged his words with a bow before turning back to the Peerage.
"The position of the late Dragon Gold Biallenter will be filled by Dragon Green Lewrick MacKention!" said Zarvora slowly and clearly. "MacKention, come forward."
Had anyone been sufficiently brave to mutter, they would have muttered, but silence ruled the hall. Lewrick shambled forward, looking bewildered, rather than afraid. Zarvora took a bloody gold sash with a bullet hole through the centre and presented it to Lewrick as he bowed his head.
"Henceforth, the Department of Robes and Protocols is abolished," continued Zarvora. "Dragon Gold MacKention will rule the new Department of Information. This reorganisation of the structure of Libris has the unanimous endorsement of the mayors of the Southeast Alliance. This assembly is at an end, drinks and biscuits will be served in the Reading Hall."
Zarvora did not go to the Reading Hall with the others. Accompanied by Lewrick, Vardel, and the squad of Tiger Dragons, she strode out into the corridors of Libris as attendants ran ahead to light the lamps.
"Frelle Griss, your codeword is Press Gang," said Zarvora softly. "Look to it."
Vardel saluted, then turned off down a corridor with her squad. Zarvora led Lewrick down another corridor, where a group of artisans stood ready along the walls with their tools and handcarts of timber.
"Fras MacKention, your codeword is Calculor," Zarvora now declared.
The majority of those who had witnessed Zarvora's enrobement were rather severely in need of a drink by the end of the ceremony, so that the Investiture Hall was deserted by the time Lewrick returned there with his workers. Two Tiger Dragons stood guard at the open double doors.
"Calculor," said Lewrick, and the Tiger Dragons stood aside as he led the artisans inside. "We are not to be disturbed," he said as he closed the doors behind them.
Lewrick surveyed the ancient hall, but the eye within his mind was already seeing something entirely different to everyone else.
"All the hangings, pictures and plaques are to come down," he ordered, waving his hand above his head in a circle. "Clear the carpets, chairs and benches aside, they will be removed later. I'll chalk the layout for the first benches, and for the controller's desk. Hurry, hurry, we only have a few hours."
High above, Zarvora walked a darkened corridor toward a point of light. The point resolved itself into a small lantern held by a little man of about twenty.
"And who are you?" asked Zarvora as she pressed the latch of the door to the Highliber's office.
"Vorion, Highliber, I am the lackey to the secretary to the Highliber, that is to say I liaised between the former Highliber and his secretary. Well, that is to say I fed the Highliber his gruel and changed the bedpans, you see he had a bed in his office, and -"
"Unlock this door."
"Ah, I'm afraid the secretary holds the keys, and she is at drinks in the Reading Room, and will not return until morning -"
A blast from Zarvora's twin-barrel Morelack shattered the lock. She pushed the door open and began to reload the spent barrel.
"After you, Fras Vorion."
Zarvora motioned him in, then followed. There was a musty smell of mildew and urine about the room, which was furnished with a bed, some small cupboards, and a chair.
"Beautiful ceremony, beautiful, Highliber," babbled Vorion, his voice servile, yet not actually shrill with terror. "You do look so good in black, although I would have recommended black gloves as well. Mid-elbow length, and flared -"
"Fras Vorion, get a slate."
"Oh yes, of course."
Vorion hurried out. Zarvora opened the double leadlight French windows, then picked up a small cupboard carried it out onto the roof. After walking a short distance along some lead guttering, she dropped it over the edge of a wall to smash in the courtyard far below, then returned to the office.
"Highliber?" asked Vorion, who had returned with his slate.
"Take Firstly, send this message to my secretary in the Reading Room. You are dismissed, return all of the Highliber's keys with this man, or meet me in the duelling chamber, ten minutes from now."
Vorion hurried away again. By the time he had returned, Zarvora had flung the entire contents of the office, including the bed, into the courtyard. Zarvora had also shot out the lock to the secretary's door, and carried two comfortable chairs and a low table into the Highliber's office.
"Highliber, I have the keys," Vorion said tentatively, holding them up and jingling them.
"Come in, sit down," said Zarvora, waving him to the unoccupied chair. "First, the position of secretary is abolished, I shall make do with a lackey. Congratulations, you are that lackey. Take over her office."
"Highliber!" gasped Vorion. "I am most -"
"Second, fetch a locksmith, have both locks replaced. Third, fetch cleaners, have this place scrubbed."
"Highliber, it is after dark -"
"Take six Tiger Dragons, fetch the cleaners and locksmiths at gunpoint if needs be."
Vorion hurried away yet again. Zarvora explored the office of the secretary who had denied her access to her own office for the week past. Here she collected coffee, an infuser, and a mug, then she returned to her own office, where she started a fire in the cast iron grate with a pinch of gunpowder and the striker of her flintlock.
"It promises to be a long night," she sighed as she sat waiting for the water in the infuser to boil.
Out in the city, doors were being kicked in, and men and women were being bound, gagged, and concealed in sacks. Tiger Dragons were collecting registers, papers, books of codes, and lists of names. Waggons trundled the streets under guard, and the Constable's Runners had the sense not to challenge them. Great merchant houses stood open, their doors broken down and looters already at work within. Some houses were on fire, while the boom of demi-bombards warned that resistance would be crushed. The ancient cloisters if the University of Rochester were not spared. Struggling, human-sized sacks were carried out of certain colleges of residence, while shadowy figures stood ticking off names on slates. By midnight, neighbourhood brigades were fighting the fires, the Constables Runners were standing guard outside deserted buildings, and distraught relatives were reporting the missing to the magistrates. Amid all of this, the raids continued.
Across in Libris, the first two hundred prisoners to be rounded up stood together wearing only smocks, waiting as Zarvora inspected double rows of benches and abacus frames that were so recently built that there were wood shaving on the floor and the scent of resin was on the air. Thirty armed Tiger Dragon were on hand to keep order, along with a dozen or so Dragon Librarians with swagger sticks.
"Allow me to introduce myself," said Zarvora, walking up the aisle between the two rows of benches. "I am Highliber Zarvora Cybeline, Dragon Black. When next you sleep, you will probably have nightmares about me."
She paused to let these words do their work.
"There are two rows of one hundred seats here. Go to the seat with the same number as is on your smock."
The prisoners did as they were told, and were quickly seated.
"Congratulations, you have just formed a calculor. They have not been in operation for two thousand years, but they are very useful. I call it the Calculor, for there is only one. The unfortunate side is that you will never leave. Comfort yourselves with the fact that you will save the world, however. You will do calculations within this machine, and the two rows will do the same calculations in parallel, thus checking on each other. In time the Calculor will grow to fill this hall, and it will be operated in shifts, so that its work will never cease. Its work is important, so take it seriously. This dragon gold here is the system controller. He is a very important man. See that blood on his gold sash of office? That belongs to the last man who got in my way. Getting in my way is a very bad idea."
Now Zarvora produced a sheet of poorpaper and handed it to Lewrick.
"I require the answer to this problem by sunrise, System Controller," she declared, then strode from the hall.
Returning to her office, Zarvora found the locksmiths hard at work by lamplight, while cleaners scrubbed frantically and Vorion sprayed the walls with rosewater with one hand and waved an incense burner with the other.
"I shall be waiting out on the roof while you finish, Fras Vorion," said Zarvora, stepping through the open windows.
Walking out along the lead guttering, she looked out over the city, which was still dotted with fires, then looked up at the moon, which as near its zenith.
"I know you are there, Greatwinter, but you do not know about me," she said softly to the gleaming disk. "You have left it just a little too late, so you will certainly not destroy my world. With my Calculor, I shall strike you down. I am the Dragon Black of Libris, and my library is more powerful than all of your ancient war machines. I know of you, books have betrayed you."
With that Zarvora looked across to the windows of the Investiture Hall, where light burned brightly behind the windows. Not only have I taken control of the vast and ancient library, I have given it a soul, she thought, then smiled at her joke with herself.
The voice was Lewrick's, and Zarvora turned back to the window of her office.
Lewrick was not well coordinated, and picked his way out onto the moonlit roof with exaggerated care.
"Highliber, I really need you back in the Calculor hall. Issues and questions are arising by the minute, and I have few of the answers. You have the great machine in your head, I cannot work at speed without you to help tune it."
"Very well, Fras Lewrick. Anyway, my office looks like taking longer than anticipated."
"Highliber, a word before we go," said Lewrick, raising his hands a little and waving them. "It's about the codes in the Oblivion Chamber."
"I have gone over the form of beamflash code, and compared them to the accession numbers on the books. They could not possibly have been used to store the beamflash codes. The codes are discontinuous, but the books are in a sequential progression."
"What?" exclaimed Lewrick.
"I managed to break just a single code, then I searched on a few key words in the beamflash codestream, including buttocks. As you can see, I chanced upon a very juicy little line. It described a couple indulging in adultery, a couple sufficiently important that the act could spark a war. That had to be a mayor and a mayor's wife ... a lecherous mayor, who was sure to take any opportunity to travel in search of adventure. A mayor who was sure to come here, to my enrobements as Highliber, and Dragon Black."
"Highliber, you took a terrible chance," said Lewrick, putting a hand to his forehead. "What of all the other mayors? You did not have their codes."
"No, but I bluffed them. My pages had no more than market statistics."
" They might have called your bluff."
"Fras Lewrick, Fras Lewrick," sighed Zarvora. "Were you in the market and some toddler pointed to you and shouted 'Daddy! Daddy!' what would you do?"
"But would you have cause to run?"
"Not unless the toddler were seventeen - no, eighteen years old."
"So, you see? Even the innocent will shrink from accusation."
"I had a room full of mayors, and I was threatening to reveal selected secrets from the codestream of each and every one. All of them were guilty of something, and none knew what I might know. They wanted discretion, and they wanted the evidence destroyed without further examination. I promised to do all that, and to make those responsible disappear."
Lewrick shook his head - then suddenly spread his arms and stood in Zarvora's path as she made to pass him.
"But Highliber, how did you break even one beamflash code?" he asked. "The codes are strong an complex, it should have taken you a hundred years of calculation."
"It did, after a fashion."
"I - you ..." Revelation spread across Lewrick's face. "A hundred men for one year, or even - Frelle Highliber, you already had another calculor?"
"Come, Fras Lewrick, no more silly questions. Our baby is having trouble with its lessons."
Out in the city, merchants and their hired commerce militias stood guard over chests of coins and other valuables, without realising that it was actually their accountants that were being plundered by the Tiger Dragons. In Libris, Frelle Highliber Zarvora and Fras Lewrick walked amid the workings of their newly born child, and listened with satisfaction and pride to the clacking and swishing of beads that was its heartbeat.