A score of people wandered the smoldering ruins, treaded carefully over scorched and splintered wood, searched for any words that remained. They wore their brown robes hiked up short over their ankles, their feet shod with sturdy-soled boots instead of sandals. They wore their faces long and solemn.
The apprentice stooped amidst a pile of ashes and picked up a small stack of paper lined with careful script. The edges were dark and curled, irregular like the shoreline of an island.
“The person who did this deserves to…I would make them suffer…I would…”
Her hands shook. She held the paper tight despite the embered edges of the paper forming tiny blisters on her fingers. A thin streak of ash appeared across her cheek as she wiped tears away. She breathed in the acrid fumes from the library ruins, searching for hints of something sweeter in the air.
Master Dienum towered over her nearby, his posture straight and his face empty as he worked his mouth in that way that old men do. He lowered his hood, revealing wisps of gray hair encircling his bald pate. The bags under his eyes failed to move as he squinted down at the apprentice.
“Give a frail, old master a hand now,” he said, holding out an arm.
“Of course,” she said, then hastily blew on the edges of the papers to cool them before placing them down into her satchel. She stood, took his arm, and lead him carefully over the debris. The old man, although always strangely distant as if his mind dwelled in another world, had been a role model for her. He had curated for the sprawling library for longer than her parents had even been alive. Now, this ashen mess was all that was left of his life’s work. She half expected him to go now as well, like a story she had read of an elderly woman passing away just weeks after her husband’s death.
They hobbled along toward the north wing, where people were saying the fire had started. Master Dienum looked out across the landscape, flanked by stone pillars and huge sections of charred wall.
“The coward deserves to die,” the apprentice said through gritted teeth. “Master, what would you do to the wretch who did this?”
“I haven’t thought about it, really,” he said, sighing. “Do you know what first came to my mind when I heard reports of the fire?”
The apprentice considered how the old man could have reacted upon hearing of his life’s work consumed by flames. She shook her head. “Sisyphus, maybe? The futility of our work on this earth?”
“Goodness, no, nothing that philosophical. I thought, ‘Hmm. Now, I can spend more time growing my strawberries.’”
The apprentice opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
“Every spring, I plant a few.” He waved his free hand and gave a helpless laugh. “Every year, the damned things wither and die, barely producing a crop. Just a few tiny fruits.”
“Master, I don’t understand…”
“I still have a book about gardening at my house. One of a few survivors of the fire. It didn’t make a difference though. Still can’t keep a strawberry alive.”
“I am sorry, I don’t follow your metaphor, Master.”
“Bah! No metaphor. Don’t look for meaning where there is none. It’s not a lesson.” He gestured north toward the origin of the fire. His head and arm shook, showing his age and fraying nerves. “I’ve seen a lot of men die bitter and alone. Miserable, pitiable old things. I have too few days left to waste them that way. Too few days to see this place rebuilt.”
They walked in silence. A beam a few dozen feet away shifted and crashed to the ground, interrupting the subdued murmurs and sniffling of the other librarians and apprentices.
The destruction in the north wing was utter and devastating. The apprentice couldn’t imagine a single volume surviving. She breathed in the smoky air, trying again to smell the…
The smell of honey.
Her jaw clenched. Had she smelled it? Or just tricked herself into thinking she had?
She scanned the debris. Ash. Charred wood. No sign of the expensive beeswax candle her mother had given her. She swayed, unsteady. Of course there was nothing left of it. It was a candle. Why had she brought a candle here?
To think that she was capable of such stupidity. Of such destruction…
“Master Dienum, I have to tell you—”
“I have my answer,” he said.
“To your question. If I knew who burnt this place down, what I would do to the person responsible.”
The apprentice braced herself. She wanted to hear his wrath, the controlled, profound righteous judgment of a gentle man, to witness his anger, to hear spoken aloud what she deserved.
His face grew serious.
“I would sentence him to a life of hard labor. Toiling on endlessessly for the rest of his days.”
There it was. Underwhelming, but justice nonetheless.
“I would have him rebuild and take precautions to never let such a tragedy happen again. Have him journey wide and far to acquire new and old accounts. Find new stories, new encyclopaedia, new references and histories. Write his own stories. There is power in the words printed on these pages, power in the sharing of knowledge. Humanity needs this place.”
He looked at her, a fire burning in his ancient eyes.
“Of course, I expect we will never know who caused this. But, if this person were here, that would be my judgement.”
The apprentice rested her quill in the inkwell and read back through her account of her last interaction with the old curator.
“It’s so short,” she whispered to herself. A story measured in hundreds of words, not hundreds of thousands of volumes.
But it was a start.
The beginning of a new story to replace what had been lost.