Twenty-Nine

“In the white room”

One night when Mac and me were killing Unseelie back-to-back, she had a kind of meltdown and started crying and yelling while she sliced and diced. She said that she was going to send them all straight back to hell because they stole everything from her that mattered. She said she used to know her sister, everything about her, and that was where love was, in the knowing and sharing, but it turned out Alina had a boyfriend she’d never mentioned and a whole other life she knew nothing about, and not only didn’t Alina love her, her entire existence to date had been one great big fat lie. Her parents weren’t her parents, her sister probably wasn’t her sister, nobody was what they seemed, not even her.

In Rowena’s stash of journals chronicling her nasty, evil reign, I found Mac’s sister’s diary. I have over four hundred journals locked away with the Grand Mistresses emblem emblazoned on dark green kidskin leather. She was eighty-eight when she died, though she didn’t look a day over sixty. She had a Fae she’d been nibbling on for decades locked in a vault beneath the abbey. I killed it when I found out about it.

When I discovered Alina’s diary, I tore out pages and got them to Mac on the sly, trying to make up for silencing her sister’s voice and show her she’d meant everything in the world to Alina.

“Why the feck are we here?” I say crossly. I wouldn’t even be thinking about Mac if we weren’t. Christian’s been sifting me around the city, helping me plaster my Dailies on lampposts. I been letting him touch my pinky finger to do it. He keeps trying to put his arms around me. His last sift deposited us catty-corner to Barrons Books & Baubles, with the street between us.

I feel like puking.

I ain’t been here since the night Mac found out the truth about me. The night she baked me a cake and painted my fingernails and saved me from the Gray Woman, only to end up ready to kill me herself a few minutes later.

In the middle of a ruined city, Barrons Books & Baubles stands untouched. I think a silent benediction: May it always. There’s something about this place. As if its mere existence means the world will always have hope. I can’t explain why I feel that way but all the folks I know that have ever visited it, all the other sidhe-seers, feel the same. There’s something different, something extraordinary on this island, in this city, on this street, in this precise spot. It feels almost like once, a very long ago time, something terrible nearly happened here at this longitude and latitude, and somebody put BB&B on the gash to keep the possibility from ever occurring again. As long as the walls stand and the place is manned, we’re okay. I snicker, picturing it looking just like it does right here and now, in prehistoric times. It doesn’t seem so improbable.

To the left and right the cobbled street is swept clean. There’s no riot-detritus outside Barrons’s establishment. No husks left from Shades gorging. No trash. Planters line the cobbled street, and there are small plants trying to grow in them, valiantly fighting the uncommon chill. The entry to the tall, deep brick building is drenched in dark cherry and brass and polished to a high gloss. The place is Old World and urbane as the dude himself, with pillars and wrought-iron latticework and a great big heavy door with fancy sidelights and a transom that I used to bang through, and sometimes I’d go in and out, in and out, just to hear the bell above the door tinkle. It sounded really cool in fast-mo, used to crack me up.

A hand-painted shingle hangs perpendicular to the sidewalk, suspended by an elaborate brass pole bolted into the brick above the door alcove, swaying in a light breeze.

Amber lights glow behind glass panes tinged with a hint of green.

It’s all I can do not to go banging in that door, say, “Dude, what’s up?”

I’m never going to bang in that door again.

“Get us out of here,” I say crossly.

“Can’t. This is where we need to be. And what the bloody hell is up with that?”

I look at him. He’s looking up at the roof of BB&B, where dozens of enormous floodlights shine down into the street. I have to back up a few steps to see past them and see what he’s seeing because I’m so much shorter. I gape. “What the feck are ZEWs doing here?” The entire roof of BB&B is covered with Zombie Eating Wraiths. Hulking anorexic vultures, with creepily hunched bodies and a gaunt grimness that defies description, they huddle in their voluminous black robes, dusted with dirt and cobwebs, unmoving. Carrion-eaters, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, they’re as fixedly still as a deathwatch. I’m not sure I would have even noticed them if Christian hadn’t pointed them out. They’re not chittering and it’s somehow worse that they’re silent. “Why they hanging out on Mac’s roof like that?”

“How the fuck would I know? Sorry, lass. I mean, how would I know?”

“You can say ‘fuck’ around me. Everybody does. And you’d know because you’re Unseelie.”

“Not completely, not yet and not originally. That’s a lot of nots. And just because the rest of the men in this city are pigs doesn’t mean I am. There’s another ‘not’ for you. I’m bloody well made of nots tonight. I’m not the monster being hunted either.”

I give him a look. His eyes are wild. This is a dude on serious edge, teetering, arms pinwheeling. “So, what are we doing here?” I try to bring some focus back to the conversation.

He doesn’t answer me. Just stalks off, straight toward the bookstore, and right when I’m about to freeze-frame it out of there because there’s no way I’m going inside, even if nobody’s home, he turns sharp and heads down the alley between BB&B and the neighboring Dark Zone.

“If you want to stop the Hoar Frost King, you’ll have to come with me, lass. I’m taking you to the Unseelie King’s library. If there are answers to be had, they’ll be found there.”

The Unseelie King’s library! “Holy borrowing bibliophile, let’s book!” I take one last look up at the ZEWs and freeze-frame to catch up. If Mac’s in the bookstore, she won’t notice the blur that just passed her door. I shiver as I chase after him. It’s fecking cold tonight. I more than want to stop the Hoar Frost King. I’ve got to. It’s getting downright frigid in Dublin and I got a terrible feeling it’s going to get a lot worse.

When Christian pushes into the brick wall of the building catty-corner to the rear of BB&B — first left on the Dark Zone side — and disappears, I melt down in a fit of the giggles. I toss a rock at the spot where he vanished. It bounces off the brick and clatters to the cobblestone. I’m feeling twenty shades of Harry Potter’s train station, especially when he pokes his head back out of the wall and says impatiently, “Come on, lass. This is hardly my favorite place to be.”

I approach the wall and study it, trying to decide if I’d be able to find the spot again without knowing exactly where it was. His head disappears. I wouldn’t. I want to chalk a big X on it, in case I need it again, but that would betray its location to everyone else, too, being as “X marks the spot” and all, so I back up partway down the alley and lock the scene down on my mental grid, permanent-like. I got that kind of memory. If I deliberately file something, I can always find it again. Hard part is remembering to deliberately file it. I’m usually so excited by the life I’m living I forget to take pictures.

Then I follow him in. Dude! I step into a brick wall! It’s the freakiest thing I’ve ever felt. Like it’s a sponge and I’m a sponge and for a second there all our sponge parts are one and I don’t just have square pants, everything about me is squarish because I’m part of a wall, then I’m me again and the wall kind of squirts me out on the other side in a completely white room.

White floor, white ceiling, white walls. Inside the white room are ten mirrors. Just like that. Standing there, in thin air. You can circle all the way around them. Nothing is holding them up that I can see. They’re all different sizes and shapes, in different frames. Some of the glass surfaces are dark as pitch and you can’t see a thing. Others swirl with silver fog but the things that move in their cloudy shadows are too fast and strange to define.

“Good,” he says. “They’re where I left them.”

“Where else would they be?”

“They used to hang on the wall. I shuffled them around so if anyone else knew where they went, they’d lose track. Used to be the one we’re taking was fourth from the left. Now it’s second from the right.”

I take one last look around, I don’t know, maybe looking for tired starlings, but there aren’t any, and push into the mirror behind him. I get all spongy again and this time it’s like I pass through a lot of things and just when I’m starting to get a little tense about it, wondering if all my parts are definitely going to come back together, I squirt out into Christian’s back. “Ooof! What are you doing, standing there blocking the mirror?”

“Hush, I thought I heard something.”

I perk up my superhearing. “I don’t hear nothing and I can hear everything.”

“There are things in here,” he says. “You never know what you might find.”

“Bad things?”

“Depends on your definition. And who you are. Being a prince has its advantages.”

I look around. “Where are we?”

“The White Mansion.”

“Duh, like I might never have figured that out,” I say, because we’re in yet another white room. “Is the whole place this boring? Don’t the Fae ever use paint, maybe a little wallpaper?”

He chimes softly.

“Dude, you’re ringing like a bell.”

He stops abruptly and I realize he was laughing. I’m beginning to understand how to interact social-like with an Unseelie prince.

“The White Mansion isn’t boring, lass. Never boring. It’s the grand demesne the Unseelie King built for his concubine. It’s a living, breathing love story, testament to the brightest passion that ever burned between our races. You can follow the scenes through if you’ve time enough and are willing to risk getting lost for a few centuries.”

I heard of the White Mansion from eavesdropping but never paid much attention to the talk. I was always more interested in the Sinsar Dubh. “What do you mean, you can follow the scenes through?”

“Their residue is still here. They loved so intensely that moments of their life have been etched into the very fabric of the mansion. Some say the king designed it that way, so if one day he lost her he could come live with her residue. Some say the mansion was built of memory-tissue and is a living creature, with a great brain and heart hidden somewhere in the house. I’ve no wish to believe it’s true because that would mean the White Mansion can be killed, and she must never die. The record of the greatest love in the history of History would be lost, along with countless artifacts from myriad universes that could never be collected together again. This place is home, love story, and museum all in one.”

“So, where’s the library?”

“You see, lass,” he says tenderly, like I never even just opened my mouth, like I’m looking for a lesson in love, and I ain’t, “the Unseelie King fell in love with a mortal woman. She was his reason for being. His every defining moment occurred because of her, and only in her presence did he know peace. She was his brightest shining star. She made him a better man, and to men who know how fundamentally and deeply they’re flawed, such a woman is irresistible. The idea that she would live less than a single century was more than he could bear, so he resolved to make her Fae like himself that they might live forever together. While he worked in his laboratory, trying to perfect the Song of Making, he needed to keep her safe and alive. He knew it might take him eons to learn to wield the power of creation.”

If he was human I might call that funny glint in Christian’s iridescent eyes speculative as it rests on me. I can’t look too long trying to decide because one short lock with his gaze and my eyes are already leaking blood. Dude’s getting more potent by the minute. And weirder. Like he’s thinking him and me are like the Unseelie King and his concubine, some kind of star-crossed lovers. “And where did you say the library was?”

“He built his beloved a playground of infinite proportions, tucked away in a safe pocket of reality where she could stay for all time, unchanging. Unaging. She would be safe. Nothing and no one could ever hurt her. He would never have to worry that he might lose her.” His voice sinks to a whisper, as if he’s forgotten I’m even here. “They would be together always. Soul mates. He would never be alone. Never get lost in madness, for she would never fail to find him and bring him back.”

“Dude, your story’s fascinating and all, but where’s the library? Time’s wasting. We got the Hoar Frost King to stop.”

“If you stayed here, Dani, my light o’ love, you’d never die. I’d never have to worry about anyone hurting you. Ever.”

“Yeah, and I’d, like, be fourteen forever. I’d kind of like to grow a few more inches,” I say irritably. In more than a few places. He tries to keep me here out of some lunatic thought that I’m his queen, we’ll be staining this place with a whole new residue: it’ll be war in the White Mansion.

“I’d forgotten that.” He sighs. “Come, lass. Shall we go find the library?”

“Dude, thought you’d never ask.”

We exit the white room on white marble floors and enter a sparkling white hallway with floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch to domed ceilings forty feet high. There I see my first residue. Beyond tall windows is a beautiful woman in a snowy garden, silken folds of a bloodred gown spilling over a white marble bench. Face pressed into her hands, she weeps.

“It’s the king’s concubine,” he says.

“I thought you said they were crazy in love. Why is she crying?”

“She wearied of being alone while the king labored at his experiments. She waited hundreds of thousands of years for him, alone except for those few creatures he trusted with her, and his occasional visits.”

Christian tells me the rest of the story while we twist and turn down hallways and corridors. I’m riveted in spite of myself. Who’d have ever thought such fantastical places existed side by side with our world, accessible through hidden portals and mirrors? My life is so fecking interesting I almost can’t stand it!

We pass over lemon marble floors in sunny wings with tall windows that frame brilliant summer days, down rose quartz floors that reflect violet hues of the sunset beyond, across bronze tiles that wind through rooms that have no windows, only stately, enormous, kingly chairs and couches and beds. There are fireplaces here as tall as a small house, with ceilings higher than the spires on cathedrals.

“How big is this place?”

“Some say it goes on forever, that the king created a house that constantly grows itself.”

“How do you find anything?”

“Och, and there’s the rub, lass. It’s difficult. Things move. It doesn’t help that the king created decoys. To better protect his dangerous journals, he seeded multiple libraries within the house. Barrons thinks he found the true repository. He didn’t. I saw the books he pilfered. They came from the king’s Green Study.”

“How do you know where the true library is?”

He hesitates. “Something in it calls to me,” he says finally. “I was trapped for a while in the king’s boudoir, and I could feel the pull of the house beyond it. The residue in his chambers was so strong that reality and illusion blurred for a time. Sometimes I would hear whispers as I fell asleep, and those times I would dream I was the king, walking my halls. I knew where everything was, as if it was I who’d fashioned this house. I even understood how things shifted. A few of those memories remain. Others aren’t so trustworthy. Still, I know that down a crimson hall that will always be found off a bronze corridor is a music room with thousands of instruments that play themselves when you twist a key inside the door, like a giant music box. I know there is a vast arena in the cobalt wing with no gravity, and stars painted all around where sometimes he took his beloved and created universes in the air for her amusement. And I know that because he feared other Fae would find the journals he kept, filled with notes about his experiments, he brought them into the White Mansion. It is said that he locked away the recipe for every Unseelie he ever created, and countless more unborn, that he chiseled a warning above the entry when he left. It is by that inscription you can know it’s the true library.”

“What does it say?”

He stops. “See for yourself, lass.”

I look up, and up some more. We’re standing outside doors that are nearly identical to those in our abbey, at the entrance to the chamber where Cruce is trapped. Alien symbols glow with eerie blue-black fire, chiseled into the stone all around the doors, with much larger symbols carved across the arch.

“I can’t read it. It’s not in English.”

Christian moves from side to side of the archway, pressing various symbols, and after a moment the doors swing open silently. “It says, ‘Read them and weep.’ Come, lass. We’ve a needle in a haystack to find.”

The king’s library is the craziest place I’ve ever seen.

Christian disappears the second we’re in the door. Me, I stand in the doorway, catching flies in my open mouth. The view seems to go on forever, between jagged, zigzagging bookcases, dwindling to a tiny black point that seems miles away. I step inside, fascinated.

Despite how ginormous the doors are, I can spread my arms wide as they go and my fingertips brush the walls of books on both sides. Lined with shelves and cubbyholes and built-in desktops that drop down on invisible hinges and are covered with more books and jars and knickknacks, every horizontal surface perches at skewed, absurd angles that defy physics. The things on those shelves shouldn’t be staying on them. The bookcases lean in, and close over me in places, which means the books should be falling on my head. The walls soar to a ceiling beyond my line of vision. It’s like being at the bottom of a jagged chasm of books, and there are millions of them in all colors, shapes, and sizes.

Here, the passage between the shelves widens to twenty feet, there it narrows barely wide enough for me to turn sideways and force myself through. I munch candy bar after candy bar as I move deeper into the nutty place.

There are bookshelves that branch off, perpendicular to the main passageway with only an inch of space between them. “Nobody could even get a book off some of these!” I say irritably. “How are we supposed to search?”

“A Fae could.” His voice floats down from somewhere above me. I guess he’s sifting up and down the shelves.

I pass through a low-hanging doorway, the top of which is a shelf of upside-down books. They should be dropping on my head as I walk under them. There’s a bronze plaque on the ceiling near them, I suppose saying what that section is, but I can’t read the language. I reach up and pluck one from the shelf. I have to tug, like the book is set in glue or something, and it comes off with a wet pop. The pale green cover is soft and mossy, and the book smells like the woods after a spring rain. I open it and realize it was pointless to bring me here. I can’t read a word. It’s all in some other language and I have no idea what it is. I don’t think even Jo could translate this stuff.

I’m about to close it when the sentence at the top of the page gets up and starts crawling across the page like a centipede. I snicker until it pauses at the edge of the page like its psyching itself up for something then flings itself off the book with a mighty leap and starts wriggling up my arm. I jerk back my hand to shake it off, but it digs in by pointy letters and holds on. I pinch the sentence’s butt with my other hand and tug it from my skin like a leech, smack it back on the page and clamp the book shut. Part of it’s hanging out, and it waves jerkily at me with what appears to be blatant hostility. I stick the book back on the upside-down shelf over my head, pissed-off sentence first, counting on the gluey base to hold it in. All I need is a badly mangled, irate sentence stalking me.

I open the next one I pull down more cautiously. Same thing happens, only this time a whole paragraph leaps off the page the sec I open it and lands on my stomach. I swipe at it but the words are sticky like cobwebs and I only succeed in smearing them around on my shirt. Then they all start to separate and I spend the next few minutes trying to catch them all and put them back in the book, but every time I open it, something else gets out.

“You aren’t messing with the Boora-Boora books, are you, Dani?” Christian says from somewhere far away. “You’re awfully quiet down there.”

“What are the Boora-Boora books?”

“The ones where the words crawl off the pages. They’re named after their home world. Nothing works like it’s supposed to there.” He makes a sound that is suspiciously like a choked laugh. “You have to watch out, they sting like fire ants if they get pissed.”

“Ow! You could have told me that sooner!” No sooner did he say the word “sting” than they started doing it. I swat at them with the book they’re supposed to be in. They scurry under a pile of teetering manuscripts and disappear. I sigh, hoping they weren’t a critical part that someone comes looking for in a few hundred years, and stick the tome back up on its upside-down shelf. “So, not all of the words are self-propelled like that?”

“Some of the books are just books. Bloody few, though.”

“Found anything up there?”

“Not yet.”

“Dude, I can’t read a thing. I’m useless here.”

I wait but there’s no reply. I squint up at the ceiling. He could be anywhere, sifting from shelf to shelf. When he said he was taking me to the Unseelie King’s library, I expected something like the one we got at the abbey. Even if I could read whatever languages the Unseelie King’s books are written in, it would take an eternity to search this place, not to mention a couple of gazillion-foot ladders. It was stupid to come here. I don’t regret it, though, because now I know how to get in the White Mansion. Dude! What a perfect place to hide out for a while if I need to. And there’s so much to explore. Who knows what kinds of useful things I might find in here!

I wander the passage between shelves, periodically calling for Christian. He doesn’t answer. Books are piled in haphazard stacks along the sides and I have to be careful not to bump into them. I get the feeling that if I knock over a stack and half a dozen come open at once, not even my speedy freeze-framing will be able to keep up with all that comes out. I open a few more books along the way, curiosity and me being best buds and all. One puffs out acrid smoke the sec I lift the cover, making me sneeze, and I slam it shut again. Another has fat brown spiders with hairy legs that spring from the pages! I squash the ones that make it out. Yet another has videos instead of words but the images are so alien I can’t make sense of them.

I find a little mini-laboratory amid the stacks, covered with petri-like-dishes and stoppered bottles and jars. “Christian!” I call again as I study the contents visible through thick wavy glass.

I get a reply this time but it’s so far away I can’t make it out.

“Dude, unless you’re finding something, this is a total waste of time! I’d rather be back in Dublin, investigating.”

“Hang on, lass,” comes his far-away reply. “I think I’m onto something.”

One of the stoppered bottles has a dab of crimson at the bottom. I pick it up and turn it in my hand, watching the crimson liquid ripple. Rainbow colors skitter across the surface in kaleidoscopic designs. It’s so beautiful I almost can’t take my eyes off it. I turn the bottle upside down and study the label on the bottom. No clue what the glyphlike symbols mean. As I turn the bottle back upright, I must have nudged the stopper a little because I get a whiff of the scent of its contents and it’s like sticking your nose right up into heaven. It’s night jasmine and fresh-baked bread, homemade fish and chips and salt air, it’s the smell of my mom’s neck, fresh-washed pjs, and sunshine on Dancer’s skin. It’s the scent of all my favorite things rolled up into one. I swear my hair lifts on the breeze of it. I groan and pull out a candy bar, abruptly ravenous.

There’s curiosity and there’s cats.

You’d think I’d learn.

I unplug the bottle while I chew.

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