Two strangers find themselves connected by a vast and mysterious library containing many wonders and still more secrets, in this powerfully moving first book in a new series from the international bestselling author of Red Sister and Prince of Thorns.
The boy has lived his whole life trapped within a book-choked chamber older than empires and larger than cities.
The girl has been plucked from the outskirts of civilization to be trained as a librarian, studying the mysteries of the great library at the heart of her kingdom.
They were never supposed to meet. But in the library, they did.
Their stories spiral around each other, across worlds and time. This is a tale of truth and lies and hearts, and the blurring of one into another. A journey on which knowledge erodes certainty and on which, though the pen may be mightier than the sword, blood will be spilled and cities burned.
Release date: May 9, 2023
Print pages: 576
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The Book That Wouldn't Burn
They named Livira after a weed. You couldn't grow much in the Dust but that never stopped hungry people trying. They said livira would grow in places where rocks wouldn't. Which never made sense to Livira because rocks don't grow. Unfortunately, not even goats could eat the stuff and any farmer who watered a crop would find themselves spending most of their time fighting it. Spill a single drop of water in the Dust and, soon enough, strands of livira would come coiling out of the cracked ground for a taste.
Her parents had given her a different name but she hardly remembered it. People called her Livira because, like the weed, you couldn't keep her down.
"Come on then!" Livira picked herself up and wiped the blood from her nose. She raised her fists again. "Come on."
Acmar shook his head, looking embarrassed now that a ring of children had gathered. All of them were dusty but Livira was coated in the stuff, head to foot.
"Come on!" she shouted. She felt woozy and her head rang as if it were the summoning bell and someone kept beating it.
"You're twice her size." Benth broke into the circle and pushed Acmar aside.
"She won't stay down," Acmar complained, rubbing his knuckles.
"It's a draw then." Benth stepped between them, a broad-shouldered boy and handsome despite his broken nose. Seeing Livira's scowl he grabbed her hand and raised it above her head. "Livira wins again."
The others cheered and laughed then broke and ran before the advance of a tall figure, dark against the sun's white glare.
"Livy!" Her aunt's scolding voice. Fingers wrapped her wrist and she was being jerked away towards the black shadow of the family hut.
Aunt Teela shoved a cracked leather bucket at her. "The beans need watering."
"Yessum!" Livira had always loved the well. She spat a bloody mess into the dust then grinned up at her aunt before hurrying off with the bucket. Her aunt shook her head. You could put Livira down but you couldn't keep her there.
Livira's hurrying didn't last long. She slowed as she passed Ella's shack. The old woman collected wind-weed, or rather the kids chased and caught it for her, racing over the hardpan in pursuit of the tough, fibrous balls. The things were almost entirely empty space and Ella's cunning fingers could coax the randomness of their criss-crossed strands into meaning that pleased the eye. Deft twists could render a horse or man suspended in a network of threads within the outer sphere that was itself just a lattice of thicker strands.
Livira watched Ella work. "I wish I could do that."
Ella looked up from her task and held up her current piece on the palm of one wrinkled hand. "For you."
Livira picked it up, a small sphere of wind-weed just five or six inches across.
Immediately Ella took up a replacement and began anew.
Livira studied her unexpected prize. It looked half-finished, the mass of fibres compressed towards the middle seeming like just a clotting of many threads that wove nothing. But as she rotated the ball a shape emerged within it, still vague, like a man approaching through a dust storm, indistinct but definitely there. A young man or maybe a boy. Though if asked how she could tell his age or sex, Livira would have no answer. And it seemed to her that she knew him, or rather that she recognised him.
"I wish I could do that," she said again, cradling the ball in both hands.
"You have other talents, dear." Ella didn't look up from her task. Livira's past efforts with the wind-weed had been comically bad and part of her thanked Ella for not offering false hope that she would get much better.
"Talents?" Livira kicked at the dust. A memory like a steel trap seemed more of a curse than a blessing. A poorer memory, one that ran the dry glare of one day into the next, might stop the time weighing so heavily even on young shoulders. And she was pretty much unbeatable at the game of hollows and stones, but it seemed to make the old men angry rather than pleased. She also understood the odds when the younger men gambled on the game-better than any of them did-but none of them were interested in her advice. "All my skills are useless."
"There are no useless skills, girl. Only talents that have yet to find an application."
"Well . . . Acmar can fart a tune."
Ella looked up at that, lips pursed, dark eyes unreadable. Livira glanced down, noticed the bucket at her own feet, and, thus reminded of her task, opted to skip away.
The well was a yard wide and a hundred yards deep. Livira had asked a thousand times how they ever managed to dig it. She’d scratched holes in the hardpan herself and never got deeper than the width of a hand. The well lay outside the settlement, beyond the bean rows. The scent of water attracts all sorts in the Dust, and rarely the sort you want wandering around your huts at night.
There was a wetness in the air above it, as if the well itself were a great throat. Livira could feel the dampness of its breath on her skin. She liked to lie on her belly with her head over the edge and stare down into the blackness. The children said Orrin had fallen in and that's where he went last month. But the water had stayed clear and sweet. Livira thought that a dust-bear had taken Orrin. The boy had never looked where he was going. And whilst that might lend credence to the idea that he could have walked into the well, there were, Livira said, many more dust-bears waiting just beneath the surface than wells.
Livira cranked the windlass, lowering the attached bucket towards the unseen water. She liked the well because it kept them all alive, but that wasn't the only reason. In her mind it was a connection to another world, out of reach but most definitely there. A world where what they needed most was commonplace, a world of darkness and flow, full of its own secrets, home to wet things that swam in blindness, tasting their way through unknown caverns.
"What you doing?"
Livira jumped, startled out of her daydreaming. She saw it was Katrin in her shapeless, dusty smock, hands crimson from shelling jarra beans. "I'm juggling elephants."
Katrin frowned, considering the statement. Katrin was loyal, kind, but really quite slow sometimes. "You're not ju-"
"It was a joke." Livira rolled her eyes and spun the windlass. "You can see what I'm doing."
"Oh." Katrin's frown deepened. "Why did you fight Acmar?"
Livira kept turning the handle. The rope spooling off the windlass was darker now-the new length that Old Kern had added so that the bucket would be able to reach the water again. The level had been sinking ever since Livira could remember. "He called me a weed."
"But . . . we all call you Livira."
"He called me weed." Livira shook her head. "It's not the same."
That had been part of the reason, the spark that had made her throw the first punch. But the real reason was that he had tried to snatch her scrap from her. That's what Aunt Teela had called it when Livira showed it to her. A scrap of paper. The wind had revealed this treasure to Livira months earlier, pushing aside the dust to expose a corner. A torn triangle, no larger than the palm of her hand and, like an old man's skin, thin, wrinkled, discoloured by age. Dark marks patterned it. Her aunt had shrugged when Livira showed her and had grown inexplicably angry when Livira persisted in asking about the marks, saying at last, "They're just scribbling. Tally marks for counting beans at market."
"But-" Livira had wanted to protest that there were so many different marks, they were too beautiful just to be counting, but Teela had cut her off and had set her to her least favourite chore: cleaning out the cookpot.
Livira shook off the memory. "See what Ella gave me!" She lifted the wind-weed that she had tied to her belt with a cord.
Katrin narrowed her eyes at it. "It looks like what we give Ella in the first place. Did it go wrong?"
"No!" Livira started to rotate the ball, searching for the best angle, but Katrin looked away.
"Did it hurt," Katrin asked, "when Acmar hit you?"
"Yes." Livira scowled and let the ball drop. "Lots." The windlass had run out of rope so she began to wind the bucket back up. After a few turns the reassuring resistance told her that the bucket had filled. Every time she carried out the task a small part of her held its breath, thinking that one day there would be no resistance. One day the water would simply not be there. An even smaller part of her hissed its disappointment when the turn of the handle revealed that new weight. When the water was gone there would be a change. Not a good change. But a change nonetheless. And sometimes, in the dark of the night with the hollow sounds of the Dust all around and the bright stars cold in their heaven, sometimes what scared Livira more than the water running out was that the water would not run out and that this would be her life. Dust, and beans, and dry-wheat, and the wind, and the little huddle of huts like stones gathered in the vastness of the empty plain, until she ran out rather than the water, and she joined the dust, and the wind carried her away as if she had never even drawn breath.
"I like Acmar," Katrin said.
Livira made a face and put her back into the winding. All the girls liked Acmar, at least to look at. Livira had never been able to put into words quite why he made her angry. It was to do with the way he didn't value any of the things she valued most. And all that lack of interest did was make him spokesman for the settlement, because none of them cared about those things really, not even Katrin or Neera, who said they were her best friends.
"You can have him," Livira grunted, her arms growing tired, her hands sore. "I'm going to the city soon. And you can all live in the dust while I . . . while I . . ." She didn't really know what they did in the city. She thought perhaps her scrap had come from there, stolen from the city folk by the wind. All she'd ever seen of the city were its walls, as a low smudge in the distance. She'd had to walk half a day even for that view, climbing the ridges to the west, returning to the settlement parched and dusty late at night to a frantic Aunt Teela. People said that the city was full of marvels with new ones added every week. But none of them had ever been there or even seemed interested in trying.
"I'm going to the city," Livira repeated.
"They won't let you in, silly." Katrin put out her tongue. "Even the dust doesn't get past their gates without permission."
She was just quoting what came out through Kern's grey beard, but it made Livira angry because she feared it might be true. "What I think is-"
Livira's hot reply faded from her lips and she rested against the windlass handle staring out to the east. There it was again, distant and dancing in the heat haze. A figure. "What I think . . . is that someone's coming!"
. . . and other doubters. The historian must ensure that all their work is plainly marked as such, for if it were presented as a work of fiction its readers would clamour that it lacked sense, the events too implausible, too random, and too cruel. Truth will set you free . . . from certainty, comfort, and the beliefs upon which we rely for sanity . . .
A History of Histories, by William Ancrath
People never came to the settlement. Livira hadn't ever seen a visitor, had never met a single person who hadn't grown among the four dozen souls who sheltered in the huddled shacks. It was the sort of place that you went from, not to. Kern went from it to the dust markets. The patched waistcoat he was so proud of allegedly came from the city, purchased at great cost from a dust-market stall. What he bartered on his trips might then go on to bigger markets or to the city itself, but Livira had always had to take the existence of these places and people on faith. Now-someone was coming!
"Stranger!" Livira let the bucket fall and charged back through the bean rows, shouting her news, Katrin hard on her heels, eating dust. "Stranger!" She raced along the rows, rattling the drying beans in their pods. Only this morning she'd been watching the old men play stones and hollows, dreaming of an escape to something more, to a world that lay beyond the haze. Now that world was coming to her. "Stranger!"
"What are you saying?" Aunt Teela caught Livira's arm in a steel grip as she emerged from the crop.
"A stranger! Someone's coming!" Livira repeated at a lower, more comprehensible volume.
Teela's face stiffened as if a deadwasp had stung her. Her hand fell to her side. "Tell everyone."
Livira ran on, shouting. Something in her aunt's expression had put a chill into her and now fear edged her cries. The summoning bell took up the alarm.
“What do they want?” Livira stood with the others out by the well. Everyone she knew was there, except those few too old, too sick, or too small to emerge from their huts. Aunt Teela held her hand in a painful grip. Livira waited, still sweating from her run. The sun seemed brighter, the dust sharper on her lungs.
"You stay close to me, Livy. Do as you're told for once in your life." Her aunt pulled Livira's face around to hers, meeting her gaze with over-bright eyes. "I love you, child." Aunt Teela was not a woman given to displays of affection and this one filled Livira with a fear far greater than any that Acmar's approaching fist had instilled.
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