Burning Books for Pleasure and Profit


A talented bookbinder is tasked with creating a copy of a text so inflammatory it threatens to alter the very existence of Truth itself.

 

 

Ogyga runs pretty well everything around here, and nothing much can be done about her because her sister is the abbess of the Nine Aspects of Joy, which owns all the land from the mountains to the sea and has a larger standing army than the Archduke.

She’s about five one, fiftyish, stocky, wears her hair short; about ten years ago she really got into the Warrior Princess look, which was all the rage back then, and she’s stuck with it ever since. So she walks around town in knee-length brass wire chain mail over skin-tight black leather, a leopard-skin headband, and a paper-thin gilded brass shield about the size of a dinner-plate tied to her wrist with purple ribbon. She looks, therefore, like a clown, but appearances are deceptive. Where the people who mess with her end up is anyone’s guess, but so far, nobody’s come across so much as a tibia.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when Ogyga walked into my workshop one afternoon, just as I was trying to make the most of the last of the light. I’ve spent a fortune on light. When I came home from the war, I took over the derelict tannery on East Hill and had it rebuilt by the Duke’s own head mason, because he’s the only one who knows the trick of those tall, thin windows. For what I spent on the place I could’ve bought a warship, and in return I get on average an extra half-hour of light per day. Worth it, though. I make good money these days, when I’m not interrupted.

“You shouldn’t be doing that,” she said, glancing down at the sheet of vellum pinned to my desk. “It’s heresy.”

Full credit to her for recognizing a page of Saloninus’s Genealogy of Morals from only a cursory glimpse. “Strictly speaking,” I said, “no, it isn’t. Heresy is a perversion of the true faith. Saloninus is an atheist. He doesn’t pervert, he denies.”

“I could have you closed down for that.”

“You wouldn’t need a reason.”

She nodded. “I’ve got a job for you.”

Two salient aspects of jobs Ogyga gives people to do. One, they’re usually illegal, dangerous, or both. Two, you don’t get paid. “Sorry,” I said. “But I’m rather busy at the moment.”

Which was true. The Saloninus was a commission for a wealthy Sashan client—these days, two thirds of my work goes overseas—and I’d just mixed up an oyster-shell of Antecyrene purple. Once it’s mixed, you’ve got twenty minutes and then it sets hard as a rock, and it costs about twice its weight in silver. The price I’d agreed to for the Saloninus would mean I wouldn’t have to work again for a year if I didn’t want to. I rather like being the best.

She took a long stride forward, ripped the sheet off its pins, and threw it out the window. “No,” she said, “you aren’t.”

“My mistake.” I looked up at her. “What can I do for you?”

“I need a book copied.”

“I can do that.”

“I want it pretty,” she said. “It’s for my sister.”

“I can do pretty.”

I wasn’t amusing her. “I want skived buckskin,” she said, “double flesh side, burnished, octavo, written in majuscule cursive. Can you do that?”

“Majuscule cursive? Sure.”

“Show me.”

I took a scrap of parchment, pinned it to the desk, quickly chalked two lines top and bottom and looked around for my medium pen. I wrote your mother sucked cocks for money in my very finest majuscule cursive and handed it to her. “Will that do?”

She nodded. “That’s fine,” she said. “Now I think you’d better eat your words. Chew, don’t swallow.”

As a matter of fact, I’d eaten parchment before, in Escuivel, but that was a long time ago. While I was chewing, she said, “Go to the Hrutjolf brothers in Coppergate for pigments, they’ll be expecting you. I want nothing but the best. Ultramarine, not cerulean. Here’s nine besants for the gold.” She put down a handful of coins: very old coins. “I figure it’ll take you six weeks, including drying time. I want it sewn, not bound. I’ll get Theudemar to do the binding.”

Poor Theudemar. Actually, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t let him bind used cabbage leaves, let alone anything I’d worked on. “Fine,” I said with my mouth full. “Six weeks is pushing it a bit.”

“Work quickly,” she said. She unlaced the toy shield. In the hollow of the boss was a brass tube, six inches long, an inch wide. They don’t make that sort of brass anymore. Not since the Empire fell and we had to start getting all of our copper from Permia. She put the tube on the desk in front of me. “You can read Dejauzi.”

“No.”

“Yes you can,” she said accurately. “Oh, that’s right, I forgot. My sister doesn’t know Dejauzi, so you’ll need to translate it.”

I gazed at her. “Anything else?”

“No, I think that about covers it.” She laced the toy shield back onto her wrist. “Not a word to anyone, got that? I want it to be a surprise.”

My mouth tasted of ink. “Scouts’ honor.”

“You’d better get started. Let me know when it’s done.”

 

You have absolutely no idea what we were talking about. Translation as follows—

Essentially, we write on animal skins. Buckskin is reckoned to be superior to cow, sheep, or pig, though in my opinion the best stuff is nine-week-old bull calf. Skived means the skin is split lengthways—a hell of a job with buckskin, calling for a keen eye, a razor-sharp knife, and rock-steady hands. Double flesh side: you get a much better writing surface on the flesh side, as opposed to hair, but when you’re writing a book rather than a scroll you use both sides of the page. Therefore, to get the best possible surface, you skive your parchment really, really thin, discard the hair side, and then glue two splits together with the flesh sides facing outwards. Burnished means each sheet is rubbed for about an hour with a glass rod, to close the fibres up tight and stop the ink from seeping into them. Octavo means small, about the size of a brick. Ultramarine and cerulean are both blue paint. Cerulean was invented by Saloninus himself and costs a fortune. Ultramarine costs twenty times as much, because it’s ground-up lapis lazuli and is only found in one mountain in a far-off land of which we know little. Besants are gold coins issued by the Emperor out of the purest gold the world has ever seen. It’s been three hundred years since the Empire fell, so besants aren’t easy to come by. What you do is, you beat them out on a mirror-polished anvil with a mirror-polished hammer until you get gold leaf. Try it with anything less fine, such as the garbage that passes for gold currency these days, and the copper the gold is alloyed with work-hardens and splits.

Talking of translation: I learned Dejauzi in Escuivel so I could talk to the guards in the prison where we ended up, three hundred of us, all that was left after the Battle of the Field of Lilies. After I got out I learned the written language, which is significantly different; the man I was sold to paid for me to learn, and also for my lessons in bookbinding and illumination. That’s why I’m the best, on this side of the Friendly Sea, at any rate. I spent seven years copying manuscripts in a Dejauzi scriptorium, which is the finest education anyone could ask for. If you didn’t produce work of exquisite beauty they flogged you till your bones showed through, but you got to read some very interesting books. When I escaped, I took with me a copy of Genseric’s Principles of Mathematics, which only exists in the Dejauzi translation. When I reached Scona, I sold it for enough to set up my shop. I was robbed, by the way, but I’m not bothered about that.

 

By the time I’d gotten past the Ogyga-induced shakes, the light had failed, so I lit my lamp. It’s a special lamp. At least, the lamp is nothing out of the ordinary, but next to it I’ve got a blown glass sphere filled with water, and behind it there’s a genuine Dejauzi silver mirror. I paid sixty gulden for it. Like I already told you, I spend a lot of money on light.

I picked up the tube and looked at it closely. Old brass is soft, and the inscription was so badly worn I could barely read it; also it was demotic minuscule, which is a bitch of a script to write or read. It died out five hundred years ago, and good riddance. It said: slot 412, shelf 8, case 4, row 336, room 71 Old Building, West Quad. You know what it’s like in midwinter, when it’s so cold, anything metal sticks to your fingers hard enough that you can tear your skin if you try to pull away? Actually it was summer, but I took my hands away and let it lie on my desk. I know where you’ve been, I said to myself. I thought I’d seen the last of you.

That said, I was on the clock, so I couldn’t afford to waste time on traumatic flashbacks or survivor’s guilt. I picked it up again in my left hand and used my right little finger to poke the tight roll of paper out of the tube.

That’s right: paper. My colleagues in the trade have only heard of it, but I’ve seen it, handled it, hurt my eyes trying to read it, in Escuivel. Five hundred years ago they still knew the trick of making the stuff, by mashing up about a million tons of some reed that grows in the marshes of Blemmya, then spreading out the goo on silk screens, or something like that; in return you get one sheet, about the size of a goatskin. Compared with parchment, paper is rubbish. Over time it gets brittle, like dried leaves. One time back in my master’s shop we got this priceless manuscript to copy. It came in a gold tube encrusted with diamonds and rubies, but when we pushed it out and tried to unroll it, the stupid thing disintegrated, more or less shattered into little flakes, and all we ended up with was a heap of tiny bits. I happened to overhear my master getting yelled at by the owner (so did everyone in walking distance of the city) and apparently it was the only surviving copy of the love sonnets of Raimbaut de Utancour. At the time I remember laughing like a drain. Being a slave does that to you.

Paper: an extra level of joy. I looked around for my little lead weights, the ones I use for weighing out the very expensive pigments. With two of them I pinned down one end of the scroll, and then slowly, painfully began to straighten it out, expecting it to snap at any moment. Every two inches or so I added more weights, until I ran out and had to use Ogyga’s besants.

Tiny, tiny writing. Dejauzi is murder at the best of times. They don’t have proper letters, just squiggles that all flow into one another: marvelous for imaginative calligraphy (a page of the best Dejauzi formal hand is a thing of beauty and a joy forever regardless of what it actually says), but no fun to read by lamplight when you daren’t touch the manuscript and you’ve got lead blobs covering up half the words. I felt like I was nerving myself to stick my hand—no, my mind, which is so much softer and more vulnerable—into a patch of brambles or a clump of nettles; tangled tendrils of meaning that which would rip me to shreds.

In Varit, they have scribes who make really quite passable copies of manuscripts despite the fact that they’re illiterate. Quite true; they can’t read their own language, let alone anyone else’s. But put down a hymnal or a missal in front of a Varith scribe and a week later you’ll be handed something remarkably similar, at a fifth of the cost of having it copied over here. The pictures will be almost but not quite identical—something weird about the eyes, a strange drawn look in the faces, like all the angels and saints are in the early stages of mountain fever; and you start to read and everything’s fine and perfectly normal, and then you come across something that looks like a word, but isn’t. Sometimes, if you hold the book at arm’s length, you can get an intuitive feel of what the word is; sometimes not. The point being, for a Verith scribe this job would be just another day at the workbench. He’d be safe, immune, incapable of catching anything, no matter what the words turned out to be.

The standard of living in Verit is the lowest on Earth, and life expectancy there isn’t wonderful. If I were Verith, I’d have died five years ago. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. The dead don’t suffer or feel pain, but they’re dead. Pull yourself together and read the damn manuscript.

So I read it, or at least the first line. That was enough.

 

Escuivel is a Dejauzi word. It means over there. To the Dejauzi, that meant on the far side of the desert and the mountains. To us, it meant across the Friendly Sea. In any event, Escuivel is by definition a long way away, wherever you start from, a place you get to after severe hardship. Robur or Dejauzi, it’s a place you went to for a purpose: the purpose being to kill people.

We went there because it’s a holy place, where the Prophet had his vision of the Queen of Heaven and wrote the sacred book. The Dejauzi went there for roughly the same reason; same prophet, same Queen of Heaven, same vision, almost but not quite the same book. We felt that it was vitally important that the holy places should be safeguarded from unbelievers and heretics. The Dejauzi thought the same, but they got there first. Before they arrived, Escuivel was a province of the Empire, marginally productive and desperately poor because of nine centuries of Imperial taxation. The Dejauzi slaughtered the Imperials in the cities and took over their plantations. The slaves carried on being slaves, but the Dejauzi were better masters; they understood the old fiscal maxim that says, the good shepherd shears his flock, he doesn’t skin them.

Then we turned up. The thing about war is, it doesn’t make anything better. We lost the war, of course, but not until it had made a real mess of Escuivel. We burned some of the cities, they burned the rest. We trashed thousands of acres of farmland so they’d be useless to the enemy, so did they. It gets very cold there at night; I can remember the sheer bliss of sitting close enough to a fire of olive trunks that I could feel my skin scorch. I can also remember the olive harvest back home, when I was a kid, and we worked like lunatics from dawn to dusk knowing that a good crop would make the difference between being able to pay the rent and getting thrown off the farm. Vines and olives are all that you can grow in most of Escuivel. Vinewood makes good fuel too, but olive is better.

I went to Escuivel when I was sixteen. I did five tours, which is one more than anyone else I’ve ever heard of. Then we had the big battle, and I ended up learning calligraphy. For a long time, I was pretty sure I’d escaped from Escuivel and the Dejauzi, but now I’m not so sure.

 

I considered my options.

Ogyga is thorough, but I didn’t think she’d have gone to the trouble and expense of posting a goon outside my door to make sure I didn’t make a run for it; make that two goons, since I have a back door. I had forty gulden cash in the studio strongbox, plus the nine besants she’d given me for gold leaf; call it a hundred gulden, which is a lot of money, objectively speaking. A hundred gulden would get me a boat trip to Scona, with enough left over to hire a studio, slap a coat of distemper on the walls, and buy timber to build myself a desk. When you’re the best at something, you aren’t tied to one place. In five years, I’d be comfortable again, maybe even prosperous.

I’d more or less resolved to do that when the question occurred to me: Do I take the book with me, or do I leave it here?

I’d confronted a similar choice when I left Escuivel, and on that occasion the answer was a resounding yes. The circumstances now weren’t all that different. The book, looked at objectively, was worth money—a lot of it, quite possibly all the money in the world. If I stole it and took it to Scona and sold it, naturally Ogyga would put a colossal price on my head; but if I sold the book I could afford to buy several armies.

At which point, the penny dropped. It hit the ground like a meteorite, gouging out a vast crater. Ogyga couldn’t read Dejauzi; neither could her sister. Not many people this side of the water can. She didn’t know what the book was.

Think about it. If she knew what it was, would she have left it with me, just like that? Hardly. She’d have had me picked up and all my kit collected from the studio. I’d have been taken to a safe place where there’d be no chance of me getting out or anyone else getting in, and I’d have done the job there. And afterwards? No afterwards for me, most likely.

Think some more. Ogyga had no idea what she’d gotten ahold of. Presumably she thought it was just some Dejauzi nonsense, a rarity, the sort of thing that would appeal to her bookish sister—but most of the value of the gift would be in the exquisite calligraphy and the heartbreakingly lovely illumination. Hence me, rather than some unimaginative soul already on the payroll, who wouldn’t have to be disposed of afterwards.

Which added another option. I looked at the lamp.

If you want light, you need to have fire. Fire is all very well in its way, when it’s properly contained and under control. Let it loose, though, and you have problems. In Escuivel I’d been guilty of letting fire get loose on a number of occasions—barns, houses, villages. Once fire slips its leash, it’s very hard to know what’s going to happen next, though you can be fairly sure it won’t be anything good. I’ve always been scared stiff of fire in my studio, because there’s so much hopelessly flammable stuff there—parchment, oils, spirits, you name it. All it would take would be for a lamp to topple off a shelf, hit the floor, smash—

Even Ogyga couldn’t blame me for that. Well, she could; but she’d know in her heart that I hadn’t done it on purpose, because why would a prosperous tradesman incinerate his workshop and entire stock in trade? Just to get rid of one old book—a rarity, sure enough, but just some old Dejauzi thing, and the practical upshot would be that her sister would have to make do with face cream or some nice cushions for her birthday. And the book would be gone.

I picked up the lamp.

 

There used to be a library in Paulisper, the regional capital of northern Escuivel under the Empire. The Imperials claimed that the library held a copy of every single book ever written; more than five thousand.

That was three centuries ago. There are considerably fewer books in the world these days. A year or so back I asked the abbot of the Resilient Hope how many were left. He thought about it for a moment and said, Maybe eighteen hundred. Personally I think his estimate was on the low side. A few of the books we’ve lost in the West still exist in translation on the other side of the Friendly Sea; Principles of Mathematics, to cite just one example. Add those in and we could be looking at over two thousand. Even so. That’s a dead loss of well over half of the human race’s collective memory. If a horse were that sick, you’d cut its throat.

The Library of Paulisper burned down. We say the Dejauzi did it. The Dejauzi say that it was the Imperials, when they briefly managed to liberate the city by bombarding it with incendiaries. I guess at this remove the truth will never be known. It went up in flames, a long time ago, and I don’t suppose it really matters any more who did it.

In Echmen, where the science of medicine is miles ahead of anything we can do nowadays, they routinely cut into people’s heads and snip out bits of their brains. It’s called trepanning—we did it in the West, back in Imperial times, but the knowledge of how to do it is lost, ashes—and the Echmen say it’s no big deal, if you know what you’re doing. Which makes me wonder: Could a really skillful Echmen sawbones get into your head and find the place where all the memories are stored? If you paid him enough money, could he pare away the stuff you really wish you couldn’t remember? I’d pay top dollar for that, to be rid of Escuivel and various other related issues. Raising another interesting hypothetical question: If you don’t remember something and neither does anyone else, did it ever happen?

Escuivel is a very old country. People have lived there for a long time. A lot of the coastal plain is desert, though they reckon it used to be fertile arable land, before the Imperial taxes drove the farmers away and goatherds moved in, and their goats ate all the grass that held the soil together, and the wind blew it away. Anyway; the coastal plain is dead flat. The only things sticking up out of it are low hills, with a footprint of anything from three to ten acres. But they’re not hills. They’re where cities used to be. And, from time to time, bad people came along and burned the cities down, for various reasons now forgotten; but humans are resilient creatures, so after a while they rebuilt the cities on top of the ashes—and then they got burnt down again, and were rebuilt, and burned down, and were rebuilt, until by the time the last city-dwellers were slaughtered and burned and there was nobody left to rebuild, the city was situated on top of a substantial mound. All that was a very long time ago, and we only know about those cities because from time to time people have dug into the hills and found ruins. Some of the ruins have writing on them, but nobody can read it. We have no names, no history, no explanation of what happened or why; just a hill of rubble and bones and ashes. Nobody remembers. If it weren’t for farmers digging into the mounds in search of building stone, we’d never have known they ever existed.

I considered the lamp, and the very fragile strip of paper. I didn’t want to, but I had to ask myself: Whose side are you on?

 

Another option. Burn down my workshop, but keep the book.

I put the lamp down carefully. As I think I mentioned, I have a lot of money invested in my studio, and it was money earned the hard way. Setting light to the years I spent in Escuivel wasn’t something I was prepared to do unless I absolutely had to.

I thought about it some more. Six weeks Ogyga had given me. Those Echmen doctors I was telling you about are so smart they can predict how long you’ve got to live when you’re really sick. They look at you, feel your pulse, make you stick out your tongue; then, three months, or nine weeks, with absolute certainty and precision. Six weeks. Well, I thought. A lot can happen in six weeks.

 

First thing in the morning, before it was light enough to work by, I went to see a friend of mine. I’ve known her for years. We met in Escuivel.

“You,” she said. “Get out.”

“Don’t be like that,” I said.

“Piss off.”

Unlike me, Gaulasia didn’t volunteer to go to Escuivel. She was part of a shipment, bought cheap at the Corbo brothers’ going-out-of-business sale. When the smash came, just before the Field of Lilies, there were only so many places on the last ship out. A berth on the ship (translation: standing room, if you stood on one leg) cost forty gulden, which was thirty-nine gulden more than she had. The alternative was to stay in the city and wait for the Dejauzi to show up. It so happened I had thirty-nine gulden. Gaulasia caught the boat; I stayed, and having nothing better to do, I went to the Field of Lilies with my pals. When she got home, Gaulasia made up a new name and set up on her own account, putting into practice some of the advanced business methods she’d learned in Escuivel. She’s done well for herself. It’s not easy making a living if you’re a girl in this man’s town, unless you’re an actress or you work in the hospitality and entertainment sector, or your sister’s the abbess. But Gaulasia owns five large tenement buildings, half a ship, a quarter of a slate quarry, and a vineyard, besides her premises in Fishgate and the stock in trade.

“I need help,” I said.

She shook her head. “Ogyga’s people came round,” she said. “According to them I don’t know you. Get lost.”

Oh, I thought. Even so: “That’s not strictly true,” I said. “I do know you. For one thing, I know you’re really called Gaulasia.”

There are laws about slaves; silly laws, but still laws, for all that. Unless you can produce a valid certificate of manumission, you stay property. Who’d own her, given that her master died unpleasantly in Escuivel, I really couldn’t tell, but there’d be someone, count on it.

“Arsehole,” she said.

“Through circumstance,” I said, “not choice. Well?”

“What do you want?”

 

Gaulasia knows everybody. And quite a bit of what Gaulasia knows about people, people wouldn’t want known. Accordingly, I was granted an interview with the City Prefect.

After dark, naturally. For one thing, I couldn’t afford to waste the light. That morning, after I got back from seeing Gaulasia, I started work on the book. Fortunately, that didn’t necessitate me reading any of it. I launched into a very ambitious and truly gorgeous title page; an Ascension, with a gold leaf sky, the Invincible Sun front and center, flanked by saints and adoring angels: you can’t go wrong with an Ascension, I always say, and I can do them in my sleep. That took me the morning. In the afternoon I had to start on the text proper, so I illuminated a T. I’m good at Ts, and since I was translating the text, I could make sure the first word began with one. I don’t employ many staff, but I was prepared to bet any money that at least one of my people worked for Ogyga. I wanted her to hear that I’d started work and was well under way.

Another reason for meeting the prefect after dark: in the dark, people can’t see you so well.

“I’ve heard of you,” he said, looking at me down about a mile of very straight nose. “What the hell do you want?”

Apart from the nose, which would’ve been worthy of comment in any company you care to name, there wasn’t a great deal to him. He was sixtyish, short, thin, arms and legs like sticks, bald head, little wispy beard neatly trimmed. Rumor has it he’s killed more people than the plague. Mind you, rumor has been known to exaggerate.

“Nothing much,” I said. “Actually, I want to do you a favor.”

“Really.” One of nature’s skeptics. “What did you have in mind?”

“I want to help you stay in office for at least the next eighteen months, until your term runs out. After that I guess you’ll probably want to retire and move a long way away, where there’s no extradition. But until then, I want you to be able to carry on and sleep easy in your bed, knowing that your secret is absolutely safe.”

He looked at me, and I had a feeling that for once, rumor was being strictly accurate. “Which secret would that be?”

I told him. I won’t tell you, because I believe in discretion and keeping my promises. Besides, what do you care about corrupt accounting practices in a distant city that you’ve probably never been to? He nodded. “That secret.”

“Are there others?”

“No. What do you want?”

His eyes told me I was dead; not a threat, a prediction. No, less uncertain that that, a forecast. I suppose it ought to have chilled me to the marrow, but it didn’t. No big deal. After all, to all intents and purposes I died in Escuivel. Everything I’ve done since then is just extended post-mortem reflex. “Ogyga’s head on a spike,” I said.

He pursed his lips. “That would be nice,” he said. “But I fancy you’re being unrealistic.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “Think of an oak tree.”

“Must I?”

“Oh, I think so. An oak tree is strong, you can’t push it over. Not unless you’ve chopped four-fifths of the way through it with an axe.”

He considered me, as though I were pure mathematics. The fact that I knew his secret, one of his secrets, suggested that I wasn’t quite as much a fool as I looked. “People who stand under falling oaks get squashed,” he said. “I can’t say you’re filling me with enthusiasm.”

“Then I’ll level with you,” I said. “There’s a job she wants me to do. I don’t want to do it. As far as I can see, the only way I can solve my problem is if Ogyga dies. Me dying, incidentally, won’t solve a blessed thing. If it was as easy as that, I’d happily hold still and let her kill me. Unlike you, you see, I’ve got nothing to lose.”

He sighed. “People like you give me a headache,” he said.

“We’re a nuisance,” I conceded. “But we tend to self-destruct, so that’s all right. Here’s the deal. If you help me get rid of Ogyga, as soon as she’s dead and feeding the magpies, I’ll take the written proof of your defalcations out of the very secret hiding place known only to my closest friends and give it to you to burn, and then you can have my throat cut, I won’t be needing it anymore. How does that sound?”

“Melodramatic,” he said. “What did you have in mind?”

 

Some documents you fight to keep from the flames, others you create on purpose to be burned, once they’ve fulfilled their purpose. I don’t suppose the fire cares, one way or the other.

All this fuss, you’re saying to yourself, over a silly old book of scripture. I remember thinking something like that when I put the Principles of Mathematics in front of a scholar, when I finally reached Scona after my escape. “What’s it worth?” I asked him.

He looked at me. He saw a thin man in rags. “Everything,” he said.

In the event I didn’t get everything, nowhere near it. I got twelve hundred gulden; a lot of money, but not quite everything. In return, the West got the basics of scientific method, which it had carelessly mislaid a thousand years ago and had been muddling along without ever since. Not a bad deal for all concerned, except that if I had my time over again I wouldn’t have parted with it for a trachy under five thousand.

Principles of Mathematics is a book that makes things better, or so the scholars tell me. I wasn’t sure the same thing applied to the paper roll Ogyga had left with me.

I only needed to read the first line; actually, the first three words, In the beginning. That, and the age of the paper, and the provenance stamped on the tube. In the beginning is the opening of the holy scriptures according to the Dejauzi. Our version says roughly the same thing, but the words and some of the inferences are slightly different; it starts with On the day. We declared war on the Dejauzi and invaded Escuivel because we believed that their version was a heretical forgery, concocted by an opportunistic fake Messiah with an agenda, three hundred years ago, when the Empire fell. But the brittle, frail little roll of paper Ogyga thrust upon me was older than that—seven hundred years old? Probably older. It came in an Imperial brass tube, stamped with an Imperial librarian’s reference. And it wasn’t in Robur, it was in Dejauzi.

You’re probably way ahead of me, but I’ll spell it out for you. This miserable little object proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Dejauzi were right and we were wrong; that they were orthodox and we were the heretics; and that Escuivel, where I lost my soul and died, was at best a ghastly misunderstanding, at worst the biggest crime against true religion ever perpetrated.

Well, that cleared one thing up. Ogyga had no idea what she’d gotten. A copy was worthless, devoid of any evidential value; also, as far as Ogyga’s sister the abbess was concerned, an abomination, since it meant that her prestigious and amazingly lucrative job was a farce. If Ogyga wanted to do something nice for her sister’s birthday, she’d burn the scroll and sprinkle the ashes on the sea.

Fine, I thought. I can get myself off the hook easy as pie by making something up out of my head and pretending that my nonsense was a true translation of what was on the scroll. But what then? Ogyga would want the scroll back. It would continue to exist, locked away in a small cedarwood box in a treasury somewhere.

Locking things away sounds great in theory. You don’t kill them, which would be drastic and inhumane; also irreversible, because something killed is something gone forever, and it might turn out that you were wrong. Instead, you put them in a safe place where they can’t get out and nobody else can get in.

But things have a habit of escaping. Fire, we’ve already seen, can get out of and into all sorts of places it shouldn’t be allowed to go. By the same token, I escaped from Escuivel. And the implications of the little brass tube and its contents—not something you’d want to leave lying around.

Still fine; I could destroy the bloody thing. That would probably cost me my life, but as I think I may have mentioned, I died in Escuivel, so no big deal. But that would be—well, irreversible; for me, of course, and also for that funny little thing called Truth.

See above; if I forget something and so does everybody else, did it ever happen? A brush with a lamp flame, and the truth about the holy scriptures would be forgotten, forever. It would never have happened. And we’d have been right to invade Escuivel, even though we lost.

I looked at the pathetic little strip of paper. For two pins, I’d have burned it then and there. The trouble was, I didn’t have two pins handy. You never do when it matters.

Which only left Plan B—

 

My mother didn’t raise me to be no translator. It’s a messy job, compromise after compromise on top of compromise. It’s like carrying water in a sieve, all those tiny holes through which meaning can leak out. I stuck with it, though, the way I stuck with the long march to the Field of Lilies, across the desert, in boots that had no soles and which were the wrong size to start with.

Two days later I had a text. I wrote it on scraps and skivings, in a hurry. I’m probably the best calligrapher in the West, but unless I take trouble, my handwriting’s so bad that even I can’t read it.

Now, then; let’s turn this sorry object into a book fit for a pontiff.

I make my own gold leaf. Nobody else has the patience or the skill, not on this side of the Friendly Sea. The crucial moment is when you’ve beaten it so thin you daren’t lift it, because its own weight would be enough to tear it. That’s where everybody else gives up. I carry on hammering, one more pass. One more pass than is necessary, my rivals tell me. Look at their work and mine and tell me I’m wrong.

I mix my own colors; hours of miserable work, blistered palms, eyes watering and lungs burning from the poisonous fumes of the acids. I learned how to make the very best colors in Escuivel, where they recognize that, compared with absolute beauty, human life is of no account. After all, my tutor told me, the finished article will exist forever, treasured and preserved in a reliquary. So what if making it kills you? You’re a small price to pay for something like that.

I make my own brushes. The very best, for fine work, is the pin-feather from a woodcock’s wing. What’s a woodcock? It’s some bird that flutters aimlessly about up North somewhere. I’ve never seen one and I don’t consider that the deficiency has blighted my life beyond all hope of recovery. The only bit of a woodcock that’s any earthly use to anyone is the one tiny feather, about as long as the fingernail on your little finger. The rest of the bird you throw away. See above; small price to pay.

The very finest kit and materials will only take you so far. The rest has to come from inside. That suggests that inside me there’s a vast treasury of sublime beauty. You wouldn’t think it to look at me, and I sometimes wonder where I keep it all; next to the gallbladder, maybe, or tucked away behind my appendix. In Echmen, they execute noblemen by making them drink forty-year-old claret with a sheet of the very best gold leaf floating on the top. The gold leaf is indigestible; after a bit it clogs up your internal organs, and you die. I think there’s a lot of gold leaf inside me, ever since Escuivel.

 

It’s the last pass that makes all the difference, in my opinion. I’d had the feeling ever since I got home that I daren’t move, because if I tried to, I’d break under my own weight. Then Ogyga gave me one more hammering, one more than was strictly necessary, and after that I reckoned I was perfect.

And so it proved. I do good work, but the book I painted for Ogyga was something else. Funny, really; the book I was copying was an abomination. It made a mockery of everything I’d believed in when I joined the queue to enlist, and everything that happened in Escuivel. Twenty years ago I’d have told you that the Invincible Sun guided my hand—to Him, not me, be the glory. Yes, well; I grew out of that in Escuivel, where the Invincible Sun beats down hot enough to strip your skin off, in ridiculously thin shreds, like gold leaf gone wrong. If He inspired me, then He was being funny at my expense; this book is My true scripture, and you clowns got it all wrong. But I don’t think it was that. I think I did my best work ever because I knew it had to be right, not just good but overwhelmingly good, so beautiful that you couldn’t bear to be in the same room with it for very long, but when you left the room your heart would break. After all, I was making a weapon. Weapons have got to work, or where the hell are you?

 

I finished with a whole day to spare. I allowed myself the indulgence of spending that day looking at what I’d just made, since it was very likely that once I’d delivered it, I’d never see it again.

Quite early in the proceedings I’d realized that what I was making was something out of the ordinary; a possession for forever, something that would still be around in a thousand years, still communicating its message to anyone rash enough to come close enough to see it—a bit like the mad priest who toured the nations of the West preaching the holy war, and we all flocked to listen, and were never the same again. So I decided I’d put as much of myself into it as I possibly could. There are five battle scenes in Scripture, as you know; so I made them all into moments from the Field of Lilies, the bits I remember, every night when I close my eyes. I decided that Heaven would be the workshop where I learned my trade. Fifty angels sit in front of a high window, copying the Holy Word, illuminating it with Truth and Beauty. One of the archangels is Ogyga; not the way she really looks, but how she imagines she looked when she was seventeen; I felt I owed her that, for giving me the opportunity to do my best work. It’s a longstanding tradition in the business that the artist turns the Man of Sorrows into a self-portrait, one of the few perks we get. The hell with that, I thought; too obvious. So I made the Man of Sorrows one of my pals from the war, and put my own sorry face on the Invincible Sun at the moment of Transfiguration. Why the hell not? Nobody will ever know but me, and once I’m dead and gone it’ll never have happened.

 

She was there when I woke up, standing over me. “Well?” she said.

I’d fallen asleep at my desk. The book was on the stand in front of me, covered with a cloth. “All done,” I said. “Want to see?”

She nodded, and I lifted the cloth. I’d left it open at the Judgment. She glanced at it. “It’ll do,” she said. “Where’s the box?”

“What box?”

Scowl. “Haven’t you made a box to keep it in?”

“I’m not a carpenter. Make your own stupid box.”

She sighed. “No box,” she said, “no fee.”

“You were never going to pay me anyway.”

She turned the page. After the Judgement came the Harrowing of Hell. I’d sort of let myself go a bit on that one. She blinked. “In that case, get me a bit of silk or something to wrap it in. I don’t want it getting wet if it rains on the way home.”

“What makes you think I’ve got any silk?”

She gave me a furious glare and untied her scarf. “Wrap it in that,” she said. “Come on, I haven’t got all day.”

 

She took the original scroll with her. I had a torrid couple of minutes getting it back into the tube. I was petrified it’d crack or crumble, but it went back into solitary confinement like an absolute lamb. I told her to be careful with that, old paper’s very brittle. She gave me her oh-for-crying-out-loud look and stuffed the tube in her sleeve. Very valuable, I added.

“Really?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “Worth a great deal of money, to the right buyer.”

She frowned. “How much?”

“A grand,” I said, “maybe more. Maybe fifteen hundred, in Sashan.”

“I’ll bear that in mind.”

She didn’t need anything else from me, so she left. When the door closed behind her I sat down in my chair and stayed there for two days, shaking.

 

Ogyga gave my book to her sister, the abbess, on her birthday. About two minutes after she’d handed it over, and her sister presumably said something like, that’s nice, the door flew open and in burst a dozen soldiers. They were officers of the Diocesan Guard, reporting directly to the cardinal. They seized Ogyga, her sister, and the book and took them all down to headquarters, where they locked them away in storage, pending investigations.

My pal the City Prefect had done what I asked him, to the letter. A couple of days later I duly turned up at the prefecture and testified on a stack of scripture that Ogyga had hired me to forge the manuscript. Well, I qualified, hired isn’t quite the right word, since it implies a transfer of funds. Threatened me with a slow and agonizing death would be nearer the mark. Quite so, said the chairman of the tribunal. Do go on.

Forging the manuscript, I told him, was the biggest challenge of my career. Only I could have done it, because I’d seen and handled ancient paper documents in Escuivel. I told him how I’d brought a small quantity of antique blank paper back with me when I escaped. I explained how I made the scroll brittle and crisp by cooking it in a covered dish over a charcoal fire, then mixed the ink using the old recipe, then faded it using lacrimae draconis (I have no idea what lacrimae draconis is; I made it up on the spur of the moment, but it must have sounded good, because they believed me). The tube, I added, was an actual genuine Imperial library tube, in which I’d brought home the Principles of Mathematics. I recognized it for what it was when I saw it lying around in the workshop in Escuivel, because I’d seen plenty like it when my pals and I burned the library at Coriadis, after we’d taken the city from the Dejauzi.

And why, asked the chairman of the tribunal, would the prisoner Ogyga want you to forge this appalling document? Did she happen to mention anything about that? I shook my head and looked bewildered. No, your honor. But I didn’t dare ask questions, I was so terrified.

The tribunal drew its own conclusions. The only motive they could think of was that Ogyga, or her sister, or the two of them together had concocted this abominable thing with a view to blackmailing the established church, in the person of the Supreme Pontiff. Their plan was diabolically simple. I was forced to create the original scroll and a beautiful illuminated copy, worthy of being sent as a gift to His Holiness. The pontiff, realizing that the existence of such a document would destroy the church and true religion in the West, would demand the original; he would get it, at a price—a cardinal’s hat for the abbess, a ridiculous amount of money for Ogyga, something like that. It was, the tribunal concluded, the most appallingly blasphemous fraud they’d ever come across in their lives, and no punishment could be too severe.

I was there when Ogyga and the abbess were burned. The screams and the smell, particularly the latter, brought back memories. The only true bit in my testimony before the tribunal was about burning the library at Coriadis. I did that, no doubt about it. We didn’t do it frivolously, just for a lark; we weren’t savages. But the survivors of the Dejauzi garrison had holed up in the library, about a hundred and ten men. We’d been fighting for days, we were worn out and fed up, and so when one of us (I think it may have been me) suggested putting a torch to the place and letting nature take its course, nobody objected very much. The ensuing fire was hot enough to melt nearly all the brass tubes, but one or two survived, which is how I recognized the one Ogyga put on my desk. How it came to have left Coriadis before the destruction I don’t know and can’t be bothered to guess; but it had definitely been there, at one time. And so, for what it’s worth, had I.

There’s a good bit in one of Saloninus’s plays. There’s a watchman sitting in a tower, and he sees a beacon fire. The chain of beacons has been set up so that news of the fall of Ap’Escatoy will reach the king’s palace in minutes rather than months, and the watchman has this speech about how the fire leaps—figuratively speaking, of course—from the burning roofs of Ap’Escatoy and from mountaintop to mountaintop until it arrives right there in the palace, hundreds of miles away. Of course, what happens next is that the king comes home from the war and is murdered by his wife and her lover, who in turn perish when the king’s son comes after them with fire and sword; so the fires of Ap’Escatoy burn down the house of the man who destroyed it. Very poetic and apt.

But not as fanciful as you might think. I’m not a betting man, but I’ll give you any odds you like that it was a spark from Coriadis that lit the heap of oil-soaked faggots under Ogyga’s feet. And it served the bitch right.

 

The book I painted was declared to be evidence, and ended up on display on a lectern in the pontiff’s private chapel, which is slightly bigger than the state arsenal and has murals by Carnufex the Younger. I didn’t get paid for it, of course, but since they decided I’d acted under duress, they didn’t press charges, so I don’t mind all that much.

The original scroll was also declared evidence, but that was all right. It was put in a box, which was put inside another box, which was put in a shed full of boxes, with guards on the door. Jailed, arguably, for a crime it didn’t commit. Tough, is all I have to say about that. Happens to the best of us.

 

Except that twenty years later, after I lost the use of my right hand in a fire in my workshop, I ended up as curator of the Poor Sisters on Scona, the second biggest library in the West. It’s a cushy job, much better than I deserve. I spend my days preserving, repairing, and transcribing rare and beautiful manuscripts, many of which are the only copies in existence. Apparently they reckon I’m good at it. Since I’ve been in charge, our departmental budget has been increased by a third, and I have a staff of twelve dedicated craftsmen to make up for my clawed and desiccated fingers. The money’s all right, which is just as well, since the fire left me practically destitute. But I’ve paid my debts, and these days I have money to spend. I collect old books. It’s something to do.

The point being, in the course of my duties, I went to the episcopal repository in Auxentia City. Apparently there was a second copy of a book I was restoring in the vaults there. I only found out about the second copy because a man I know, a member of the faculty of law, told me that it had been used in evidence in a trial, and, having been declared evidence, it’d still be there, in the archives somewhere. Evidence, he told me with a grin, is Truth, and Truth never dies; instead, they lock it up and throw away the key.

So I traced the book I was after to the repository in Auxentia City. I was able to do that because of the Grand Consolidated Index, a truly wonderful thing, which lists every item of evidence from every court case in the diocese. The Index lives in the hall of records in Auxentia, which meant a boat trip to the mainland. While I was there, it occurred to me to look something else up in the Index; and there it was, with a full reference, only rather more legible than some I’d come across in the past.

There’s not a lot to do in Auxentia City if you don’t like public executions or bear-baiting, I had time to kill before catching the boat back to Scona, and the strong, silent men who find and fetch boxes at the repository had been ordered to bring me anything I asked for. So I told them to bring me a second box, and when it came, I asked them to prize off the lid.

It was still there, in its brass jail. I teased it out and unrolled it, using three-gulden bits to weigh down the corners. I’d brought my Mezentine glass with me, and I examined it carefully in the bright Auxentine sunlight glancing in through the open door. It wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for.

You may remember me driveling on earlier about the Varith, the illiterate scribes who make such very fine copies of books they can’t read. I’d been collecting Varith manuscripts for a while, ever since I started having money to burn, and I was starting to appreciate the quite exceptional level of skill some of the scribes possessed. They were capable, some of them, of copying a substantial book and only making one or two mistakes, those trademark not-words I told you about earlier. But they had other trademarks too, so subtle that you need to know what you’re looking for—certain very slight idiosyncrasies in writing certain letters; a tiny flick at the end, an almost invisible paleness indicating a brush held a certain way.

I know quite a bit about Varith manuscripts, but I’m not an expert. There are true experts, but they’re all in Sashan and Echmen. They’d be able to tell me, definitively and for certain, if Ogyga’s scroll was genuine or a Varith copy. But if it’s a copy, it’s probably only about eighty years old. The Varith were the best there’s ever been at faking paper to make it look ancient.

I was about to roll it up and put it away when I carelessly knocked over the lamp I’d brought with me. I stamped out the burning oil before any harm was done.

On the ship home, it occurred to me that I might have acted hastily. But no, I thought, the hell with that. I’ve done my time. I’m through with being a beacon.

 

“Burning Books for Pleasure and Profit” copyright © 2022 by K.J. Parker
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Juan Bernabeu



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