The book, bound in cracked leather, was only a little larger than Lilian’s open hands; the pages smelled of vanilla and grass, and on the cover there was the faded picture of a willow tree with a sword in its roots. Such a simple thing. Yet, when Lilian read it, she did so with the full knowledge that if anyone saw her, it would be the end of her life as she knew it.
The motor carriage rocked and rattled constantly, but luckily Lilian had long ago grown accustomed to reading under these conditions. The interior of the black carriage was lit by the hum of electric torches, which cast their orange glow across the worn leather seats and the family of three that sat in them. Her younger brother, Jasper, sat snoring in the passenger seat.
“Have you decided on a title, yet?” her dad asked from the driver’s seat. He was the odd one of the trio, with dark scruffy hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. Both her and Jasper had the same honey-blonde hair and almond colored eyes.
“I haven’t even started reading, yet. I was waiting until the village lights were out of sight,” she said. Behind her the town of Corse had become little more than dancing fireflies in the night. The cobblestone street had already faded away to dirt roads, and as she glanced back one last time, it was to see the last glimpses of the town disappearing through a thicket of trees.
“Good girl,” her dad said with a tired little smile. He never took his eyes off the road. From where she was sitting, Lilian could see the bags beneath his hazel eyes, even behind the wire-rimmed spectacles. He’d barely slept since they went looking for the book. She could still see the stain of blood on the sleeve of his white button-up.
‘The dangers of being a Librarian,’
“It’s strange, a historia with no title,” her dad said, interrupting her thoughts. Once more, Lilian glanced down at the small little book in her lap. Yes, it was strange. A hundred books had passed through her hands, and each one had had a title. If not on the cover, then printed inside. But not this one. There was only the picture of a willow tree, with a sword in its roots.
“It probably faded away,” she said, trying to offer her best explanation.
“Probably,” agreed her father. He glanced at her in the little mirror, and for a moment she saw the strangest look in his eyes. But then he was staring at the road, and she dismissed it as simply being tired. “I think we’re safe. You should start reading now, we’ll be there by tomorrow morning. Mr. Caraway is already expecting us,”
Mr. Caraway was a nice enough man, as far as nobility went. He called her dad “Mr. Allister”, unlike the other nobles. Most of them simply called her father “Librarian”, as if he were nothing more than a position and not a real person. At least Mr. Caraway treated her father like a human being.
‘I’ll still never understand how he just keeps all his books on shelves,’ she thought, bitterly. The idea of all these books being owned by men and women who would never truly appreciate the wonderful stories within always irritated her. She knew she had only a few short hours before the book in her hands would be on a similar shelf, out of her grasp forever. Librarians only deliver books, they don’t own them. Lilian, as the child of a Librarian, had neither privilege. These precious moments on the road, so few and far between, were her only opportunities to do what she loved most. Read.
‘So small, for something so dangerous,’ she thought, opening the book to the front page. It crackled under her touch. The pages were coarse, but not stiff, though the edges had begun to chip away. With one last glance at her father, she stared back down at the page, found the first few words, and began to read…
In the forest, there was a creek…
…and then everything changed. It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment, she was sitting in the motor carriage, reading pages from the book. Then it was as if she had awoken from a strange dream. Her mind was grasping for details, trying to align the dream into something that made sense, but it was all torn away by the sound of someone saying her name.
“Lilian,” her father said. “Lilian, are you alright?”
Lilian stood there in numb confusion. ‘Why am I standing?’ She blinked, taking in her surroundings. Everything had changed. She looked around at the polished decor, the finely carved furniture, the glittering chandelier. She knew this room. It was the foyer to the home of Mr. Caraway. Assuredly, there was Mr. Caraway himself, in his navy blue dinner coat, grey mustache, and his cane with the stone headpiece shaped like a bear.
“I’m sorry, w-wh-what was that?,” she stammered.
“I asked if you were alright. It looked like we lost you there for a moment. Daydreaming again, dear?” her father asked. He had a worried look on his face, matched by both her brother and, surprisingly, by Mr. Caraway himself. Her father turned to look at the noble with an apologetic smile. “I apologize for the concern, Mr. Caraway, we’ve had a long trip. You know how long travel gets to you,”
Her father was wearing a light brown, nearly beige, jacket; underneath it was the same shirt he’d been wearing in the motor carriage just moments before. Or what had felt like moments before. She fought against the climbing feeling of confusion and panic, hoping for all hope that her father finished as soon as possible.
“Oh, no worries, no worries. I completely understand. I’ll let you take your leave. I’ll have the money for retrieving the book sent to your place of residence, as usual,” Mr. Caraway said, raising the little leather-bound novel in his hand. Lilian stared at the familiar cover. A willow tree with a sword in its roots. Her brother who was standing to her right caught her eye and gave her a look that clearly said, ‘What’s wrong?’, while their dad finished wrapping up pleasantries. She shrugged and mouthed the word ‘later’, before returning her attention to their father.
“Thank you, sir. I’m glad I could be of service,” her dad said. He turned around and ushered them out the front door. Lilian blinked as the sun hit her eyes, the crisp autumn air carrying the smells of leaves and warm hearths. Astonmire sprawled before her, a jumble of red-tiled roofs and brick chimneys in a flatland dotted with clusters of trees and surrounded by small hills. The manor of Mr. Caraway was on one of the tallest of the hills, on the far east side of the city.
“What was that about?,” Jasper asked, the moment they were out in the open air. Her father grabbed her by the elbow before she could answer and led her to the motor car waiting for them in the driveway. He walked around to the other side of the vehicle and turned to face her.
“Lilian, you need to be more careful. What happened? I had to ask you three times to hand over that book. We’re lucky Mr. Caraway is a forgetful kind of man, or he might have been suspicious,” he said, lifting up her chin and staring into her eyes. He was doing that thing again, where he looked at her as if she were a sick child and he were a doctor.
‘Maybe I am. You’re losing time now, Lilian,’ she thought, but when she spoke it was to say, “Dad, really, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired, is all,”
She gave her best impression of a carefree smile. He kept his eyes on her. For a moment she was worried he might start one of his lectures, to remind her what would happen if people found out she could read. But then he nodded and opened the back door to the carriage. She climbed in, sighing with relief.
‘Am I really alright? That historia…,’ she thought, picturing the book Mr. Caraway had been holding. Lilian couldn’t be certain, but she was sure it had something to do with that book. She’d been known to lose track of time when engrossed in a book, but this was something entirely different.
Jasper climbed into the passenger side, turning around in his seat. Outside, her father was cranking the engine back to life.
“So, how was the book?,” Jasper asked. “You were practically in another world the whole time you read it,”
She opened her mouth to answer. She was going to tell him about the sudden loss of time. The two siblings told each other everything, and there had never been a secret between them. Unless it was a secret they were both sharing. But just as she was about to speak, the car door opened and her dad climbed in. He took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together, looking between the two of them.
“Alright, who’s hungry? You can tell us all about the book over something hot to eat,” he said. Jasper was still looking at her, and now so was her dad.
“It wasn’t that bad of a book, was it?” her dad asked in the middle of the silence.
“Strangely enough…I-I don’t remember,” she said. And the strange thing was…she was telling the truth.
“You,” her brother said, “You don’t remember,” as if that were the most ridiculous statement he’d ever heard.
“Yeah…,” she said, before adding, “I must have been really tired,”
Her brother and dad exchanged looks, but no one said a word. Jasper turned around in his seat, but not before giving her a look that clearly stated he wasn’t satisfied with her answer. He probably thought she was just waiting until she could talk without dad around. No one voiced their concerns, and without any more questions, the motor carriage began rattling down the drive. Lilian gave a glance behind her at the manor of Mr. Caraway. Inside he was probably tucking that book away on a shelf somewhere, under lock and key. Just part of a collection.
No one needed to tell her how strange her statement was. They were all thinking the same thing. Because in her sixteen years of living, Lilian had remembered every word she had ever read. Every word, until today.