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, it was with the full knowledge that if anyone saw her, it would be the end of her life as she knew it.
However, she also knew that come tomorrow, she may never get the chance to read this book again. It would be out of her hands, stuck on the shelf of some noble who would never truly appreciate the wonderful story within. A hundred books had passed through her hands and each one had been the same way: delivered by her father to someone with enough money to buy the right to read. How anyone could read a novel and not care about the story was something she would never understand.
Her dad had decided to take the long way back to Corseil, just so she’d have more time to read the book before they were forced to finish the delivery. He was a Royal Librarian. And a Librarian only finds books, they don’t own them. Lilian, as the child of a Librarian, had neither privilege. So these precious moments on the road, so few and far between, were her only opportunities to do what she loved most. Read.
The motor carriage rocked, clattered, rumbled, and rattled constantly, but luckily Lilian had long ago grown used 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. She looked at her younger brother, Jasper, who was snoring in the passenger seat next to their dad.
Lilian and Jasper shared the same honey-blonde hair, and though he was almost two years younger than her, people often mistook him for being the oldest. He was nearly as tall as their dad, who was the odd one amongst the trio. He had scruffy brown hair and a short beard that was already developing flecks of grey.
Lilian watched as her dad stared endlessly at the illuminated road in front of them, noticing the bags under his hazel eyes, despite them being hidden behind wire-rimmed spectacles. He’d barely slept since they went looking for this book, and she could still see the stain of blood on the sleeve of his white button-up.
“The dangers of being a Librarian,” he’d said, lightheartedly, as she’d stitched up the wound just a few, short hours ago. She’d scolded him for going out for the historia on his own. It was his own rule, and yet he’d broken it. Why even bother creating the rules if he was going to just run off on his own and forget about them? She was still upset over that.
Outside, they were finally leaving the cobblestone streets of the town called Astonmire, where they’d found the book she now had in her lap. Astonmire had been just like most towns they visited for her dad’s work. Secluded, small. But the trees were different here. Tall. They rose up like narrow pillars with hardly a branch, before forming a thick canopy over their heads just as the vehicle wound its way onto a dirt path. With the lights of the small town finally behind them, she was in the clear.
Lilian stared down at the book in her lap. So small for something so dangerous. She only had a few hours left on the trip, though, so she opened the cover and began to read. The pages were coarse, but not too stiff, though the edges had begun to chip away. Her eyes moved over the box-shaped symbols. She sounded it out in her mind and read…
In the forest, there was a creek…
…and then blinked in confusion as she heard her name.
“Lilian,” her father said. “Lilian, are you okay?”
She was standing. Why was she standing?
She looked around, noticing that her dad, her brother, and a man she didn’t know were watching her with worried expressions. “I’m sorry, w-wh-what was that?,” she asked, shaking her head. She took in her surroundings, noting the polished decor, the glittering chandelier, and the man standing next to her father, dressed in a finely tailored dinner jacket and holding a cane with a stone carved headpiece shaped like a bear. Hadn’t she just been in the car reading?
She was dressed in the same clothes; floral skirt, white blouse, boots, and a loose shawl draped around her shoulders. Her mess of honey-blonde hair was still stuffed in the knitted cap she always wore, which didn’t really come as a surprise. But somehow, everything else had changed. She was standing in the foyer of what was clearly the home of a noble. How had she…
“I asked if you were okay. You looked like you left us there for a moment. Daydreaming, dear?” her father asked, before turning to look at the man in the dinner jacket. “I apologize for the concern, Mr. Caraway, we’ve had a long trip. You know how extended travel gets to you,”
“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,” the man named 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. A sharp pain of confusion rose up in her mind once more. How had she ended up here? 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 her 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. In front of her the city of Corseil sprawled before her, a jumble of red-tiled roofs and brick chimneys on the foothills leading down to the distant coast. The manor they were at was on one of the tallest hills, and from here she could see down to the streets below and the sea beyond.
“What was that about?,” Jasper asked, the moment they were out in the open air. But 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.
“Dad, really, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I’m just really tired, is all,” she said, giving 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.
But was she really alright? She thought back to the cover of that book, the one Mr. Caraway had been holding. The one with the picture of a willow tree and a sword. Something was wrong. Very wrong.
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.
“Strangely enough…I-I don’t remember,” she said. And the 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.