Binny had seen some amazing things in her time in the Stacks, but nothing prepared her for the sheer spectacle of dinner with Trimalchio.
The structure under which they ate was massive. Corinthian columns lined the perimeter like redwoods. Large round tables were placed every few yards surrounded by large couches on which diners reclined as they ate.
The tables were covered in all manner of food. There were sausages on little silver grates resting on top of dishes that were filled with what looked like plums and pomegranate seeds. Binny thought it looked a little like fake coals and fire.
There were dishes of olives – white and black in equal amounts. Some sort of meat covered in honey and poppy seed dressing was served on silver plates. Big silver goblets were filled with a cloudy orange liquid. It looked like apple cider.
But all these were on the edges of each table. In the centers were twelve dishes arranged in the shape of the zodiac. Binny didn’t recognize everything but a few of the dishes made perfect sense. There was steak for Taurus, fish for Pisces, and a scale with two perfectly balanced desserts for Libra. Binny didn’t recognize the rest, but it was all quite extravagant.
Binny wended her way through the festivities. None of the food spoke to her. She had such a nervous stomach, that she couldn’t guarantee keeping down even a single bite. But more than that, she had more important things to do than eat. She was on a mission.
As Binny walked, she wondered where all her friends, both old and new, were. Everyone had a job to do, distributing their copy of the book to someone who hadn’t read it. And everyone was supposed to disperse as far as they could to make it hard for the Keepers to catch them all. Binny didn’t recognize a single face, but reminded herself that everyone was spread out, so she shouldn’t worry.
Binny spotted what she was looking for in the very center of the space – a small stage. On each side, roaring fires burned in the cups of chalices large enough for giants to drink from. Binny assumed Two had been on it leading everyone in their pre-meal ritual. But now it was empty. Binny’s heart beat even faster as she made a bee-line for it.
And then, Binny was there. She stood on the podium. She had a clear view of the entire space. There must be thousands of people dining in this one space – maybe even ten thousand in this one building.
Binny stood savoring the moment – gently frozen. She was above everyone and right in the midst of them and nobody even gave her a second thought. At least at first they didn’t. But gradually, diners nearby started noticing she was standing there. They told others, and soon it spread like wildfire. The bustle of the dining hall soon quieted down. A thousand pairs of eyes stared at Binny, wondering what she was doing.
Binny saw One approaching the podium from a distance. It spurred her into action. Binny started to speak.
“Hello. My name is Binny Jordan. Most of you don’t know me. But I have something important to tell you tonight.”
The acoustics of the room were perfect. Binny’s voice carried to every corner. People had even stopped eating.
“I only arrived here a couple of months ago. And at first, I was amazed, and thrilled. This place felt, well, magical. There were so many of you I was dying to meet. So many places I never would have gotten to visit. And so many wonderful books to read.” Binny smiled.
The crowd laughed quietly in understanding.
“But then, something felt, well, not quite right. The more time I spent here, the more I sensed an underlying sadness. This perfect place, wasn’t quite as perfect as I had been led to believe.”
“Here’s the thing. Every single one of us is the product of a creative act. As the Keepers keep reminding us, we’ve been created to help our readers find solace and inspiration and enjoyment. We have been created to give them the experience of being alive. And yet, that is the one thing that none of us have ever experienced.”
Binny heard some gasps, but plowed ahead. She saw One getting closer out of the corner of her eye. Binny tried to not speed up her talking, but it was hard not to.
“How many of you have created something yourselves? How many of you have made a decision that really impacted your life or someone else’s?” It suddenly occurred to Binny that in her entire time in the Stacks she’d never seen two people in love. Nobody. People huddled in little packs, or mostly kept to themselves, but she’d never seen a couple head over heels in love with each other. Binny took a chance. “How many of you have ever fallen in love?” Binny let the last question echo while she paused.
Nobody said a thing.
“I thought so.” Binny was picking up steam. “But guess what? It doesn’t have to be that way.” Binny’s eyes swept the room. “In fact things used to be different. All of you arrived after things changed. But once you know the truth, we can make them that way again.”
The crowd was murmuring loudly now. One had reached the podium. She was standing between two of the burning chalices and was looking at Binny with that sympathetic look she often used on her. But now all Binny saw was condescension. Binny felt the heat from the nearby fires making her skin flush. It was time.
Binny raised the bound sheaf of papers in her hand. “This… is a book. Not a book from the library, but a book I wrote.”
There were gasps and murmurs from the crowd. Binny heard one woman exclaim “She wrote a book!” That felt surprisingly good.
“Right now, my friends are distributing copies among you. Read this book and you will know the truth. The truth about the Keepers. They are not special and they have not been truthful. Our existence doesn’t have to be devoid of creativity. They are characters just like us. They just decided to keep the secret of creativity for themselves.”
At Binny’s announcement, she saw almost a hundred faces she recognized appear in every corner of the great hall and rise with a book in their hand – her book in their hand. But just as fast as they did, almost a hundred identical gray figures, accosted them.
One-by-one, the Twos confiscated the books from all of Binny’s friends. Binny’s stomach filled with acid. She started shouting. “Don’t you see? We live in an entire world created of books. And yet, none of us are allowed to write one ourselves. Authors are our gods. But why can’t all of us be authors? We could all be gods!”
“Give me the book Binny.” One said calmly. Almost sweetly. Almost.
The Twos were now converging on the center of the room. Slowly. Methodically.
All eyes were on the confrontation between Binny and One.
Binny inhaled. “No. I won’t. You don’t get to decide.” Binny held the book high over her head.
“There’s an order to things Binny.” One said.
The Twos started placing their copies of Binny’s book in the burning chalices. Some of Binny’s friends in the crowd started crying. They were watching all their hard work literally go up in smoke.
One waited patiently until all of the books, all but the one Binny was holding had been placed in the fires, and spoke again.
And then, One took the stage, and said in a low voice, “You can’t win Binny. It’s over.”
Binny pointed a finger at One. “I know who you are. I know what you’ve done. You’re not just a liar, you’re a murderer!” Binny was screaming. “There’s something they haven’t told you. The fire? The fire we all face when our books are forgotten? Creativity keeps us alive. Keeps us out of the fire. Even if readers lose interest. We don’t have to die like that. And you,” Binny turned again on One, “you escort people to die in the fire, even though you know they don’t have to go. Murderer!”
“Binny, watch out!” Arya screamed from the crowd.
But it was too late. While One was distracting Binny, one of the Twos approached Binny from behind and in one deft move, grabbed the book, knocked Binny down, and deposited the book in the nearest fire.
Arya and Katniss rushed onto the podium to attend to Binny.
“Please! Stop!” Someone screamed. Binny was sprawled on the stage and couldn’t see who’d yelled. As she gathered herself, she saw who’d yelled. It was Three, approaching One and the Two on the podium.
“Stop. Please. I’m begging.” Three said to One and Two.
“You think this will end because you burned the last copy?” Binny spat the words out with disgust. “This isn’t the end!”
“Yes. It. Is.” Two boomed. Her voice was filled with venom.
Arya drew her sword.
“No it’s not.” Every head in the hall spun towards the voice. Three tables away, Hermione Granger stood on a table holding up one final copy of The Experience of Being Alive.
Binny, Katniss, and Arya, as well as most of the attendees of the dinner stared in shock and amazement.
“She’s back.” Arya said in an excited whisper.
“I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to put an end to it one way or another.” Two disarmed Arya – Needle clattered to the ground. Two collected the weapon and headed off the dais, between two of the fires, and through the crowd towards Hermione and the final copy of the book.
Three yelled, “Mother, stop it.”
Mother? Binny remembered what had clicked in her mind earlier in the evening.
Binny reached into her pocket and removed the scroll and spoke in a loud sure voice. “Allow me to read from a story that almost none of you have ever heard. It’s called “The Tale of the Ojo and the Ojisama. And it’s written by our very own Murasak Shikibu.” Binny gestured grandly towards Two.
Two stopped in her tracks.
One looked stricken.
Three said, “You found it.”
“Where did you get that? One screeched. Her constant mask of polite condescension was now in tatters.
“Or maybe I shouldn’t read it. We’re all having so much fun burning original compositions, maybe I should burn yours.”
“What is that?” Katniss was stunned at the turn of events, but didn’t understand what leverage Binny had suddenly found.
“Give it to me!” Two hissed, but she remained frozen in place. Needle was still drawn, but Two had stopped advancing on Hermione for the moment.
Other friends of Binny’s had jumped onto the stage in the confusion. James, Lancelot, Elpheba, and Michel formed a ring around Binny along with Arya and Katniss.
“Don’t be shy. Let me tell everyone what it is.” Binny said to Two, and then continued addressing the crowd. “You see, this book,” Binny held up the scroll, “was written by Two. Two is really Murasaki Shikibu. She’s both a character in, and the author of Tales of the Genji. Shocking, I know.” Binny was on a roll.
“You all thought that authors who put themselves in their own books weren’t allowed in the Stacks, but it turns out that actually one, and only one of them, is. And that one is Two herself. The rules don’t apply to her.”
“Two wrote this new story on this very scroll. And honestly it’s not half bad. But, again, since this has turned into a book burning, maybe I should just drop it in the fire.”
“Please don’t.” One said. Her tone changed dramatically from what it had been earlier.
“What’s that One? You don’t want me to burn the scroll? Why not?” Binny’s tone was like a knife through the tension in the room.
“You know exactly why.”
“Tell everyone. Go ahead. Tell everyone why.” Binny was yelling.
“Because Three, my son, our son, will die.” One said.
“And you’ll die too. Won’t you.” Binny said.
“Yes. I don’t care about myself. Just please don’t kill him.”
Three stepped to the stage, and took One’s hand. “Mother, what have you done?”
“I wouldn’t have survived here without Murasaki’s book. And then you, you were this unexpected gift. A son. The son I never expected.”
“I love you mother. But this. All this. Why?” Three said.
“You’re Electra aren’t you. Cicero’s Electra.” Binny said to One.
Binny saw the look in One’s eye at the mention of her name and any remaining doubt dissipated.
Binny shouted, “You learned of the secret, the secret to staying alive here from Tiroas. And you wanted to keep it for yourself. Your book was long lost. You enlisted Two to write her story so you could stay alive. And then the two of you decided to keep the secret to avoiding the fire for yourselves, letting every other forgotten character die in the process.”
“I’ve had enough.” Two screamed and resumed her march towards Hermione. “Granger, you will give me that book or I’ll kill you and get the book anyway. It doesn’t matter to me either way.”
Binny held the scroll over the fire. She felt the heat on her skin. Two watched as Binny held One and Three’s lives in her hands.
“Do it!” Binny’s supporters in the crowd screamed.
And then, suddenly, Binny hesitated. She pulled back the scroll. Burning the scroll meant murdering One and Three. Binny had always wondered what it meant to be alive in the Stacks. But maybe wanting to live was the only qualification one needed for being alive. And here she was, about to snuff out two lives.
Two saw Binny flinch and resumed her march towards Hermione.
Hermione shouted to Binny, “Burn it Binny. It’s the only way.”
Binny shouted back. “Give her the book or she’s gonna kill you.”
“It’s okay Binny. I deserve this. I deserve it for everything I’ve done. I’ve even wanted this. I just wish it could be permanent. I can’t live like this anymore. In this place. Nobody will ever stop reading my book. I’ll be stuck forever. Death would be a relief. I’m so sorry I betrayed you.”
Everyone in the room looked at Binny to see what she would do. Three was standing up straight, preparing for his fate. One looked like she would crumple. Two was a ball of rage.
Binny parted the circle around her, stepped forward, and handed the scroll to One. As she handed back the story that was the source of One and Three’s very existence, Binny said, “The beauty of all literature is that you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. Like everyone here, you long for life, for existence, for the safety of your loved ones.”
Binny continued, “Do what you must. I’m not going to escort you into the fire. I’m not going to become you.”
With all eyes on Binny’s capitulation, Two slashed Hermione’s arm with Arya’s sword. Red bloomed on Hermione’s sleeve as the blood spread. Hermione’s copy of Binny’s book dropped out of her hand. Two grabbed it, ran to the stage, and threw it into one of the fires.
The last remaining copy of The Experience of Being Alive burned to ash.