“Don’t be afraid child. I won’t scratch you.” Two said. “What are your names?”
Binny tried to collect herself, and then started looking harder at the woman. It was definitely Two, but somehow different. Two was acting like she didn’t know who Binny or any of them were. And now that Binny had just a brief moment to evaluate the situation, she realized that the major difference was that this Two was in full color. No gray. With color on her face and in her clothes, this Two seemed somehow warmer.
Binny and the others introduced themselves. They exchanged glances with each other as they did so, registering that they all noticed the woman’s resemblance to Two. But no one said anything about it. Hermione, however, was looking increasingly uncomfortable.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Murasaki Shikibu.”
“You’re an author too?” Katniss asked.
“Of course she is. She wrote The Tale of the Genji.” Michel offered.
Murasaki smiled broadly. “So kind of you to know. But I’m afraid, that’s not actually my work.”
“I’m confused. I thought everyone here was an author.” Binny said.
“It’s a confusing story. Sometimes I’m not sure I understand it myself. But I’ll try to explain. I arrived here in the year 2000. I’m actually a character in a book called, unsurprisingly, The Tale of Murasaki.”
“I think I understand.” Binny interrupted, her mind moving at a furious pace. “Murasaki didn’t put herself in her books. So she wasn’t in the Stacks. But when your author wrote about her, you appeared.”
“But…” Michel interrupted.
Murasaki had been about to speak, but motioned to Michel and smiled, “Go ahead.”
Michel was excited to explain. He took a breath and tried to speak more slowly. “But, Murasaki did put herself in the Tale of Genji. She’s one of the main characters.”
“Exactly.” Murasaki agreed. “One would have thought she would already be here. But she wasn’t. But I am here.”
“You only get a second version of a character in the Stacks if the second one is different enough from the original.” Katniss mused.
“I don’t feel good.” Hermione said.
Arya faced her, concerned. Arya was feeling indebted to Hermione for healing her earlier. “Can I help with anything? Is there a spell you could use?”
“No, honestly. I’ll be fine. I just think this entire day is catching up with me. I’m gonna head home. It’s a long trek, and I want to get back to the house for some sleep before work tomorrow.”
“Are you kidding? We’ve come all this way, and you’re gonna leave now? Do you not see what’s happening?” Katniss was indignant.
Hermione smiled weakly. “You guys finish all your detective work. I’ll see you at home.”
Arya tried one last time. “I’ll go with you if you want to make sure you get home okay.”
“No need. I’ll be fine.” Hermione’s voice sailed across the room before she disappeared through the doorway.
“Let her go.” Binny said. “She doesn’t understand.”
“Do we understand?” Katniss and Michel asked at the same time.
“I think I do.” Binny nodded solemnly. “I just have one more thing to confirm.” Binny turned to the woman at the desk with the stone tablets. “Anna, I think I have something for you.”
The woman’s almond eyes widened in surprise.
Binny walked over to her, slowly put her hands on either side of the woman’s head and brought it down towards her mouth. Binny kissed the woman on the head twice.
“The first one is from Inanna. The second is from me.”
When Anna lifted her head, a single tear was rolling slowly down her cheek, and she had a big smile on her face. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
It was dark in the forest. The moon was a bright sliver, like a glowing wound on onyx skin. They had to be vigilant as they walked. They walked and walked. Through the forest and past Inanna’s temple.
“Oh shoot!” Binny smacked her head with her palm.
“What is it?” Arya asked.
“I forgot. At Diyu. I forgot to do something.”
“What did you forget?” Katniss asked.
“I wanted to meet someone who I think is there. I’m just so exhausted and overwhelmed that I forgot to ask.”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to come back here at some point and visit.” Arya said.
“I hope so.” Binny added, not so sure herself.
They didn’t need to go through Merlin’s cave, as the rocky terrain of the British Isles was empty of fighters. They did have to avoid the periodic dead body though. They walked past where the Sphinx had blocked their path. It was nowhere to be seen. And they walked on the precipice of and through the intestines of the great Wall. Three wasn’t waiting for them at the gate below. The kept walking.
“Binny, even though we know what’s happening, how is it really going to help us? We still have to go to work in our books. Our lives still have no meaning in this place. No consequences. No creativity allowed.” Katniss asked.
“I must say, I am so impressed Binny with how you led us to the truth today. But I agree with Katniss. How will this really help us? It seems like our only choices here are different kinds of prisons. Either the authors’ or ours.”
“I don’t know where any of this is going. But I know this. Today was the most fun I’ve had here in years. So, whatever Binny wants to do next, I’m in.” And then Arya added. “Do you think Hermione is alright?”
Binny walked for a bit, until they were at the edge of where the color started to fade, and the Doldrums began, then Binny stopped and turned to the others.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen. This thing, the Stacks, could be, was, an incredible place once. It was a place I could imagine being happy. And I don’t know about you, but now that I know that, I don’t think I can stop trying to find a way to turn it back into that place. To reverse the damage.”
Arya, Michel, and Katniss all responded in the affirmative. “We’re in.”
Binny smiled. She felt warm, and loved. “Okay, then the first thing we need to do, after making sure we don’t think about nothing so we can get through the Doldrums – and no Arya, you may not use your sword on the Lethargarians – is keep our mouths shut until we come up with a plan. The Keepers can’t know that we know what they’ve done until we want them to. OK?” Binny looked at the others for confirmation.
“Alright, let’s go.”
Binny was the last to emerge from the book on the lectern. Arya, Katniss, and Michel preceded her. Nothing prepared her for the reception that awaited them.
One, Two, and Three stood in a semi-circle – grave looks on each of their faces. Though to Binny, Three looked more sad than angry. They were in the Rare Books Room, but the rare books were not. Every shelf had been cleared. The only book remaining was the one they had just left, and that book disappeared under Two’s loose robe as soon as Binny made her exit.
This was not the fictional version of Murasaki Shikibu from the recent book. This was Two. Devoid of color. Devoid of compassion in Binny’s mind. And very very angry.
One spoke. “You have all made the most of your day off, haven’t you.”
No one responded.
“Thankfully, Hermione here was worried enough about your safety to let us know.”
Binny felt like she’d been punched in the stomach. She just now noticed that beyond the Keepers, Hermione Granger stood, fidgeting, and looking at her feet. She wouldn’t look any of them in the eye. Binny was simmering with rage, but kept her mouth shut.
One stepped closer to Binny and knelt down. “Are you not happy here? Have we not provided all you might need?” And then after a pause, One added, “Has he been a bad influence on you?”
Binny still said nothing.
One stepped back and addressed the group. She appeared to make a conscious effort to smile. It only made things more tense. “In a world filled with books detailing countless adventures, we shouldn’t be surprised that you sought out some adventure of your own today.”
One continued. “However, for your safety, and the safety of everyone in the Stacks, we’re going to have to ask that you not do that again. The Stacks is a delicate ecosystem. Changing one aspect can have drastic effects on others. And ultimately we have responsibilities to live up to. Real responsibilities.”
Michel spoke. “Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.”
Two flinched and gave Michel a hard stare. Then, still looking at him, she addressed the foursome. “Do you all remember what those responsibilities are?” Two’s voice was that of a serpent.
They all said, “While thoughts exist, words are alive and literature becomes an escape, not from, but into living.” Hermione and the Keepers said the words in unison as well.
“Excellent.” One smiled as if everything had been wrapped up neatly. “I have business to tend to. Two will escort Michel home. Three will take the girls back to Misselthwaite Manor, and tomorrow is a new day.”
Binny was the last to go through the wooden door set in the outer wall of the grand hallway. Three hadn’t said a word the entire walk back. No one had. Hermione hadn’t accompanied them. Binny didn’t know where she was. It was just as well as Binny had absolutely zero desire to see her ever again.
Binny was about to go through the door when Three touched her shoulder. She turned to face him.
Three took Binny’s hand in both of his. “Please be careful.” He held on for an extra second. And then, before Binny had a chance to respond, he had let go and was walking away at a brisk pace.
What had he meant? ‘Be careful.’ Of what? For some reason Hector, and his sword, the covered in blood flashed in her mind. Binny closed the door to the hallway and entered the Secret Garden trying to banish the image from her thoughts.
And then Binny noticed, there was something in her palm. She’d been so struck by Three’s comment that she hadn’t noticed he’d closed her fist around something when he let go of her. It was a key, made of bronze, and finely-shaped with an ivory handle. Binny was befuddled by the entire exchange and slipped the key into her pocket. The air was clean and crisp in the garden at night.
“Are you coming?” Katniss said.
“I’ll be in soon. Go on without me.” Binny responded.
“Do you think Hermione is coming? Arya asked.
“Come on, let’s go.” Katniss put her arm around Arya’s shoulder and went on to the house.
Binny couldn’t care less if she ever saw Hermione Granger again. Hermione had betrayed them to the Keepers for who knew what reasons. But a betrayal was a betrayal and Binny would never forgive her.
For the first time in what seemed like a long time, even though it had just been a very long and intense day, Binny had some time to herself. It was so late and her body was tired, but her mind was on fire.
Binny was briefly startled, but then recognized the voice.
“Oh, it’s you.”
“Yeah. It’s me.” Hillel smiled. “You’ve had quite the adventure today.”
“So everyone keeps telling me. And to be honest, you weren’t of much help.”
“You didn’t need any of my help. You managed quite well on your own.” Hillel beamed.
Binny glared, but was too tired to stay angry for long. “It doesn’t matter anyway. Hermione sold us out to the Keepers. They know what we did. What we found.”
“So? So they know.” Binny spoke like she was addressing a young child.
“Gah! You are infuriating. What do you expect me to do? What exactly do you want from me?” Binny demanded.
Hillel raised his hands in surrender. “I don’t want anything. I just appreciate seeing you in action up close.”
“What am I – entertainment for you?”
“Well, if you must put it that way. I guess. But you’re so much more. Binny, you’re this living breathing person. You’re creativity personified. Literally. I just love seeing you evolve and grow. It’s quite thrilling.”
“Breathing? Maybe. Living? Not so much.”
“What do you mean?”
“This place. You know what I mean. It’s a prison. And frankly, you’re lucky you didn’t end up in one yourself.”
“Yeah. We found them. The authors who wrote themselves into their books. But you aren’t trapped there.” Binny was speaking and then stopped short. “Wait, but you know all this. You’re writing it. Why am I even telling you?”
“I don’t get it. Before, you didn’t seem to know where the authors were. Now you act like you already know. Were you lying then?”
“So, what is it? You just didn’t know?”
“But it’s your book.” Binny complained.
“I told you Binny, I don’t always know what’s going to happen. I find out just a little before you do, from the characters. Mainly from you in fact.”
“This is a maddening experience.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“No. You can’t.”
“So what happens next? No. Wait. Don’t tell me. You don’t know. I have to tell you.”
“Bingo.” Hillel said.
“Look. I don’t know what to do next.” Binny raised her voice. “The Keepers control everything. The only other people with any power here are authors and they’re all locked away. Every one of them but you. And you are totally useless. I thought, that maybe, if I could surprise them I could tell everyone in the Stacks about them and, I dunno, maybe start a little revolution, but now they know. They’ve taken all the books out of the Rare Books Room. I can’t get back to the places we went today.”
“So you want to start a revolution here in the Stacks?” Hillel couldn’t stop himself from smiling.
His smile annoyed Binny to no end. “Well, I wanted to. It sounds stupid now, saying it out loud.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter anyway, that’s not happening.” Binny huffed.
“Because, nobody will believe me. You see how they work. They control everything. Even if I tell people what happened, they’ll never believe me. Hermione saw it with her own eyes and ran to them to help them cover it up.”
“What did you say before about power in the Stacks?”
Binny rolled her eyes. “You know, I know what you’re doing with these questions – leading me to some conclusion you want me to find. It’s annoying. You could just tell me what to do.”
“That would be less entertaining for the reader.”
Binny sighed. “I said, that the Keepers are the only ones with any power. Other than the authors of course.”
Hillel raised his eyebrows as Binny spoke her final sentence.
“What am I supposed to do with that exactly?” Binny was getting incredibly frustrated. “I’m not an author. I’m a character. It’s you authors that always want to be characters in your own books. Us characters stay characters. None of us become authors of our own books.”
Hillel smiled his widest smile of the entire night and said, “Good night Binny.”