This is not a complete story. In fact, it wasn't supposed to be a story at all.
In February 2017, my friend Oliver and I started collaborating on a novel. The impetus for this work was the same question posed in the chapter below: What kind of person burns down a library?
This question, and the many enthusiastic conversations that it spawned, was enough to propel us through two years of writing back-and-forth, trying to find an answer. The resulting first draft was about 127,000 words long, and it contained hundreds of scenes that were incredibly fun to write. It also needed a lot of work. We were sure that this was a book worth writing and reading, but we were daunted by the prospect of editing such a long manuscript.
The plot, in particular, felt hazy to me. We had created engaging characters and memorable imagery, but I wasn't sure how it all fit together, or where it was going. What you'll find below was supposed to be just a summary; an outline meant to organize our story into an editable shape.
However, I didn't really get any momentum on this task for two more years. Not until I realized that I could reframe it as yet another story, struggling to be told. One about a storyteller, certain that he has something amazing to share, but who fears he is incapable of delivering it to his audience intact...
Something about that framing made it a lot easier to write.
Consider the following to be a preview (or maybe an imperfect retelling) of the true story of the library Alexandria.
The Eye and Flame - PART I
They say a red comet colored the sky the day Gnad lost its Memory.
None here could claim even a grandfather to have witnessed that celestial visitor, so long past is its flight. But the path of a comet is a circle centuries wide, and we may yet be blessed in our lifetime to marvel at its return. Not so of Gnad, whose name historians have long dismissed as myth. Yet in its day, Gnad stood mightier and reached farther than even your own good kingdom (if you'll forgive me saying so).
Your Majesty has spared my life in exchange for a story. A wiser man than I would surely select some simpler tale; but my flair for the dramatic delivered me into this trouble and perhaps it will also deliver me out. I only ask that you listen attentively, and do not write down my words. You have perhaps heard renditions of this story before, but I humbly aim to reveal the truth within the myth.
I present to the court an account of the last true storyteller: Alexandria of Gnad, executed for her story.
Where would a story begin in this part of the world, if not on the river Mour? She who floods for your fields and delivers taxes up from your subjects who farm them. The delta is a coveted gate to plenty, so it can't surprise you that yours is not the first kingdom to have blossomed here. Before you, or Appalone, or Kirzek, or End, Gnad lorded over these lands and drew succor from the only river in the desert. Before even Gnad, the warlike Dafmari lived here, but I will speak of them later.
Despite the centuries between its returns, the Gnadians knew exactly which day the comet would arrive – and they had planned a festival. How could their predictions be so precise? Modern astronomers would scoff at the presumption, but Gnad had a powerful tool: the Eternal Memory. This was not a device, but a woman – trained from youth to shape her mind into a labyrinth of recollection. The Memory was not a historian, who might consult the books of your Majesty's library to reconstruct the past. How could she be? Gnad ruled so long ago, they had no system of writing. This woman was the library itself, and she committed the entirety of Gnad's history into her maze of a mind.
The end of this story calls to me here at the start, and demands that I ask an unfortunate question: What kind of man burns down a library? A savage, you say - a lunatic, a despot, or a conqueror. Someone without regard for history or progress, surely. Can such a crime ever be justified? I dare not answer, but I ask that you attempt it yourself when my tale is finished.
On the same night of the fire in the sky, Alexandria visited another flame underground. Here our story begins in earnest, at the Holy Oven of Sekhet. Deep below the streets of Gnad, a great stone skull burned in a filthy temple. Sekhet, the "Flame": goddess of flesh and fury. A contrite Gnadian could visit Sekhet for the unique pleasure of forgetfulness. With only a short prayer, one could be relieved of any thought or memory. Sekhet would burn it from the mind, and the faithful could never recall it again. Alexandria knelt before the Oven and might have wept, if not for the shriveling flame that billowed from Sekhet's sockets and maw. When her prayer was done, the Memory returned to the surface of Gnad lighter for what she had excised. She who was charged with keeping safe the city's history had stricken something from her own records. What memory had she offered to the hungry goddess? Alexandria herself couldn't say, of course, but she left Sekhet with long-coveted peace of mind.
A better storyteller might now describe to you Alexandria's personality, or her greatest deeds. Many of the greatest stories carry an implicit assertion that the hero's character alone justifies the telling. Why even speak of Heracles, if not to laud his mighty strength? Why lament over Latya in the Underworld, if one does not appreciate the pride to which she tragically succumbed? Perhaps those legends owe their longevity to such simplicity; a listener does not need to know the intricacies of Endian culture to weep for the love of Turon and Felestes.
Alas, I have long been plagued with questions of time and place. What good would Heracles' strength be if he had been born into a family of scholars? Might Turon and Felestes have simply married and lived peaceful lives if End wasn't at war when they met? I stand now wondering if this story is enough to win my freedom, and whether your mood is in my favor. How dependent is my fate on the quality of your Majesty's sleep last night? I do not wish to cast aspersions on classical myths, but I feel that Alexandria must be understood as a woman of a particular era. She was possessed of a frightening intelligence, certainly, and a self-assurance that cowed all who spoke to her. Thousands of pilgrims came to her every year for answers, and it is said that her advice was never once mistaken. That might have been the extent of her thread in the weave of history, if not for the place she lived and the time at which she lived it.
Gnad was a city of sandstone and duality, ruled not by a king or queen, but by a "Memory" and a "Comfort". In lieu of a throne, Gnad's governance was distributed between their two temples. One we have already encountered: the subterranean fire temple of Sekhet, which rested in a hive of stonework beneath the city's western quarter. A grand sacred pathway traced its way from this underground temple, and standing upon it, one could see the obelisk of Sekhet's partner, Orus, in the east.
Known also as the "Eye", Orus was a god of reason and intellect. The high priestess of Orus was the Memory herself, and she saw to all matters of law, trade, and alimentation. Sekhet's high priest, however, was the mindless Comfort. And though he performed a duty of the utmost holiness, his emptiness left him without agency. All day, and all night, the Comfort burned everything to Sekhet. Every thought and sensation that crossed his mind was instantly devoured by his goddess, leaving him pure, yet void.
Thus were the men of the Dafmar thrust into power as Gnad's arbiters of justice, conquest, and protection. A warrior caste without compare, they stood as the earthly manifestation of Gnad's power. Though the Memory guided the city, the Dafmar carried it. They did not truly act on the Comfort's will, however, as he had none. In his place, the Grand Wazir – a renown Dafmar general – directed them in martial matters.
While I find the dual nature of Gnad endlessly fascinating, we will leave its description as-is, and hope that it is a sufficient introduction to the structures that governed the once-mighty city. Alexandria, priestess of the Eye, had made a sacrifice to the Flame, and returned to her temple palace with a secret sense of peace. Of course, it could not last. The Memory was a woman of fastidious attention and vast knowledge, and yet she found herself with a page torn from her ledger. What had she done? What had she burned? What thought had weighed so heavy on her mind that she would commit such a sin?
She soon grew desperate to know which memory she had surrendered to Sekhet, but not only for the reasons you might guess. Beyond mere curiosity, she could see the incredible narrative value of her own contradiction. Alexandria (like myself) fervently appreciated the power of story; it made her an excellent Memory in a time without writing. Your Majesty's royal university is fond of objective accounts and verifiable truths. Your archivists wish to uncover history by reassembly. Find enough shreds of the tapestry, and one can estimate its original beauty… Until another scrap is found, and the estimation must be revised.
While I can appreciate the discipline of this method, my heart is inexorably drawn to the romance of tales and fictions. How many millennia did mankind subsist solely on myth? How many learned truths persisted through generations to become universal knowledge? One's own life story is but a miniature, personal myth. A tale told to oneself to untangle the past and anticipate the future. But even historians exempt the story of their own life from scholarly rigor. In Gnad, that exemption was assumed; who could know the past but a storyteller? They believed that someone ought to protect our most valuable lessons from the erosion of time. A woman trained to sculpt memories down to their sturdiest forms. No one knows the name of the first person to die of snake venom, yet every man, woman, and child shivers when they see a serpent. It is doubtless little more than whimsy in your eyes, but Gnad was prosperous in this approach. Story drives all societies, whether they admit it or not – those in antiquity were just more direct about it. Gnad flourished in its culture, and its culture blossomed out of stories told, not written.
Alexandria was a storyteller, and she knew a story's proper shape. She knew that the greatest tales began with a question. She was fascinated by her own mystery, but found no ready answer. Why would the goatherd abandon her goats? Why would the fisherman cut his own net? Why would the Memory choose to forget? She had no one to ask for advice, for none would presume to advise the library herself. The red comet burned the sky that night, and Alexandria found no sleep in its light. The desert morning sun soon burned out the red streak of the comet, chasing it away for another few centuries. But before the tail disappeared over the horizon, it shone its last light on a new arrival to Gnad, one who is an almost perfect inverse of the Eternal Memory.
Here we meet the Memory's shadow and reflection – a man without any past.
No one has been able to determine where the mystic came from, or why he went to Gnad when he did. Perhaps the comet drew his attention, speaking to some prophecy of which only he knew. I doubt any of his cult still exist; though they surely thought the same in the days of Alexandria. I suspect there was great prejudice against his faith, for no details remain of its tenets or gods; the result of extreme taboo in my estimation. Only the title of 'mystic' survives - traditionally associated with those who commune with djinn and ifrit.
This man entered Gnad through a pauper's gate, his skin weathered from years in the desert, carrying nothing but a long cloth wrapped around his waist. His hair and beard were matted almost solid, and he had not even a name. He was identifiable only by the tattoo of an eye on one palm, and a tattoo of flame on the other. A figure with no past, but tied inexorably to the future of this city. I like to think of him as an ember, hidden among the ashes, quietly waiting for kindling. What dry grass would find him first?
Though his original intent may be unknowable, it's not hard to imagine how soon the mystic's attention would be drawn to the Memory. Gnad was no stranger to pilgrimages, as Alexandria was the only Memory this side of the Endian mountains. Surely there were other travelers entering through the pauper gate, whispering their hope to gain an audience with Orus' high priestess. So the mystic began to ask the common people, in the markets and streets: "Where is your Memory?" Only the beggar children bothered answer the ragged, dirty man: the Memory was standing in the square by the Pool of Blessings.
The mystic found the Pool at the center of the road between the temples of Orus and Sekhet, halfway from each god. And of course, there he saw the children's' jest. The only Memory standing by the Pool was a grand brass statue of her, looming in effigy three times the height of the actual woman.
The mystic sat by the Pool, defeated in his search, and watched the Gnadian crowds. Merchants bustled by imperiously; some in earnest business and others simply parading their wealth with silks and camels. Peddler women offered sweetcakes to the visitors of the Pool, waving scents of honey and anise under his nose. Children both rich and beggarly laughed and chased each other through the common area.
And at the far end of the square, beyond the Memory's statue and almost out of sight, a group of young men huddled near a well. The mystic watched them for a time, confused. The youths took turns boasting and strutting, before diving into the tiny mouth of the well, only to inevitably return to the surface. Those that exited the well were contrite and suffered the jeers of the group, clearly defeated in their reason for diving.
The mystic hailed a child that ran past. "What are those boys doing at the well, child?"
"Habrin, habrin!" (the word doesn't translate exactly Your Majesty...think of it as "masculine challenge").
Fascinated, the ragged man watched the youths for a time; not a single challenger could stay in the well for longer than a minute. Finally, only one remained, tall and curly-haired. The young man slipped into the well with the ease of an otter, and did not return. The mystic and youths alike waited as the seconds slipped by. Whispers permeated the square, until merchants, children, and peddlers all held their breath in fear.
It had been too long. The mystic mouthed a prayer for his soul's safe travel into the Beyond. The square fell silent.
Until the Pool erupted beside him, drenching the mystic in holy water. A triumphant young man strode from the depths with glistening confidence, carrying a clay idol and hardly appearing fatigued. It was as if a fabled demigod of the Mour had returned to the surface, smiling and proud. He laughed heartily and waved to his friends, chest heaving steady and powerful. Only then did he notice the mystic beside him, drenched in the waters he'd thrown out.
The youth immediately took the mystic by the shoulders. "My apologies sir! I didn't see you there - hard to see anything from under the water!" He called to everyone in the square and held the clay figure high. "Behold your luck!" Then he smashed the clay to the ground, spilling several fragments into the pool. Many passersby gasped in horror, but the young man half-carried the frail mystic away before any confrontation arose.
The swimmer called to his friends for a towel. As he dried the mystic off, he smiled warmly. "There, no real harm done. What's your name sir, that I might apologize properly? I'm Michael."
The mystic stared up at Michael, and blinked in the midmorning sun that shone through his curls. "The light..." he whispered. "It favors you."
Michael just smiled. "Alright, you don't have to tell me..."
"...Habrin. My name is Habrin."
"Well then Habrin, allow me to complete my penance with a hot meal. My father's house will provide." Michael kicked the remaining clay pieces into the water, and winked at the mystic.
Speaking as a historian, I dare not lay any particular emphasis on this moment. As a storyteller, however, I can't help but note the significance of "Habrin" meeting Michael. It is a turning point for the character of the mystic, a change of focus that was surely unexpected. If Habrin had simply missed the diving contest, he might have continued after his first quarry, and sought an ordinary audience with Alexandria. What kind of story would that have been? Personally, I suspect there would be no story — at least, not one that would have endured to today.
I know your Majesty to be a skeptic and a man of reason, but I beg you to allow the thought of 'destiny' to reside between us temporarily. Could this story have been born any other way? Was the mystic destined to meet Michael? The great city of Gnad would certainly hope not, as that meeting led directly to its destruction. For my part though, it is difficult not to ascribe a sort of eternal significance to this moment. Without it, Habrin may have simply passed on through Gnad, never to tug at the frayed ends of its tapestry. If not for Michael, Habrin and Gnad's confrontation would not bring the death that it did. I would therefore have no story to tell, and would be dead myself by your order. I confess that every moment which contributes to my continued existence feels important — no matter if it is fictitious, and even if it is imagined. Surely I am not the only man in this room guilty of such self-serving fancy.
Their fated meeting accomplished, Michael and Habrin left the square amid the glares of merchants and the cheers of young Dafmar men. The mystic watched Michael closely, fascinated by his composure of easy defiance before the grumbling merchants. Some few of the latter tried to fish broken pieces of clay from the Pool, but only came away with the smallest shards. Michael noticed Habrin's attention and swelled his chest with pride.
"The Guild merchants are superstitious fools." He pulled Habrin close in a confidential manner. "The Memory commands them to build drains beneath the streets, and the Guilds can't help but place 'lucky' statues of the Provider inside each one."
The mystic was pleased to keep him so animated, and so followed the lead. "This...offends you? Lucky statues?"
"It's not the statues; it's that the Guilds act like they own this city. Putting their tag on public works to remind everyone who paid for it. After I started smashing them, the Guild workers started hiding the ugly little idol. Thought they were clever, putting this one under the street."
Habrin caught Michael's triumphant smile and basked in it. They had left the beggars and even the commoners behind, and stepped now beneath the spires and outer walls of palaces. To his surprise, Michael lead him not past these grand mansions, but into the grounds of one. This was the home of Michael's father, the highest general of the Dafmar: the Grand Wazir Hakoem.
I spoke earlier of the Dafmar, and in them we find a pressing example of a people with no past. Your Majesty would know them by a different name, but the Dafmar exist to this day in more ways than one. In fact, the warrior caste of Gnad is the only group to survive my tale (as you'll soon see), and the Dafmar culture pre-dated the city-empire's by centuries.
I do realize my contradiction there: I claim that these people had no history, yet also insinuate knowledge of their existence prior to Gnad. The answer to this riddle is simple enough, and would take me mere minutes to describe in academic detail. But Your Majesty knows my bias toward narrative framing; what kind of story would this be if I just told you the bare facts? A thing and its signs are separate experiences. What is the smell of a great feast compared to the feasting itself? Or the dictionary's definition of grief to a recent widow? A painting of one's lover can only excite so far. In my humble opinion, facts are only good for anticipation. Satisfaction comes from context.
Habrin the mystic had an eye for such hidden detail. He saw it in the way Michael's Dafmar traditions differed from the common practices of Gnad. For Michael was Dafmar through-and-through, though he did understand it at the time. His father Hakoem was the Grand Subjugator, and like the hundreds that bore the title before him, Hakoem commanded the Dafmar wazirs to protect and extend Gnad's interests. The empire did not exist but for its Dafmari defenders and conquerors - the river Mour was its prize possession and Gnad held it jealously with her fiercest militants. Even still, the Grand Subjugator's palace was humble beside those of other heads-of-state, at least in exterior display. But within its greystone walls stood galleries and halls decorated with the spoils of conquest.
Bathed and oiled by servants, Habrin now wandered through these corridors, peering into ancient Kaedish urns, marveling at the bronze idols torn from Yehon temples. It was all tended by now-meek Rodor and Akhan servants. And while no breath of those defeated peoples' cultures escaped internment in Gnad's tomb of annexation, Habrin could smell the incense from Hakoem's Dafmari prayer room.
The mystic peeked around the corner of Michael's father's worship chamber, and saw Hakoem meditating in the smoke of a marah-filled brazier. The room was bare other than an iron brazier and a cushion for the Grand Subjugator's prostrate knees. On the wall hung a strange symbol: quite like the Eye of Orus and Flame of Sekhet, but merged. A combined Flaming Eye, something that felt strangely heretical inside Gnad's strict worship of the separation between mind and flesh.
Hakoem did not notice his observer, and so the latter left the former to his prayer. Habrin sought out Michael, and found him restlessly pacing in the lounging rooms. "...Given over to the grubby hands of merchants!" Michael's voice was raised, though he was not specifically speaking to the servants in the room. Two girls and a man stood obediently still by the door, arrested by their young lord's tirade; not really listening but too polite to leave in the middle of it.
"And Father does nothing to stop it! Was there not a time when we Dafmar were the prize of Gnad? The 'bloody hands that raised the throne'? Now the Memory scrapes and bends for these men who drain our river and fill it with ash and filth - and we warriors stand guard over a hoard of refuse."
Habrin smiled at the sight of Michael prowling through the cushioned couches. The mystic had first searched for Gnad's Memory, but had instead found the city's future.
"Politics are for the old and infirm, Michael. You ought to be away, enjoying the night with your friends."
Michael paused mid-sentence when he heard Habrin speak. He grinned wearily. "Ah, the mystic! I trust my father's house serves you well? Some of the desert seems to have been scrubbed away at least. Sit, I'll have them bring you breakfast."
Habrin bowed. "You've done too much already, I really ought to be on my way."
Michael laughed. "Did they not offer you a shave? Full beards are terribly out of fashion."
Habrin ran a hand through his combed beard. "I let them clean it, but I cannot shave. It's a...religious devotion."
"Well at least this damned city hasn't snuffed out our hospitality. I swear, if the merchant Guilds thought they could squeeze a copper piece out of Dafmari kindness, the Memory would convert my father's house into a paid sick-house." Michael waved the servants away to retrieve supper.
Habrin sat stiffly; long unfamiliar with the sensation of a cushioned seat. He raised an eyebrow. "I didn't know your ways were under such attack."
Michael rested his elbows on the couch across from him, but did not sit. "'Attack' is too generous a word; it implies some kind of action or valiance. The Guilds prefer to let their rot seep and spread like a leaking latrine." The young man threw back his curls and huffed, his eyes fixed to the distance.
Habrin moved closer to Michael, curious for the young man's desires. "Could you not bring your concerns to the Memory? If a crime has been committed, surely your high judge would be of service."
Michael grimaced. "You underestimate the Guilds. None of their offenses are strictly outside the law. The Memory is holy thing, but she is a slave to Gnad's past." He seemed almost sad. "She is like a beautifully wrought gate, precious beyond compare and magnificent to behold, yet still a device of control. As long as the Guilds can convince her that their motives are for the good of Gnad, she does nothing to stop them."
Here Habrin laid his hand on Michael's arm, and I must tell you, every version of this story that I've heard claims the mystic had supernatural abilities. Mind reading, heart singing, demon possession, or even all three. I have so far left these fancies out of my retelling, because I find them unnecessary additions to an already fantastical story. But they say he could glean a man's innermost desires and absorb the entirety of his past with only a touch. I cannot vouch for the validity of these claims, your Majesty, and yet with a touch Habrin took something from Michael. Whether with strange magics or simple human insight, the mystic found a desire within the young man that even he did not dare speak aloud.
The mystic bowed to his host. "Forgive me, for I must depart, young master. I pray that we meet again soon."
Michael shook himself from his wandering thoughts, and returned the bow. "I wish you good fortune, Habrin, and I apologize for my screed. Another guest chased away by my ramblings..."
Habrin only smiled. "Nonsense! You don't send me away, Michael, you send me forth."
Although our pair had first met at the Pool, I believe it was there in the palace of the Grand Wazir that the meeting bore fruit. For it was from there that the mystic left with a singular mission, and pursued it to the very steps of Orus' temple. Perhaps I have embellished their conversation, or given Michael a voice too theatrical. I cannot know the exact words that were spoken, but I can tell you the effect they must have had on Habrin. He came away with something newly precious to him: knowledge of Michael's desire. The mystic carried this gem to the temple to lay it at the feet of the Memory.