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Narrative of an Unnamed Supplicant

by Chloe Smith

3820 words
Listen to this story, read by Rebecca Sorell

[Scholar’s note: the following is taken from interviews held between the 15th and 18th days of the Month of Swallows, in the 1115th year since the Libraerie’s founding. The researcher has attempted to hew as closely as possible to the supplicant’s words, with some minor editing and condensation for clarity. He would not tell us his name.]

• • •

It was early spring when I left the ashes of my home cooling behind me and sought these dizzying heights. Those memories tear at me now, and I can’t escape them….

I’m sorry; I’ll try to tell this story straight. The knowledge that swirls freely here, so rich in this thin air—it makes my head spin. In the lands below, we never get more than a sip of the pure stuff, a quick breath at a time, drifting upward in the wake of a wandering scholar….

I had always dreamed of climbing to the Libraerie. When I was little, I imagined myself a hero, one who would bring back learning to my family, to our home. When I became a man, that dream faded but didn’t evaporate. Leela used to tease me about it, until it became a joke between us, a way of framing the future in impractical and vague optimism—but that was before the hard times, the years of long winters and bad summers, the shortages and the rumors of war. (Don’t forget that things were bad even before the curse of calcification.) That was when I began to take my old dream seriously.

I talked to our neighbors and the townsfolk, asked them why we couldn’t demand help from the Libraerie—surely among the wealth of gathered knowledge, there must be answers, solutions that could help us. Why else did scholars travel through the world, observing and studying?

I earned many odd looks. “What a question” and, “That’s not their role” and, “That’s like asking a smith to give his newly made sword to a lump of iron.”

I kept arguing. The harvest failed after the second year. Then the town stores dwindled to nothing, and the wealthy merchants and factors tightened their belts, and others began to echo my words. “Why do we welcome the scholars into our lands, and wish them well on their way, bearing the fruit of their studies? Why does knowledge, once distilled by a scholar’s pen, rise up and seemingly away from us, seeking always the highest points? Why do we let it?”

The magister and his council began to make demands. They sent messages to the far-off Imperial government, and spoke in person to those scholars who still visited. They even paid for a messenger to take passage on a scholarly airship and petition the Abbot Libraerian here directly. Did you know that? We waited, and word spread that help might come.

Before any did, though, the calcifications began.

Women gravid with child were pulled down by the weight of what they carried, at first hardly able to walk, and then unable to rise from bed. The first births were hushed up, or any reports of them were dismissed as rumor and fearmongering. I admit it, Leela and I doubted the stories—how could such a thing be true? But then the magister’s wife died of calcified birth, and her funeral procession passed through town, the magister walking last and clutching what would have been his child. Everyone had to believe after that.

We thought, now surely help would come. No one has seen anything like this before. The Emperor would send doctors to root out the malaise. The scholars would want to investigate, to find a cure.

Time passed, and Imperial soldiers closed the roads. They cut off our province like a gangrenous limb, lest it poison the entire body. We were isolated and afraid, and when a party of scholars like yourself came at last, we greeted them as our saviors. Leela was the one to return from town the day their airship landed, and she told me how the magister wept to see them, and the crowd pushed forward and cried out in supplication, all trying to tell their stories of fear and pain.

Your brothers and sisters listened. They walked the streets, tasted our water and smelled our earth. They pulled hoods across their faces before visiting the afflicted women in their beds—those that had them—and before examining the bodies of those that had come to term. They even weighed the calcifications, taking careful notes all the while.

They were not heartless. They offered suggestions, palliatives, and expressed concern. Their leader told the magister and the assembled council that he wished he could do more--but they must apply reason and inspiration to the germs of understanding they had gathered, before they could produce anything to explain what was occurring here, let alone discover a cure. They needed to refine their observations of what we were living through into knowledge, and that knowledge would take them up and away, as it became purer and more true.

Leela and I were in the crowd when their airship departed, its balloon lifted and filled by the wisdom of the texts the scholars carried with them, the learning they had gathered from the lowlands and the products of their own studies. The airship’s vanes creaked and spread great sails to direct its flight, and the people who stood in its shadow murmured to each other.

“They’ll come back,” some said, “They’ll find a cure and return.” But others scoffed, and some cursed the scholars and their precious, lighter-than-air knowledge. Their mood was dark, and fear turned easily to anger.

“We could go to them!” I argued, “If they don’t return, we should climb to their high perch and demand answers from the Libraerie itself.”

The people nearest to me laughed—a tearing, painful noise to cover desperation. “Fool!” they called me, “No one can climb to the Libraerie. Their own airships can barely rise above the lower peaks to reach it.”

“But think!” I insisted, “We’ve only their word that it’s impossible. They let knowledge seek its highest level—what if there is already knowledge of a cure there?”

They shook their heads, and when I told them I would seek out the council, present my ideas to the magister, their anger turned on me.

“You see the scholars left us!” my nearest neighbor said, “There is no hope for solutions we can never reach. Only we can take care of ourselves.”

Leela had her hand on my arm, and her voice in my ear told me to listen and take care. I let her pull me away, and we followed the rutted road back to our farm.

We avoided the town soon after that. Shortages abounded even before winter brought the worst of its barren cold. “Look to your own households,” people said, but desperation turned them against each other, and against authority. A merchant’s storehouse burned when he tried to hoard it from hungry townsfolk. Some turned sickened women out into the street, for fear that the calcification would spread to others.

I was ready to make good on my suggestion, despite the season, but Leela came to me in the dusk of a late-fall evening as I fashioned a pair of fleece-lined gloves, such as I’d heard travelers to the far north made use of. She placed my hands on her stomach, and told her news. She said that she had no fear, only great hope and love for me and the child to come.

I tried to hope as well, and I turned my mind from leaving. When the Emperor sent a caravan of food supplies to sustain us through the winter, we told each other that fortune had changed for our province. I persuaded Leela to stay home while I went to collect our portion. She never knew that I traded on credit to supplement our rations with overpriced milk and butter.

All winter I kept the fire in our hearth built high, and listened to Leela tell stories of our future, determined to believe, to hold tighter to the dream of new life and happiness than I’d ever cherished my fantasy of the Libraerie. I never had the heart to question her optimism, even when she grew so heavy with her swollen belly, and could only lie by the hearth with her eyes turned towards the flames.

The winter dwindled at last, and the days warmed, but the cold seemed to embed itself in Leela’s bones. She felt it more and more as her time grew closer. I sweltered as I built the fire higher and higher, and still she wrapped blankets tight and shivered.

I would place my hands on her cheeks and find them icy, even as sweat ran into my eyes and stuck my shirt to my back. It’s hard to imagine now, what it felt like to suffer from that heat. This aching cold is what she must have felt close to the end.

To the last, she spoke of our child and how she would love it. The words might as well have laid a spell on me, for I could only look at her and nod, holding back fear and blinding myself to all the signs.

One night she woke me without meaning to. We both slept fitfully, her from the growing pain and chill, me from alertness to her needs. I remember the sound of her breathing, harsh over the crackling of the fire, and the way it caught when the labor came.

I watched her struggle, through pain and fear, to a place beyond words, just cries of agony as her body destroyed her. She was strong, and that strength tore her apart. Many women failed to deliver calcified results, but she forced it out at last, with a great rending and a welter of blood that spread and stained the floor of our home. She gasped and shuddered, but didn’t speak again, and I was left holding her shell.

I looked at the thing that could have been my child. I reached out, half hoping that some miracle had occurred, that Leela’s death was a common tragedy of birth—but when I laid my fingers against its small skull, I found a smooth and hard surface, colder and deader than any flesh.

• • •

[Scholar’s note: After relating this part of the narrative, the supplicant was overcome by weeping. He required doses of tea and strong spirits, along with a period of rest, before the interviews could continue.]

• • •

I don’t remember many details of what came next. I was adding more and more fuel to the fire--not just kindling but pieces of furniture, clothes and bedding and all the relics of my life with Leela. Then I was standing outside our house as it burned, my eyes streaming from the smoke that rose black and angry into the brilliant sky. The daylight and the soft air of early spring made no sense to me; the outside world had become unreal in the last months. The lifting smoke, though, that reminded me of something, of airships and scholars and knowledge that rises and is kept high at the roof of the world.

I turned from everything that had burned. I set out with a single cold burden, without supplies or plans or even a full understanding of what I was attempting.

I was a long time climbing--first past the foothills and the forested slopes above them. I stumbled into a village in a high valley, where a family took pity on me, filthy and worn as I was. I made no mention of the thing I carried in my pack. They didn’t ask where I was from, though they might have guessed, since they kept me at arms’ length and didn’t invite me into the house. Instead, they let me sleep in the hayloft above their goats, who were hardier and more sure-footed than those of the lowlands.

I told them my destination, and they told me I was mad; I would die of exposure, if my heart didn’t burst under the strain of breathing. Even people who lived at the knees of the mountains struggled to adjust to the conditions above them—only scholars with treatises to their names could breathe easily above the point where the air grew scare and pure knowledge floated freely.

I told them it didn’t matter what anyone said, I was determined to try, and the family matriarch, a woman who directed her children, grandchildren, and goats with equal vigor and authority, only shook her head. “You aren’t the first fool to come this way,” she said, “nor yet the first who refuses to abandon your path--but we have yet to see one come back down the mountains.

I lowered my head and said nothing, and after a while she sighed and said, “At least be a well-prepared fool. Give us a few days of labor in exchange for some proper garb. The year retreats back into winter the higher you climb.”

I took her generosity and was glad of it. When I finally set off again, I thought the intervening days of work (laying stones to repair a wall and digging expansions to their terraced fields) had helped me grow used to the thin air, and I now had a hooded coat, boots, and gloves of the sort that I had struggled to create before, when the idea of this journey was built on hope rather than suffering. They also gave me a bedroll woven from the husks of firemoths, which would hold the heat of the day through the night’s darkness, spikes to clamp to my boots when I reached the glacier, and an ice axe to haul myself up with. It was generosity I didn’t deserve.

My host was right, though. I was still a fool and ill prepared. I climbed above the forest, through terrain marked by brush and single, twisted trees, among hard faces of rock and treacherous scree. I learned to go carefully, sometimes crouched on my hands and feet. I tried to ration the food the villagers had given me, and that became easier as my stomach turned and my head grew light.

Every once in a while, a shadow fell over me, and I would look up to see the shape of an airship pass over, sails belled by wind. I reached out—and I couldn’t tell myself if my gesture was a threat or a plea.

I aligned my path by the airships in the sky, and I reached a place where snow lingered in the shadows beneath rock overhangs and where my breath encrusted my eyes and mouth at night when I tried to sleep. The stones I clambered over gave way to groaning ice—blue-white and irregular, riven with crevasses. Some were massive gashes in the terrain, which I skirted for hours before I could find a way to ascend. Others were hidden beneath crusted snow and promised death for an unwary step.

I discovered this when the ground gave way beneath me and I dropped into a narrow chasm. I was lucky that it was so narrow, a tapering wedge in which I stuck fast after only a short sickening jolt of a fall, and luckier still that my pick was in my hands as I dropped. Those moments that I scrabbled, pinned between the suffocating walls of ice, could have been an eternity for all I knew, but when I eventually found purchase and clawed myself free and back up into the light, the sun had hardly moved and the world was unchanged. I could have slipped that quickly and easily into death, and no one would have ever found me.

After that I advanced more carefully, testing the space ahead with my pick as I went. My boots and heavy leggings had protected me from laceration within the crevasse, but my feet and legs were deeply bruised. My pace slowed, and I fought off a rising fear that I would never reach my destination.

I spent my last night in my bedroll curled around my bundled burden, in a hollowed-out ledge beneath one of the great standing shards of ice—but sleep wouldn’t come. I drifted above dreams haunted by flames and the sound of Leela’s screams, and jerked alert again and again with a feeling that I was choking, that the air I sucked into my lungs was full of ash. At first light, I emptied the remaining stores from my pack and continued on, carrying only my pick, and my burden.

I finally climbed above the jagged canyons of groaning ice, and saw, still far above me, the black walls of the Libraerie. It rose from a ridge just below the highest reaches of the mountains, as forbidding as the peaks themselves, blank-faced and shuttered against the cold and wind. That wind accelerated around me, skimming packed snow off the ground in streams of icicle mist and drawing clouds through the sky above and below. The weather had favored me with clear skies and wind gusts that burned my skin but didn’t send me to my knees—until now. I was a fool, completely unprepared for the coming storm.

I tightened the strip of cloth I wore around my eyes to protect from the snow’s reflective glare, put my head down, and pushed upward. Now I was beyond the worst of the crevasses, but I came to an expanse of mountain so steep I had to claw my way up by finger holds for stride-lengths at a time. The weight I carried bore me down. My heart raced and thundered at the exertion, and my muscles burned and shook. I had to rest often, feel the cold more deeply each time, trying to massage life back into my hands and feet.

At last I pulled myself over a lip of stone and lay delirious for a long, long while before I could find the strength to stand again. By the time I did, daylight had faded to an early gray dusk. The wind was overpowering, and I could barely see two steps ahead. My hands had stiffened like wood within their gloves, even as I pressed my fingers into my armpits to try and revive them. I had no chance of making it up another stretch of climbing, and could only hope that the angle of the slope I was currently following would lead me to the foot of the Libraerie.

My memories blur beyond this point. I must have stumbled, or maybe crawled, onward and upward. I remember struggling against fear—but somehow Leela was with me again, sometimes urging me on, sometimes smiling slyly in the way she always used to when I took myself too seriously. The world grew darker and darker, and I wanted to collapse, to rest, but I knew there was something I desperately needed to do, even if I couldn’t think what that was.

I don’t remember your people finding me, or how I came into this place. The end of my journey is only darkness and cold in my mind—and then the flames returned, and they were burning my fingers, and I couldn’t snatch my hands away....

• • •

[Scholar’s note: The supplicant was beyond fortunate that a wall-watcher spotted his form toiling up from the serac garden before visibility dissolved completely, and that members of the Libraerie’s household took on the impending storm. It reflects poorly on this researcher to admit, but there are some among our number too eager to risk their skin for new discoveries. Nevertheless, the search party deserves credit for their accomplishment. They found the supplicant almost insensate, huddled in a hollow below the Libraerie, and brought him in. Initial efforts to revive him included warm water baths to his frost-bitten extremities, a process that he likely confused with the flames of his memories.]

• • •

Now I am here, and I see all this wealth around me—these books that crowd your rooms and corridors, shifting and sighing beneath their chains, the scholars who move among them thin and attenuated, wide-eyed and spider-framed from their immersion in the miasma of accumulated knowledge.

The rule of scholars may be “the greater the truth, the higher and closer to heaven,” but I’ve come—climbed beyond pain and despair and my own abilities—to plead that you bring your knowledge down to where it's needed in the lowlands. Look at what I’ve brought you, what horrors we have suffered. You must understand. You must do something. Why else would I have carried this monstrosity with me for so long?

Your fellows claimed they had no answers when they visited us, but time has passed—surely you’ve learned, refined—discovered—whatever you do to turn your notes and observations of the world into true understanding. There must be answers here, among all the works that have risen to this height. Please bring some down to my people. It’s too late for Leela, but it’s not too late for others.

• • •

[Scholar’s Note: The supplicant’s narrative ends here. The guardianship of the Libraerie and the Council of Scholars considered his petition and tendered their regretful refusal. There could be no other answer to a request so fundamentally unnatural. For knowledge, once refined, rises up from the base world which gave it birth, and must be held at the altitude to which it ascends. How else could our scholars seek to purify and revise further iterations, in hope of creating works and treatises that will eventually carry them above the world altogether and into the sphere of heaven? It would be a perversion of study to so contaminate pure knowledge, to force it back down to the lowlands that birthed it.

Naturally, the supplicant could not understand such laws, even if the inner mysteries of scholarship permitted us to explain them. He spoke no more, once our decision was made clear to him, except to refuse requests for further interviews or invitations to stay safe within the Libraerie. As soon as he was able, he insisted on attempting a return journey, despite all arguments to the contrary, his ravaged state, and his injuries from exposure. We hold little hope for his success or survival.

At least this narrative remains within the Libraerie, alongside the remnant carried by the supplicant. It is a remarkable artifact, identical in every detail to newborn infant, save that it is cast in stone. We note the astonishing good fortune, for our studies, that the supplicant was able to bring it all this way.

It is hoped that these materials will provide a valuable source for the future development of knowledge about the calcificatory plague, the social customs of the lowlands, or the superhuman capacities of the desperate.]

Chloe Smith teaches middle-school English and history, moonlights as a proofreader for Locus and Fantasy magazines, and writes science fiction and fantasy stories whenever she can make the time. She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she lived in Texas and Washington states, New York City, and rural France before coming back to California. Her short fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis and Welkin Magazine and is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction and Kaleidotrope.

Issue 33

August 2021

3LBE 33

Front & Back cover art by Rew X