The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, страница 14
‘Now he’ll have to come clean!’ the Uggly cried triumphantly. ‘This is getting exciting!’
It was quite an effort for me to find the right words for a suitable riposte. I could have turned stubborn and picked another quarrel with Kibitzer. I wielded a sharp rapier when verbosely defending my own work and had often pinned many an opponent to the wall with it. I could easily have argued frail old Kibitzer into the ground. I would then have advised the Uggly to take a look in a mirror instead of concerning herself with other people’s obesity problems. I would have stalked out with my head held high, torn the stupid letter to shreds and spent a few more pleasurable days in Bookholm. After that I would have returned to Lindworm Castle with a bag full of antiquarian books and continued to live a life of ease, as before.
Could have …
Would have …
Instead, I said, ‘Yes, I’ve lost the Orm. That’s why I came to Bookholm.’ And then I burst into tears.
Any other participants in such a scene would now have gone up to each other and exchanged a consoling embrace, but let’s be honest: we were a Lindworm, a Nocturnomath and an Uggly, three life forms that had always striven for victory on the battlefield of pathological egoism and emotional atrophy. So Kibitzer simply remained standing and the Uggly sitting where they were while I sobbed without restraint. They shuffled their feet a little and made uneasy noises. When I stopped at last, all Inazia said was, ‘Are you through?’
‘Yes,’ I sniffed. ‘Thanks for your sympathy.’ I noisily blew my nose and felt better.
‘Listen,’ said Kibitzer. ‘I don’t have much time left, as I already mentioned, and I mean that literally, so let’s get down to brass tacks. We really did send you that letter.’
‘You wrote that letter?’ Involuntarily, I felt for the letter in my pocket. I’d had no idea that Kibitzer possessed a gift for parody. Or was it the Uggly?
‘No, we didn’t write it,’ Kibitzer gasped asthmatically. ‘We only forwarded it. Inazia, you’d better explain …’
The Uggly rose from her chair with a loud groan. I’d completely forgotten how tall and thin she was. She topped me by a head.
‘Yes,’ she began, ‘this is my part of the story. It begins one stormy night—’
‘Like a pirate yarn by Trebor Sulio Vessenton!’ Kibitzer interjected. ‘There’s even a sort of pirate in it.’
‘A pirate?’ I pricked up my ears. ‘In Bookholm?’ It really wasn’t necessary to arouse my interest with dramatic details. I was interested!
‘Not really,’ Inazia said with a grin, ‘but almost. You’ll laugh, because I was reading your latest book and had almost dozed off over it. I’d got to a frightfully boring chapter on bronchial tea and moist throat compresses, and—’
‘Get to the point!’ Kibitzer commanded her. ‘You can tell him the unimportant details …’ – he inserted a long pause – ‘… later.’
‘Then don’t keep interrupting me! Well, it was a rainy, stormy night,’ the Uggly began again. ‘I hadn’t had a single customer in my bookshop all day and was boring myself to death by reading your latest book, as I already said. So I was in a thoroughly miserable mood. I decided to close early and go and eat somewhere. I was standing outside the shop in the act of locking the door when I heard a tapping sound. Rather like this …’
The Uggly tapped a bookshelf with her long fingernails: tap, tap. tap …
‘Turning round, I saw a terrifying figure standing in the rain. I don’t scare easy as you know – I’m an Uggly, people are usually frightened of me – but that fellow would have put the fear of God into anyone, believe you me! Especially as the whole scene was stereotypically illuminated by lightning and accentuated by thunder.’
‘Trebor Sulio Vessenton!’ croaked the Nocturnomath. ‘Pure Vessenton of the highest calibre!’
‘True,’ said the Uggly. ‘The fellow really could have been a pirate. He was wearing a kind of armour and a mask of leather patches crudely sewn together. He looked almost like one’s idea of the Darkman of Bookholm – but the leather version – and he was wearing a jaunty tricorne that would have looked well on a pirate. Although there was a long sabre dangling from his belt, he made a rather frail and harmless impression. He was leaning on a stick, you see, and dragging a small wooden chest behind him on a rope. It resembled a child’s coffin. I realised at once that he could only be a Bookhunter.’
‘A Biblionaut,’ I amended mechanically. ‘There aren’t any Bookhunters these days.’
‘You must forgive me if I still prefer the original term, even if it isn’t, er … politically correct any more,’ Inazia put in. ‘I simply can’t get used to it. You’re right, though, he was a Biblionaut, I could tell that from his civilised manner. But the really bizarre aspect of his appearance was the fact that he wore two eyepatches. Two of them, one over each eye!’
‘He was blind?’ I asked.
‘Exactly. Hence the tapping sound. He was finding his way through the rain with his stick. “Excuse me,” he called, “I couldn’t help hearing you lock your door. From that I infer that you live here and are acquainted with the district.”
‘“Maybe,”’ I said cautiously. “How can I help you?”
‘The dark figure had come to a halt and was leaning on his stick. “I fear I’m lost, madam. I was on my way to sell some old books and got overtaken by the rain. I only know this district in dry weather and now it sounds quite different. I have to find my way by sound, alas.” He indicated his eyepatches. “Can you tell me where the nearest antiquarian bookshop is?”’
The Uggly sighed. ‘I felt sorry for the blind fellow, no matter what he looked like. The thought that, for someone unable to see anything, the world suddenly undergoes a complete change as soon as it rains – I found that deeply moving despite myself! So I invited him in for a cup of tea and said he could wait in my shop until it stopped raining.’
‘Yes, yes,’ croaked Kibitzer, ‘you can forget about the violins. Get to the point!’
While Inazia was speaking, the Nocturnomath had been busying himself in a way that made me feel rather uneasy. Hobbling back and forth from one bookshelf to another, he tidied their contents, rummaged in drawers, laid out various manuscripts on a desk and pored over them with a sigh.
‘In Bookholm,’ the Uggly went on, ‘there have always been crippled and badly injured adventurers who acquired their injuries in the catacombs. There have also been, in addition to Bookhunters, suicidal individuals who ventured into the Labyrinth to make their fortune. Or their misfortune! There are more of those today than ever, I might add. If they’re incapacitated, their only recourse as a rule is to live rough and beg. Although new to me, a blind Biblionaut was really more of the same: just another victim of the catacombs, a sort of war veteran like many others. We second-hand booksellers live largely on the audacity of those daredevils, for without them our businesses would be no more interesting than any other bookshop in Zamonia. I make far more money out of a good antiquarian find from the catacombs than I do out of a dozen ordinary books.’
‘Grave robbers!’ Kibitzer croaked as he applied a wax seal to a document. ‘They’re grave robbers, the lot of them! I’ve no sympathy for them. Half the city makes money out of the dead! Books by the dead and dead books – that’s the diseased compost on which this city grows. We’re living on top of a graveyard!’
‘After I’d given him a cup of tea and a blanket so that he could dry off and warm up, he proved to be a charming companion,’ the Uggly continued. ‘I’d never conversed with a Biblionaut before. I was struck by his rather hesitant, effortful way of speaking, which I attributed to his injuries. Still, he made a courteous and cultivated impression. His name was Belphegor – Belphegor Bogaras.’
‘They’re all killers, courteous and cultivated or not,’ Kibitzer said angrily. ‘Bookhunters or Biblionauts – they’re all the same to me, even if they do soft-soap people.’
He was laboriously rearranging a shelf of very old books and mutt
‘The Biblionaut told me that he had lost his eyesight in the Labyrinth of Dreaming Books,’ Inazia went on, ‘just as I’d thought. He now scraped a living by selling such second-hand books as he could find in the entrance to the Bookholm Shafts. That was as far into the catacombs as he dared to go, with his disability. Most of them were third-rate and ill-chosen, as he himself frankly admitted. If I cared to, he said, I was welcome to take a look at his wares. Without obligation. At that moment, of course, I realised that he’d hoodwinked me.’
I couldn’t help smiling at Inazia’s naivety. ‘A hoary old huckster’s trick,’ I said. ‘Once you’ve let them over the doorstep, they’ve as good as sold you something.’
‘Exactly. Who would look at a blind hawker’s wares and tell him to his face that they were no use to anyone? But I resigned myself to my fate. Even though this definitely hadn’t been my day, I resolved that it would at least end with my one good deed of the week. So I examined the books in his child’s coffin.’
‘Ah, here it is!’ croaked Kibitzer. He held a big sheet of parchment up to the light, then put it down on the desk, smoothed it out and weighed it down with paperweights. ‘Vertical Labyrinthine Cartography!’ he said. ‘An almost forgotten craft. Subterranean longitude and latitude – they exist! Very hard to determine! A form of science, really. Almost an art …’ I had no idea what he was blathering about. He continued to mutter to himself as he disappeared behind some bookshelves.
‘That was when I found the letter,’ the Uggly said suddenly and very quickly, with one hurried glance at the spot where the Nocturnomath had vanished. ‘And then …’
‘One moment!’ Kibitzer broke in from the gloomy back of beyond. ‘Haven’t you forgotten something?’
‘Damn it!’ Inazia hissed almost inaudibly and stamped her foot. ‘That comes of your constant interruptions! I thought I was supposed to be brief.’
‘Carry on!’ called the invisible Kibitzer.
‘Must I really?’ the Uggly called back in a subdued voice.
‘He needs to know the whole story. The important details, Inazia, not the unimportant ones.’
‘Very well,’ Inazia said with a sigh. She straightened up, seeming to become another head taller, and noisily cleared her throat.
‘Well … This Biblionaut was a really smart salesman. He even poked fun at himself by emphasising that he’d never seen the books he sold, so he couldn’t gauge their value. He honestly had no idea what he was offering for sale, he said, so he left it up to me to pay whatever I wanted for any book that took my fancy.’
‘Very shrewd.’ I nodded admiringly. ‘Who’s going to cheat a blind Biblionaut? So you not only bought a book but voluntarily paid too much for it?’
‘I might have done,’ said the Uggly, ‘but it didn’t turn out that way.’
‘That’s right,’ Kibitzer called in the background. ‘That’s the way! Out with the truth.’
Inazia sighed submissively. ‘So I rummaged around in Belphegor’s weird little box of books with no great hopes of finding anything worthwhile in it. Just charred, rubbishy paper, as I’d expected. But then, quite suddenly, I found myself holding The Hammer of the Ugglies.’
‘The what?’ I asked, dumbfounded. ‘You don’t mean …’
‘Yes,’ said Inazia. ‘I do indeed. One of the most sought-after items on the Golden List. Not a copy, not a fake – the original. In excellent condition.’
‘My goodness,’ I blurted out. The Uggly was talking about one of the most valuable books in the catacombs.
‘I had many reasons for becoming an antiquarian bookseller,’ said Inazia. ‘But the existence of The Hammer of the Ugglies was certainly one of them. It was the possibility – extremely remote, I grant you – that entering the profession might enable me to set eyes on the book at least once that prompted me to major in Uggliological Biblionistics at Bookholm University.’
‘A far from disreputable branch of learning,’ croaked Kibitzer, who had re-emerged and was blowing dust off an ancient volume, which he stowed away in a cupboard. ‘If one discounts all the Bibliognostic nonsense.’ He disappeared among the bookshelves once more.
Inazia ignored that remark. ‘There’s no book more heartily detested by Ugglies,’ she went on. ‘We consider it the most loathsome work in Zamonian literary history, but that’s just what makes it so fascinating! It’s filled with malice and has sealed the fate of many of our kind. But we Ugglies have survived its ill-written vituperations and that experience has welded us into the close-knit community we are today. Now it’s no more than a vile old book full of medieval stupidity, superstition, and utterly barbarous instructions for torturing and killing Ugglies. Unreadable, if the truth be told! Eventually, after its spell was broken, the book was destroyed whenever possible. That’s why there’s only one last original extant copy – one that disappeared from view for a very, very long time. And that was the one I was suddenly holding in my hands.’
‘Well,’ I asked, ‘what did you do?’
The Uggly laughed. ‘I can tell you that, apart from our joint experiences in the catacombs with the Shadow King, it was the most dramatic and exciting moment in my life. I was holding The Hammer of the Ugglies in my hands – one of the most valuable books on the Golden List! And facing me sat its finder and lawful owner, a Biblionaut who had no idea what a fortune the book was worth – who had just invited me to buy it for a price I set myself.’
‘Don’t keep him on tenterhooks!’ Kibitzer called in the background. ‘Tell him what you did. Get it off your chest!’
‘Well,’ said the Uggly, shrugging her shoulders, ‘there were really only two alternatives. I could have told the blind Biblionaut the truth and enlightened him as to the book’s value. He would probably have thanked me nicely and sold the book to whichever Biblionnaire offered him the most. The Hammer of the Ugglies would doubtless have disappeared into some private collection and been lost to Uggliology for ever.’
‘Quite,’ I said. ‘That’s probable.’
‘The second alternative was to cheat him. Pretend I had scant interest in the book. Fail to tell him it was as rare as it was and pay him a small sum for it. He would probably have been satisfied and gone on his way, believing that he had pulled off a nice little deal.’
‘And you would have swindled blind Belphegor,’ I said. ‘True.’ Inazia nodded. ‘But a third possibility occurred to me. I told him it was a very rare book about Uggliology – which wasn’t even a lie. Then I expressed great interest in it. Although a gross understatement, that was also true. Eventually, I suggested paying him a fair price for it. This, I freely admit, was a blatant lie. Only the Zaan of Florinth could have paid him a fair price for that book. But I went down to my secret Ugglian safe in the cellar, took out all my savings – no small sum! – and gave them to him.’
The Uggly looked relieved. The truth was out at last.
‘So you did cheat a blind huckster out of his book,’ I said coldly.
She gave me a pert stare. ‘One can’t say that. I gave him some money – a great deal of money by my standards. All I possessed.’
‘He could have got more elsewhere. Considerably more.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Inazia. ‘Why did it occur to him to offer The Hammer of the Ugglies to an Uggly, of all people? I might have flown into a fury and hurled the book into the fire, where it belonged. An Uggly would have had every right to do so.’
‘But he didn’t know it was The Hammer of the Ugglies,’ I said. ‘He was blind. Maybe he didn’t even know you were an Uggly.’
‘Don’t quibble!’ Inazia snapped. ‘I could have said nothing at all and let him go off with his book. What would have happened then? The next bookseller might have swindled him good and proper. To that extent, he could count himself lucky he bumped into m
Kibitzer interrupted our argument by tottering out of the darkness carrying a huge jar. He hefted it on to a table and unscrewed the lid, which was perforated in numerous places. Then he shook the jar and whispered, ‘Fly away! Fly away!’
With a buzzing sound, a grey cloud emerged from the mouth of the jar, rose to the ceiling and dispersed into hundreds of little specks that flew off in all directions.
‘Fly away!’ Kibitzer whispered. ‘Fly away! You’re free! Free!’
The little specks began to glow in a wide variety of colours. They were will-o’-the-wisps, which he had bred in a jar for reasons probably comprehensible to Nocturnomaths alone. Humming and whirring, they fanned out all over the shop, filling it with a vivid, multicoloured glow that lent the scene a look of dreamlike unreality. Dry-as-dust volumes lit by flickering, magical luminescence! Inazia Anazazi and her crazy story! Kibitzer and his irrational behaviour! Was I really here, or was I lying in my bed in Lindworm Castle and only dreaming this nonsense?
‘Go on, then!’ urged Kibitzer. ‘You can argue …’ – he inserted another curious pause – ‘… later.’
‘I presume you then came across the letter in the book,’ I said in an attempt to cut the story short. It was making me feel uneasy somehow, like the whole situation. I yearned to be back outside in the sunlit streets of Bookholm.
‘Not right away,’ said the Uggly. ‘Something else happened first. Something that’s bound to interest you.’
‘Yes,’ wheezed Kibitzer, who was once more rummaging in some papers. ‘This really ought to interest you.’
‘It had stopped raining by now,’ Inazia went on, ‘and Belphegor Bogaras prepared to leave, believing he’d done the best bit of business in his life. I escorted him to the door, but before I showed him out my nagging curiosity got the better of me. Unable to restrain myself, I tactlessly asked him how he’d lost his eyesight in the catacombs.
‘“Oh,” the Biblionaut replied casually, “that was down to the Shadow King.”’