Summer followed the servant-bird to the hallway, where she was handed off to a butler-bird, who took her through the halls and up a staircase. “Forgive me,” said the bird, as they climbed. “The library is on the second floor, and the approach for the non-flighted is…less elegant.”
It looked plenty elegant to Summer. The stairs were shallow, if narrow, and the wooden paneling on the walls was so dark that it was nearly black. Sconces in the shape of fantastic beasts coiled up the panels, shooting oil lamp flames from their mouths.
The butler-bird turned right at the top of the stairs and led her to a set of doors. They were open at the top, like French doors, and the butler-bird had to open the bottom for Summer to step through.
It was a library, and it was incredible.
For one thing, it was completely vertical. The room itself was only about the size of the dining room in Summer’s house back home, but it went up and up for stories on stories. Each wall was lined with bookcases, and perches ringed the room at intervals so that a bird could stand anywhere they chose and reach a book easily with beak or talons.
There were hundreds of books, probably thousands. At least as many as there were in the school library. They smelled like leather and expensive words.
“Miss Summer,” announced the butler-bird, “of another world.”
“Heyo, Summer,” said Reginald, who was lounging on a low couch. “Quite the thing, isn’t it? Didn’t I tell you?”
The other bird in the room turned toward her.
He was also a hoopoe, wearing a black waistcoat. He was larger than Reginald and heavier, but his feathers were still bright. There was a faint milkiness to his eyes, as if he were in the very early stages of going blind.
He could still see her, though, because he smiled and dipped his crest. “Miss Summer. My son has told me much about you. You honor us with your presence.”
“Oh,” said Summer faintly. She stumbled through a bow, thought at the last minute that it was probably supposed to be a curtsey, realized she didn’t know how to do one, and wound up bowing twice. “Are you Lord Almondgrove? I mean—of course you are. Sir. Thank you. Everything’s lovely here. The bath was very nice.”
She closed her mouth, feeling embarrassed. She’d never met a Lord before. Well, there was Reginald, but he didn’t really seem to count.
Fortunately, the elder hoopoe did not seem offended. He smiled again. “Come in, come in. Reginald tells me that you are seeking to end the menace to our world…and that you are a delightful travelling companion and staunch in defense of your friends, and that the Forester likes you. Which are all most excellent qualifications, but I would like to ask a few questions, if I may.”
“Uh,” said Summer. “I mean, yes, sir.” She looked around for a place to sit and eventually settled on something that looked like a footstool. Lord Almondgrove was on a perch at a reading stand, rather like a lectern, so she had to look up to meet his eyes.
“Is it true that Baba Yaga sent you?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Summer. “She had a house with chicken feet and a skull on the door. Everybody says it was Baba Yaga. There can’t be very many women with houses with chicken feet around, can there?”
“Not many, certainly,” said Lord Almondgrove. “Not in this world, at least.”
Summer cast about for something else to say. “She gave me a talking weasel. She said she was sending me to find my heart’s desire. I don’t think that’s a weasel, though. Err, no offense.”
“Feh,” muttered the weasel. He poked his head out of her pocket and looked up at Lord Almondgrove. “It was Baba Yaga for sure. She sat in a chair made of bones, and she smelled like the wasting death of dreams.”
“Told you,” said Reginald. “The prime article herself!”
“Mmm,” said Lord Almondgrove. “I would not be quite convinced—not that I believe that you are lying, Miss Summer, but because all the worlds are full of charlatans, and someone might be foolish enough to impersonate Baba Yaga herself. But I am told that Zultan Houndbreaker has pursued you, and that he has begun the burnings again, which means at least that he believes you have been sent to change things.”
He fluffed up his feathers. “To pull Zultan’s feathers, I’d dare a great deal, I confess.”
Summer gulped. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
The elderly hoopoe held out a clawed foot and turned it—maybe yes, maybe no. “Not so dangerous as it used to be. I do not know how much Reginald has told you…”
“Hardly anything!” said Reginald proudly. “Wouldn’t cut a wheedle and pretend I knew more than I did.”
“I wish you wouldn’t use that dreadful cant,” said Lord Almondgrove. “It makes you sound like a common criminal in a hedgerow.”
Reginald grinned and winked at Summer. “Doing it up too brown, pater!”
The senior Almondgrove rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, whatever that means. I could wish you’d paid more attention—what if you have to inherit someday?”
“Perish the thought! My sister’ll be twice the Almondgrove I am.”
Lord Almondgrove shook his head. Summer got the impression that this was a conversation they’d had many times before. “At any rate,” he said, turning back to Summer, “the matter of Zultan. He had an army once, long ago, when he took down the Tower of Dogs. In those days, we lived in fear of him, and no one dared defy him too openly. But the Tower did not fall easily. He broke his army against it, and it was only the Queen that brought it down in the end.” He tapped a claw on his beak. “He has no army now. He raised the first one with promises and wight-liquor, and people have learned to be wary of both now. So now he has only his little warband, a dozen strong. Dangerous enough in their way, but not enough to make war against members of the Dawn Chorus.”
“But what is Zultan?” asked Summer. This question had been gnawing at her for days now. “Is he a—a—” She stopped herself short of saying person. “—A human?”
I’m learning. I hope.
Lord Almondgrove shuffled on his perch. “Hard to say,” he said finally. “But no, I don’t think so. Not unless humans live much longer than I think. The Tower of Dogs fell long, long ago, before I was born, but Zultan still goes on.”
“What were the dogs?” asked Summer. Here at last was someone who seemed able to answer questions, and to answer them clearly, without wandering off into strange cant, like Reginald, or into wild philosophies she didn’t quite understand, like Glorious. “I mean—we’ve got dogs in my world, or things we call dogs, but they don’t build towers or roads.” (It occurred to her that she had not seen a dog anywhere in this world.)
Lord Almondgrove leaned forward, his crest flattening down a little with interest. “Really! Can you describe them for me?”
“Uh.” Summer found herself making a few aimless hand gestures. How do you describe a dog to someone who’s never seen one? “Like a wolf,” she said, thinking of Glorious. “But smaller. And they don’t talk. And they walk on all fours, and people keep them as pets.”
Almondgrove let out a loud chck-ck-ck laugh. “No, no! Not the same as ours at all, then.”
“Fancy keeping a dog as a pet!” said Reginald. “They’d have you up on charges, assuming you could find one.”
Lord Almondgrove smiled tolerantly. He considered for a moment, then raised a claw. “Easier shown than described, I think. Wait a moment.”
He flew upward, into the higher reaches of the library. The railings around the edges of the bookcase served as perches. Lord Almondgrove landed on one and ran a wing along the edge of the books. “Ah, there we are.” He pulled a book from the shelf and flew back down to the main perch, setting the book on the podium.
The book was leatherbound and opened the opposite way from books Summer was used to. There were notches along the sides where bird claws could fit easily.
He opened the book up. Summer couldn’t read the writing; it looked like bird tracks going in different directions, or like the runes that she had seen in school when her class did a unit on Norse mythology.
But there were also pictures, and Lord Almondgrove found one in short order. He turned the book toward her.
The dog in the picture stood on his hind legs, like Summer, though he seemed to be walking on his toes. He was very tall and thin, with enormous upstanding ears. He looked rather like a greyhound, or like the African wild dogs that she had seen in nature documentaries. His tail was short and curved, with a plumed tip.
“No,” said Summer. “I’m afraid our dogs don’t look anything like that.”
Lord Almondgrove nodded. He turned the pages, showing her other pictures—more dogs, laboring together. They wore various clothes—tunics, armor, strapped sandal-like footwear. Often there was a tower in the background.
Near the end of the book, there was a final picture. Lord Almondgrove closed the book, sighing, before Summer could see it. “And then the Tower of Dogs fell, to Zultan and the Queen. And there may be no more dogs in Orcus. I have not seen one since…well, since I was younger than this young scapegrace here.”
“You saw one?” said Reginald, looking up. “You’re not that old, pater. Thought they all died with the Tower.”
“Most of them did,” said Lord Almondgrove. “And Zultan saw to the rest, in time. But there were a few travelling, far flung, who could not get back to the Tower in time. I met one. We travelled together for a little time ourselves.”
Reginald sat up straight. “You never told me about this.”
Lord Almondgrove sighed and rubbed at his beak with his foot. “It’s an old tale, and a sad one. He was very old himself, and his fur had gone white. He was looking for a way back to his world.”
He looked up at Summer and managed a smile. “It was why I asked about the dogs in your world. These dogs were not from Orcus. They came from some other place, a long time ago—centuries, if not longer. Their stories said that they came through corridors of stone, a long, long way, and when they emerged, they were in Orcus. The dog I knew was trying to find a way back. He thought he was probably the last one in this world.” He shook his head. “All the writings say that they were good and decent folk, that they were as honorable as anyone alive. And my friend Stone Ear—he was good. He radiated goodness like heat from a stove. I can’t explain any better than that.”
“Stone Ear?” said Reginald. “Odd name for a chap, even a dog.”
“It wasn’t his real name. He was deaf in one ear, so I called him that. He said his name was in his own speech, and it was too painful to hear the language any longer, when he was the last.” Lord Almondgrove shook his head. “He’s long dead now, I suppose. But I hope he found his way back before he died.”
Summer bowed her head. There were too many sorrows in the world. She thought that if she felt any one too deeply, she might drown in it.
“It was Zultan Houndbreaker who tore down the Tower,” said Lord Almondgrove. “It was Zultan who called the Queen-in-Chains, and Zultan who left my old friend rootless and packless and alone in the world. And so, my dear Summer, if Zultan wants you, by the egg of the Mother of Dawn, I will do everything in my power to keep you from his grasp.”
Summer went back to her bedroom in a pensive mood. Lord Almondgrove had promised them ‘provender,’ whatever that was—money, maybe?—and to pore over his maps until he found a wondrous thing they could stake out to look for wasps.
It was all very helpful, and good, but Summer was a little disappointed. On some level, she’d been hoping that Reginald’s father would take over the whole project. It would be nice to have a real grown-up in charge of everything again. She didn’t want to have to make any more decisions—not when people were getting killed and there seemed to be a whole world at stake!
But the elder Almondgrove had shown no inclination to do so. In fact, he was talking about having them leave again in a day or two, “When you’ve rested.”
She felt a bit odd about that.
It didn’t help that she had finally asked “But who is the Queen-in-Chains?” and found out that apparently nobody else knew either.
“The people who saw her are dead,” said Lord Almondgrove. “Dead when the Tower fell. She leaves no witnesses behind her. Now only Zultan knows for sure.” He sighed. “For all I know, there is no Queen-in-Chains, and he made the name up to frighten the rest of us. But the Tower was shattered, stone from stone, and Zultan could not do that alone.”
This was not encouraging.
Summer cheered up a great deal, though, when she saw the tray in the room. “Begging your pardon,” said the servant-bird, “but Reginald said you’d probably prefer a meal in your room and a rest, rather than going down for a formal dinner.”
“Yes!” said Summer gratefully. The tray had toast on it, and butter and jam and some kind of little seedcake and a bunch of red-violet grapes and even two hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sitting in little cups. The weasel crowed with delight and went after one of the eggs, which was almost as big as he was.
She got through most of the meal and suddenly found herself so exhausted that she could hardly chew.
The servant-bird had turned down the bed. It was very high and Summer had to climb up it. “My apologies, miss,” said the bird. “I’ll get a little set of stairs for you immediately.”
“It’s fine,” said Summer, or tried to say it, but her head was hitting the pillow and her body was sinking into a mattress like a cloud, and what came out may simply have been “Izzzzz….”