The Songstress of Avalon
If the bibliophiles of the realm knew about the private library ensconced on the top floor of the Avispan embassy, then I'm sure that they would begin flocking to this otherwise assuming building in droves. Initially nothing more than a comically large storage floor (the ceiling was almost ten meters high), it had been commandeered by Misane and converted for her own personal use.
What did she actually do here at the embassy? Well, nothing related to the embassy's actual function as a diplomatic mission. In our monthly budget reports, her expenses often totalled that of the Marissa and I combined, partly owing to the fact that she was always getting books delivered.
“This is barely a quarter of all the books in my collection,” she would say with a smug smile whenever I told her we had to keep our ledgers in the black.
Wooden flooring, rails and a staircase which led to a second level had been added to make the expansive room narrower but, filled to the brim with books as it was, it only served to make the room look like a grand, centuries old library. It was almost a funny thought, given that it was an empty storeroom half a year ago.
“Make yourselves at home,” Misane cooed, adopting a tone of voice one only heard when she was in the presence of her beloved books, despite the fact that the only place to sit was a little reading nook she had made for herself by the window.
Arisa was about to take Misane up on her offer, but I clasped her by the shoulder and shook my head severely. “You sit there, and there’ll be hell to pay.”
“But there’s nowhere else to sit…” Arisa responded, puzzled, her eyes floating towards a table in the centre of the room; she looked under it to see if there were any stools hiding there, but came up short.
I shrugged, not surprised in the least. The prospect of having to entertain guests probably never even crossed Misane’s mind.
"All my books on curses are up there," Misane said, pointing to the second level; without another word, she skirted over to the staircase and scaled it, joined by an overly eager Lull.
My attention, on the other hand, was focused on the books she had wide open on the table. I closed one of them so I could have a better look at the title - A History of Heroes: Vol XI - and then opened the book again so that it was as its owner had left it.
To be honest, this thing was a tome, and the fact that Misane was on the eleventh volume was impressive. This, of course, had something to do with the task I had assigned her - to find out more about the Hero Ritual. There were often stories of folk heroes who appeared out of nowhere, looking nothing like the people around them, and talking of hometowns that couldn't be found on any map.
Just like me.
"Agh!" Arisa groaned. "It's probably not OK if I knock all these books onto the floor and sat on the table, right? Whatever, I guess I'll go help them search!"
I spent the next ten or so minutes trying to entertain myself, but it was difficult given the circumstances. Attempts to read the open volumes only brought me back to Lull's situation; and besides, I didn't even know what I was looking for. If there was a hint in one of these books, the hawk-eyed Misane was probably the only one who could spot it.
In the end, since all the action was happening on the second level, I decided to head up there too. That's where I found Lull and Misane pored over a tome on the floor, with Arisa behind them inspecting the shelves. The pair, as usual, seemed to be arguing about something.
"Look at this!" Lull spoke loudly. "If we can get our hands on wolf's gum, dragon entrails and a hangman's rope, we can create a potion that repels demonic energy."
"Repels demonic energy, you idiot," Misane countered, holding back no punches. "What's the good in that? You're already cursed. This is the potion that you needed last week."
"How about this one?" Lull pointed at another recipe, not losing heart. "A potion made of Avery's holly, a griffin's tongue and a scallop?"
"That's a remedy for fungal infections..." Misane replied slowly.
She didn't have any snappy comment this time. She had probably realised that Lull was getting desperate. His voice had become noticeably strained, but even so he did his best to name the ingredients for yet another potion, even though it sounded like a recipe for a delicious, savoury soup.
"How about this?" Arisa plopped a book on top of the open one Lull had been reading from. "It's The Healer of the Lake. Sounds pretty neat, huh?"
"Sounds like a novel to me," I mused.
"Be careful with that!" Misane snapped, but without her usual vehemence. She had definitely been informed by Marissa as to Arisa's presence, but was probably still unsure how to act around the older girl. At the very least, she gave her a bit more quarter than Lull or I received, sounding more flustered than exasperated.
"What's wrong?" Arisa replied, confused.
"That's a really rare book," Misane explained. "It's bounded together with the skin of a Nian, which are now extinct in Avalon. It's the only one of its kind in the entire world, I think."
"Then it must have all the secret spells!" Arisa clapped her hands together, clearly excited.
Lull was also getting excited: "Then there must be something in there that can cure me!"
"Don't get ahead of yourselves," Misane countered sombrely. "The incantations in that book aren't even real spells, or at least I don't think they are. If you could actually get them to work though..."
I slid in beside Arisa and the four of us were now crowded around the volume - Lull and Misane were looking at it from one side, upside down, while Arisa and I were looking at it from the opposite site, but right side up. I opened the book and began to read, barely managing to stifle the amazement in my voice.
"A spell that can cause rain to fall over an entire city, a spell that can induce earthquakes... this is pretty extreme stuff," I murmured.
Misane grabbed the book and turned it in her direction. She began to flip through the pages, only stopping once she had gone through over half the tome. "This one here," she pointed, "it's an incantation that can dispel all unholiness. If we could get it to work, it should theoretically be able to cure Lull."
"Let's try it then. What's there to lose?" Arisa suggested, and I nodded my agreement.
"I've tried every incantation in this book at least once," Misane admitted, almost sheepishly. "None of them have ever worked."
"You tried to use a magic spell that would have caused an earthquake in the city?" I asked in disbelief.
"The research value is worth five or six cities alone," Misane remained impassive.
I was getting ready to give the girl, and by extension Arisa and Lull, a lecture on ethics had the latter not suddenly thrust his entire head into the book. In that overeager, strained voice of his, he began to recite the words:
"The Fisher King stands above the world; miasma seeps from his every pore. The chosen one appears, brandishing the Lady of the Lake's blessing, and vanquishes the malodorous King forevermore."
It read like bad poetry that only vaguely rhymed, but of course nothing happened. Lull slunk to the ground with a sigh, disappointed that he was still afflicted with the curse, but also probably mortified that he had read that embarrassing passage for no reason. I certainly wasn't interested in trying, more than happy to take Misane's word that this book's contents were a fake.
As Misane and I plotted out our next move (Lull, his face as red as root, was too distraught to speak), I could see, from the corner of my eye, Arisa picking up the volume. She was examining with a frown on her face, and I asked her what she was thinking about.
"He read the spell wrong."
Arisa began to read, but the words that came out of her mouth were decidedly not of the common tongue. I say common tongue because, although I'm monolingual, I can understand the language of this world's people. Whether by the influence of magic or otherwise, I've never had any trouble with speaking and listening in Avalon.
Her elucidations, which had now taken on the characteristics of a song, continued in all its esoteric splendor. Although I still couldn't discern the words, the periodic inflections showed that she wasn't just humming gibberish without rhyme or reason. This was a spell, but one that was clearly beyond my comprehension.
I wasn't the only one affected; Misane was murmuring quickly under her breath, as though something had finally clicked in her brain. However, the most pressing and visceral reaction was that of Lull, who was writhing in pain on the floor, his cursed arm audibly thrumming.
The arm, which had looked bloated and infected, began to assume monstrous proportions. As though it were now a living thing that moved independently of Lull, it stretched itself outwards with the intention of enveloping the heavenly song.
"Shit! Arisa, watch out!" my voice rose above the din.