A young man awoke in his bed after a startling and impressive dream. As soon as he was up, before he even opened his eyes, rose from his position, or even let out a sigh from the comfort of his pillow, he leaned far to the side and reached for a quill pen on his nightstand to write with. A piece of paper was already prepared, and he blindly scribbled the details down.
In those brief moments between dreaming and waking, Baxter Movish opened his eyes in a tight squint to greet the first morning light that crept in from the narrow slats of his window. The wooden blinds were drawn as tight as they could but still let in the light he so resented every morning—just enough that he couldn’t sleep past the first bells in the city.
Once he finally opened his eyes and brushed the curls away from his face, he looked down and saw his writing hand had lazed onto the table, half-numb and reeling with the pain of pins and needles. He shook it off and sat up properly on his bed. Another night had passed, which meant another day had started, and the plans for that day were what put him onto his feet.
He redressed himself clumsily into his scholarly apparel. A classic, tie-down petticoat over his regular, airy, wide-sleeve blouse, which he buttoned with detached collars over his wrists to keep the fabric out of the way of his working hands. His trousers reached down to his knees and tied into his socks, which rose from his feet. His shoes were buckled into place, except for the right one. It was just old enough that it was starting to wear out over his arch.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” he sighed. He took the chance of speaking to clear his throat and get his voice reoriented into its ideal tone, deepened with his early, burgeoning maturity. If he cleared it enough times, he thought it wouldn’t crack so much during the day into his younger, higher tones. With his garments assembled, he threw on his hooded robe and clasped it under his neck collar. It was still a junior’s robe in size and standing, with a single line of gold trim at the bottom of the dark blue, hip-length fabric and another golden ring around the hood line.
He stood in front of a full-height mirror that stood a bit taller than he did and admired his appearance. “Perhaps today,” he wondered aloud, “Master Lothan will stop being coy and recommend me properly.” He gave it a moment of thought, put his Master in his mind, then sighed with a defeated expression. “Or he’ll tell me to wait until next year again.”
Baxter was prepared to move out immediately. He readied his mind and his heart for another day at the Archive, but before he left, he remembered the passive writing he’d done while half-asleep. His dream notes were on his nightstand, and he didn’t want to wait until the evening to read them. What he wrote down was still half a mystery even to him, so he picked it up and prepared to gawk at his own terrible, illegible scrawls.
“Dreamed of Abyss,” he read out loud. “Mountain and Sea. Shades, shadows: no bodies or light. Reference: The Old World Comp. Volume VI, Volume VIII, Volume E: Daemondimonium, Light and Dark Shadows.”
Baxter was an apprentice cryptographist, a reader of concealed words in ancient texts made of languages from the ages of antiquity that had lapsed into legend. He’d read impossible stories told by real people in dictation that were reprinted by hand and kept in the Archive for restoration and recontextualizing as both a duty and privilege of his position, all because he loved to read. He’d learned of all the world’s most arcane legends and myths, and yet his own writing was the most confusing thing he’d ever read.
“I suppose I’ll…give those a look-over,” he sighed. He put the paper down like he was disappointed in it for being incomprehensible, but at least he recognized a few things about it. It reminded him of the titles of books he still had to organize. All the more reason he had to leave for the day.
He left his room and ambled down the stairs, ignoring the smell of cooked, greasy meat that wafted through the air. Meat was a slumber-inducing food, and he needed his mind to be racing as early as possible. However, his brothers and father felt a different way.
“Oi, Baxy!” a voice called out. He turned at the foot of the stairs and saw the dining room full-up with happy eaters, including some guests—friends of his brothers who came by before work. “Leaving already?” The caller was his oldest brother, the head worker of the city’s renovations crew, Bart. Bart had eaten so much ham he appeared half-pig in the haze of the early morning. He sweated easily and had a pudgy nose to match his pudgy arms, back and waist. He held up a fork with a slab of wet ham and wiggled it around, causing the drippings to flicker out onto the floor for the cats to lick up. “We got food for you too.”
“If he begs, maybe,” another voice called out, gravely and ornery-sounding. It came from his slovenly, bloated brother Barny who wielded a loaf of bread in one hand and thick slabs of bacon in the other, fork not required. Just seeing meat, cooked or raw, in his brother’s greasy hands made Baxter visibly grimace, which his brothers were fast to notice.
“Oh, go on, then!” Bart called out. “Eat your books, you love them so much. Get some roughage in you!”
The table then started chanting “Roughage! Roughage!” over and over until Baxter was out of the house. He sighed and took a pause at the door to calm his mind. His family, the only family that he had in the world, seemed to only exist to mock him for his own given talents and his steady-learned skills. He was the only one in the house who could read, including his mother and father. Each morning he left with that solitude on his shoulder, like a weight he couldn’t shake. A burden of responsibility that mocked him in his own home.
His home was located in the Festival Quarter, as it was called. It was the kindest way the city planners could think to phrase the slums near the base of the city where the day workers, laborers, and uneducated families all lived. The richer, more advantaged classes all lived up the hill toward the old Royal Quarter, which had once been home to the nobles. Even without the presence of a king, a monarchy, or any kind of single ruling party, the old ways persisted, as they always did.
Checcheri was a grand city, a Corner State in the Vincian Empire. One of the seven Great Cities of the High World. It was a place where trade began and ended, not a port town or a travel-through place like others were. Merchants lived in Checcheri. Their headquarters were in the Trade Quarter, esteemed and regal palaces that rivaled the old noble houses further up the hill. As such, the city prospered as many others did, all affected by the great Age of Enlightenment that spread across the lands.
It was a time where the wars of old had long since ended, and the wounds they had opened were healed over but not forgotten. The legacies that the ancestors and noble families brought from the Old World were rooted in and gave birth to the flowering trees of industry over time. The city was built on the wealth of that knowledge—the knowledge espoused in the many legends and in the songs and plays performed to commemorate that historic past. Knowledge was the most important currency, even rivaling gold. So, despite his lower-class upbringing, Baxter consistently felt like he was the richest of the rich because he knew what few others could ever learn.
After reflecting on his surroundings, he looked up and began marching up the street until he left the humble trappings of his lowborn home and made his way into the Arts District. It was an age of art, an era of creation and creativity the likes of which had never been recorded in history. The peace brought more than monetary prominence to Vincia; it also brought purpose to its people’s idle hands, allowing them to give their talent and skills to a higher plane of existence than what they physically could see. It was an era ruled by the mind and not the body. Although, from Baxter’s perspective, things were still very much swayed by the bodies of others—at least in the Festival Quarter.
“Baxter!” someone called out. Baxter turned and saw someone heading his way, a tall and strong-looking man whose height and observable layers of muscles betrayed the fact that he was Baxter’s age and no older. Derek Solly, his childhood friend, ran up with a chunk of marble stone hoisted up onto his shoulder that weighed at least a hundred pounds if not more, and he treated it like it was a basket of laundry.
“Careful, Derek,” Baxter warned, shying away from his friend’s dangerous workload. “You could crush a man flat with that.”
Derek looked over and rubbed his cheek against the stone. “Oh, this?” he asked. “No, no, it’s fine here. It’s not going anywhere. And I’m safe already, see?” He tried to angle himself down and pointed at the space between the rock and his shoulder. Baxter saw a padded blanket serving as the brace that kept his arm from breaking against the weight but questioned its effectiveness on keeping Derek’s face safe. “It can’t go sliding around like this, yeah?”
“Good thinking,” Baxter approved. “What’s it for, though?”
“So, there’s a guy,” Derek began, “trying to carve a woman’s bust. I mean like, the bust of her bust, but from up her—”
“I get it,” Baxter interrupted.
“He’s the son of a Merchant but wants to be a Sculptor and stuff, and he keeps messing up, and the woman he’s sculpting keeps getting pissy and yelling that his work’s all wrong. And he snapped back once at her, saying it’s his art, and his interpretation is closer to truth than what he sees or something—so she socks him right in the nose, tells him to start over for the ninth time already! He’s buying up marble from the quarry wholesale, skipping the markets, and we’re getting full price.”
“Noblemen are certainly generous,” Baxter said sarcastically.
“Kinda skittish, though,” Derek added, countering Baxter’s backhanded compliment.
“Well, he may not pay you if it breaks,” Baxter warned again.
“Yeah, I got it,” Derek said, hoisting it up to make it look somehow safer in his already controlled arms. “Aye, find a heavy book today and pick it up over your head. You’ll feel better.”
“I’ll try that,” Baxter called out. He kept on his way, feeling his chest grow a little lighter. Derek was his oldest friend and the only man without literacy that Baxter felt he could get close to. Derek didn’t care for the arts or culture or anything that he seemed to most commonly work on, but he was strong, in body and heart. Friendly to anybody, regardless of their class or standing, Derek never looked down on anyone nor spoke out against those who looked down on him.
On his final approach to the Archive, a building he could see for blocks around that oriented him around the city every day, Baxter neglected to look directly ahead and ran into someone. The impact caused him to stumble backward, and his shoe buckle popped open, causing him to fall right out of it and slip onto his back. He sighed when he landed—the frustration was greater than his pain—and he sat up to see who he had offended with his negligence.
Curiously, the one who stood before him was a girl. She wore a well-kept green dress with an apron that had the symbol of the Porter Guild on it, a covered wagon circled by a coil of ivy. She looked upset but unshaken, and judging by the force of their collision, also as sturdy as the marble chunk that Derek was carrying.
“Do excuse yourself,” she said. “I can’t wait forever.”
“Oh, sorry,” Baxter replied. He stayed sitting and reached over for his shoe. His trousers were dusty, he realized. He struggled to latch the buckle again, as it had clearly broken the whole way through, and his pause caused the girl to give a very impatient, tired sigh.
“If you can’t apologize properly, then pay better attention,” she demanded.
“Of course I will,” he said. “Of course.”
She huffed and stormed away. Baxter finally got up after forcing the buckle shut at the expense of his freedom. His shoe was essentially locked in place with no way to free it but cutting the leather. He looked on as the girl left and carved a path ahead of her out of the busy but hastily retreating travelers who didn’t want to stand in her way. If only he’d looked ahead, he would have done the same.
The Merchant Guilds and their workers had the right of way on every road, even through the Royal Quarter. The Porter Guild was responsible for deliveries throughout the city. They brought goods to important businesses or private estates that came from all over the country and even transported imports from the Old World. They were contracted by very high-paying and esteemed people, so the contents of what they carried were highly valued. In another town or another part of Checcheri, a girl like her would be the target of some maligned and criminal mind who valued her goods far more than her own well-being. Baxter considered such a crook unfortunate to go against her, though. She carried herself with more assertion than Derek did.
At last, with no further distractions, Baxter reached Main Street, a road that stretched all the way from the gatehouse of the old, historic lower town that used to be the whole of the city to the great castle above, which hosted the new enlightened rulers of the countryside in their mountainous corner of Vincia. Cathedral Row, the lane lined with castle-like churches, was the main thoroughfare of all trade and foot traffic. It was the central road that connected all of the city together and ran uphill in winding grades for horse and cart and offered mounting stairs for the fleet of foot.
Baxter cut across the street, went up one terrace of the hill by the steps, and walked straight up to the Archive. It was one of the largest cathedrals, owning the tallest tower of any building in the city. It was once owned by the priesthood who attempted to use their position as the highest place in all of Checcheri to connect the living world with the realm of divinity, like a great mountain that rose out of the oceans to touch the sacred sky, and extract the power of light for themselves. That was what the legends and the diaries of the builders said at least.
After the Age of Conquest ended and the last wars finished off, the site was abandoned by its former sponsors and was returned to the control of the ruling Emperor of Checcheri, who at the time was a wise man who valued knowledge of the world over the potential of the divine. And so it was that the largest cathedral of its time would become the Archive of all written works, old and new. A library of all human history, from myths to more recent musings of philosophy from the Great Thinkers of the City of Minds, was stored inside.
Baxter took a breath and readied himself to enter again. There were no jockish brutes, dangerous lifting, or intimidating Merchants inside the halls of the Archive. There were only books. All he had to do was learn.