After a half hour walking up to the north, then another hour west along the Circular, I’m finally standing outside the Boar’s Tusk inn. It’s a grand building made in the style of old city taverns, its crest – a huge boar’s head with two tusks curling up from its jaw – painted onto both sides of a sign, sticking out just above me. I catch myself tracing the details of the tusks – procrastinating, really, for fear of being disappointed inside.
The streams of people beside me still rush from place to place, but they’re night shift workers, less inclined to make a fuss and more concerned with getting home safely. At least they know who’s waiting for them. And whether they’ve got what they want.
I take a deep breath, forcing myself to actually look at the inn. The bay windows on the front of the building are dark, blinds drawn down for the night and only the faintest flickering light visible through the cracks. I approach the double wooden doors, preparing an explanation in case neither of them are still here; I don’t want anyone else going after the story too.
I hear rustling from within. A clunk of metal, then the door opens to Milo, smirking, in comfy-looking sleep clothes. Her silver eyes, for the first time in a long time, actually look directly at me.
‘Well, hello. Took you long enough.’ Her voice is soft and she gestures inside, opening the door wider.
I knew she’d gloat. I hesitate. Here she is, at least, but – what about him? And what if he is here?
‘Come on – in. You’re letting all the heat out and we’ve just got the fire going.’
“We’ve”. I step inside. The front room of the inn is used as a bar, from what I remember, but no one’s here now. A few small lights have been left on to illuminate some empty armchairs and sofas, along with the staircase up to the rooms above, but otherwise it’s quiet. I notice the silhouette of someone’s head against the fire, sitting in an armchair turned towards the flames.
‘Is that…?’ I glance at Milo as she closes the door. She looks back to me, nodding, a wide smile and wider eyes betraying a kind of uneasy excitement I’ve not seen on her before. She wears it uncomfortably, as if she doesn’t quite understand the feeling, but it’s infectious. I’ve spent all night hunting this down – why do I feel nervous too?
Fuck me. Who is this guy, really?
‘Grab a drink, then come join us. I’ve already paid for the bottle.’ She gestures behind me to the bar, a bottle and tumbler laid out for me. I nod back to her, then go to pour myself a glass of – much to my delight – high-end whisky. The warmth of the liquid helps to calm some of my nerves, but I can’t stop my heart pounding as I approach the two of them, sat in two of the three chairs around the hearth. Taking the spare seat at one end, I find a comfortable position, then turn to face them.
The Tome Keeper is staring into the flames, his hands resting on the tome in his lap, and doesn’t even register my arrival. He looks like a relatively normal Null man, but for his completely clean-shaven head and frail-looking figure. I can’t decide if I should be relieved that he can’t hurt me, or worried that he still could.
A moment passes as Milo and I share a nervous look, sipping from our drinks. I followed her to hear the end of her story, but sitting here now, I realise it’s still not over.
‘Iliavh. It’s good to meet you.’ His voice makes me jump. It’s unnatural, both deep and shallow, like two or three voices layered over one another. He’s also still not looking at me.
‘Yes, uh – I assume you’re the Tome Keeper? The Old Timer has told us all a lot about you.’
‘It’s fine, Ili. He knows everything.’ She nods.
‘Sure,’ I laugh, ‘Milo, then, has told us lots – although not nearly enough for me. I’d love to hear your story, what you’re researching, why Milo is of interest -‘
‘And there lies the reason for our meeting,’ he cuts in, finally turning to look at me. ‘How would you like to work with me and Milo?’
I raise my eyebrows, trying to look uncertain. Work with the most interesting person I know, plus someone very quickly jostling for that position. I wonder. ‘What would that entail, exactly?’
‘I have collected many a tale in this tome,’ he says, tapping it with his fingertips, ‘and I would like them translated into a form more easily understood by the general population.’
‘I’ve already agreed to hunt down any new stories as I continue my mission,’ Milo adds, ‘and he’ll provide information on my targets from his research.’
‘Indeed. You, Iliavh, would be my,’ he pauses, ‘narrator. I tend to take quite dispassionate records and I need someone to make them into stories worth telling.’
I remember the drink in my hands and take another shaky sip, trying my best to act like I’m mulling it over.
‘You told me they’d be more excited, Milo.’ The Tome Keeper raises his eyebrows.
She takes another sip of her drink, chuckling quietly. ‘I think they’re more enthused than they’re letting on, don’t worry.’
I allow myself a smile, winking at her. ‘You pay me in stories and I tell them for you? Yes, I think I can work with that. I do have one question, though -‘
He nods, waving his hand to stop me. ‘I go by many names, and Tome Keeper is but one. I have no birth name, I have always known myself as simply the Archivist.’
I have to stop myself from laughing. Not exactly the easy nickname I was hoping for, but at least he’s consistent. ‘Okay then, Archivist. What can I sink my teeth into first?’
He smiles at that. ‘Well, Iliavh, I believe Milo has something new for you.’
I turn to her and she grins.
‘What I told you all in Kell Fire was the ending. My journey over from the Frosts makes quite the tale, and I think you’ll have a great time telling it.’
‘I’m sure’, I reply, bursting into a grin to match hers. ‘And I suppose it ends where this one begins.’ I turn to the Archivist, raising my glass. ‘I think we’re going to get on well.’