I approached the mighty gates of Folmaer with holes in my cloak and soot-covered fingers. The road was warm through the soles of broken boots. I could not think of a part of me that did not ache. Still, with rest so close at hand, I could surely turn one more page. A foot moves, one after the other, for twenty years.
Twenty years! It had taken me all this time to find every bookhouse in the Valenthi Empire. The borders expanded as I worked, conquering every city between the far mountains and the Endless Sea. And now, the last one: the greatest one. Folmaer, conquered by the Valenthi not one year ago, held the largest library in the known world. The Bibliothedral—a series of spires said to contain the whole of the human mystery—had accumulated written words for longer than the Empire had existed.
I came to burn it.
I squinted against the rising daylight. Even through the glare, I could see the gates sat open. Song wafted joyously from somewhere within the walls.
I did not fear armies. Armies, I could handle; had handled, in fact. But time and pain had long since taught me to fear the unknown. Every other village, town, or city in the domain of Emperor Hamand IV (all praise his name) had tried to bar my path. Folmaer seemed not to care.
I readied myself to make fire at the first sign of danger.
As I crossed under the portcullis, though, and into the promenade, I found nothing awry. Indeed, men in white robes recited poetry to me as I marched into the central square—spitting couplets and quatrains as fountain water arced behind them, catching the sun brilliantly.
Was this meant as insult?
If I were a younger and angrier man, the one I was when I was made Poemfire all those years ago, I would have scorched them where they stood. It was easier than breathing: a flick of a wrist would have sent gouts of flame to shame the sun. Their villanelles would have been as dust amongst the cobblestones.
Now, the thought made me tired. I’d left too much dust in my wake already.
Still, they knew who I was and what I was there to do: they expected a performance. So I marshaled my strength and grabbed one of the books perched by the fountain’s edge. The orators neither balked nor cried out. They didn’t even try to stop me—though the quatrains trailed off, at least. It was a small favor; not all of them had reasonable pitch.
Curious, I glanced at the page—and then I stared, for only taxes lay there. It was a ledger to the eye, tracking grain and cattle in equation rather than couplet. None of the words they’d spoken; none of their nonsense about comparing love to the sun, or roads to a summer’s day.
“What is this?” I demanded.
“Poetry,” the man answered.
“Are you daft? There’s naught written there but economics.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “There’s an art to it?”
The Emperor, all praise his name, had told me to suffer neither opposition nor insolence in my task to rid his world of poetry. But the man seemed so sincere, so idiotically simple, that I could scarce ignite him out of spite. I let him go, disgusted. He stumbled backward and landed on the cobblestones. I tossed the book at him; it bounced off his head and landed beside him.
All I could think, as I stormed down the broad, tree-lined avenue, was that something had gone horribly wrong in Folmaer. And if I were going to find answers, it would be at the Bibliothedral itself.
The stairs were of a rare kind of marble I knew the Emperor favored. They baked my feet through my boots, though, so I had to step lightly despite my aches. Robe-clad women and men walked in the other direction, curious in a disinterested sort of way.
Memory summoned a thousand pleas for mercy, as they passed. Those cries had gone unanswered. These folks knew me naught.
I found scholars roaming in cool chambers under the vaulted ceilings. Tomes and scrolls surrounded me on shelves higher than the city walls. Sickening. Nauseating. Criminal. I pulled a book from the nearest shelf… and tossed it aside when I found only tables of coin weights. The cover, with its scales and five coins, splayed across the ground. A young man scurried to pick it up, perhaps to rescue the binding; one glare sent him running in the other direction.
The next book I pulled had four coins on the cover, but it tracked funds sent to Valenthi. The one after had three coins: donkey exchanges.
Was I in the wrong building, somehow?
“May I help you, child?” an old woman asked. She wore an ornate robe with nonsense symbols etched onto the side.
“I am Hjarad of Valenthi,” I told her. My voice sounded tired even to my own ears. “The Emperor’s Poemfire. Hamand IV, all praise his name, has ordered all art in his domain destroyed.”
“We know his command,” the librarian said. “All kingdoms he conquers learn to fear it; we assumed it would come for us someday.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t bar the gates, then. No one here seems to care.”
“To be clear,” she answered, “we know who you are. We didn’t bother to scare our citizens. Why would we? What have we to fear?”
I gestured toward the shelves, frowning. “Where is your literature?” I demanded.
“All around you,” she said. “Poetry, sciences… even tomes of magic from Lost Trakkan.”
“…it’s taxes,” I said. “All of it.”
“May we not find the beauty of the world in such?” she asked. “Is not a balanced budget a song in its own right, and a perfect ledger not a sonnet?”
“I am commanded,” I told her, with teeth clenched, “to burn anything that is not taxes.” While Hamand’s decree, initially, had been to turn to cinders all that had once been paper, the Treasury convinced him that the Empire could not survive without accounting. I, and those who followed in my blackened footsteps, never had much trouble finding the books—there was scarcely a territory without a library. The harder part was determining what we might reasonably set alight.
The city of Folmaer, jewel of enlightenment, had been the Emperor’s most recent—and perhaps final—conquest; news of its burning would be the dearest prize I could offer to the man who had pulled me from poverty to do his will. I half-imagined the bed-ridden man clutching at a scrap of paper with the news, feebly, whilst life fled from his fingers.
“By Emperor Hamand, all praise his name,” she agreed.
“You will show me which is which.”
“No.” She took a step back at the look that crossed my face, but she tilted her chin defiantly upward. “I shall not.”
“Burn them all,” a young citizen called over. “I wouldn’t mind not paying taxes.”
My fists clenched by my hip as musical laughter rang around me. I was tempted. By Hamand, I was tempted! I needed but will and tinder, and books provided plenty of the latter. I could not torch the taxes, though—all such had to be moved to safer places ere the rest cindered. Those were my orders. I dared not disobey.
Some smaller towns, especially border villages, raised weapons to try to save their art. I commended their bravery—but I let their corpses burn in the pyres to knowledge. It seemed fair commemoration, and most peasants lost their taste for blood after seeing smoked brains on the cobblestones.
Knowledge could hurt a soul. Hamand’s wars taught me that. I was tired… so, so tired… of knowing the smell of burned flesh.
“How long,” I asked, “have they been disguised as such?”
“My entire lifetime,” the old woman told me. “We created this alphabet when Hamand’s grandfather was young. Your Empire is dull and stupid and hates that which it does not understand; we made ready for this long ago.”
“I could kill and torture your people,” I told her.
She nodded solemnly. “I know. But you don’t want that.”
“No. It’s clear from your voice. How long have you burned?”
“Twenty years, and pages without number.” My voice was dry as dust in my ears.
Hers too, it seemed, for her face twisted into what I could only assume was pity. “A long time,” she murmured, “for a fire to burn. I expect, poor child, that the will to do this work left a long time ago.”
I shrugged. It was true. It changed nothing. “Fire,” I reminded her, “does not take break or plead for leave. It burns until it is done.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you know your letters, Poemfire? Can you read these?”
“Yes, of course I do,” I snapped. I was older, though. The rank soldiers of the Empire, who’d been raised without books, were taught naught but slaughter. Their approach to this work was one of far less finesse—and if they were summoned, the conclusion was inevitable: the city would be emptied of all those who dared to conjure untruths—artist or no.
But they weren’t here; I was. And I’d learned enough to know the revenue Folmaer could bring in taxes and trade was desperately needed by Valenthi. All this would bolster an Empire that had burned itself out upon war and conquest. Folmaer sat against the Boundless Sea; there was no one left to conquer, and no one else left to tax. If anyone replaced me, they’d do Hamand’s will… and kill the Empire in so doing.
If I saved Folmaer, I saved my world. They’d forced my scorched hand.
“Well?” the librarian asked. “Are you here to burn something? Or to learn something?”
“How do you know,” I asked, “that I won’t burn your library—hells, your whole city—once I know your ways?”
“We don’t. But if you can read a thousand poems from a thousand cultures,” the woman said, “truly read them, and find nothing worth saving… then perhaps we deserve to be turned to ash.” She smiled gently. “Perhaps our poetry is worth the risk?”
She sounded so smug. I could feel the will to burn rising in me: volcanic fury from far below the bedrock of my being. They could learn what I already knew: the screams, the charnel stench, the sight of bodies melting. The work of twenty years had taxed my soul to ruin. There were no emotions left in my heart to conquer.
But…with a single missive back to Valenthi, I could open my world to something other than carnage. And in so doing … I would preserve all that Hamand had created. Did I dare to disobey him to do his will? Did I dare read a poem to save society?
When I had no ready answer, the old woman patted me on the shoulder. “Get some rest, Poemfire. There is an inn down the street where you may stay. Tomorrow begins your first lesson. It will, I’m sure, pay dividends.”
I turned and stormed out of the Bibliothedral. The gall of their ploy had a certain artistry to it; I had to admire it, even as I seethed. I’d run out of fuel to fight them, and their logic had doused what rage I had left. Still… I could sacrifice myself to art, if it meant saving the Empire. And if it came to pass that soldiers were sent to bring the death I’d declined… this city would have no better ally in preserving the good of the Empire.
Hamand IV (all praise his name) would never understand that. In his youth, he’d also been a man who acted, rather than weighed consequence. Now he lay in his bed, waiting for one last gift. When I wrote back to Valenthi, I would need to weigh my words carefully. He was near to death, and while I was honor-bound to the truth, it could be couched carefully. None knew better than I how knowledge could hurt a soul. My only hope, as I glanced back at the gleaming spires in the center of this strange place, was that knowledge could save a soul, too.
I sought out a quill and began to write a letter that, twenty years ago, I would rather have died than understood.
© 2021 by Brian Hugenbruch
Author’s Note: I play a lot with cryptography and steganography at my day job, and I love the idea of finding text and meaning being hidden deliberately. And after spending too long looking at tax papers, I wondered if I could find a sonnet in there. I failed, but it seeded a larger idea…
Brian Hugenbruch is a speculative fiction writer and poet living in Upstate New York with his wife and their daughter (and their unruly pets). By day, he writes information security programs to protect your data on (and from) the internet. His work has also appeared in Cossmass Infinities, Apparition Lit, and the anthology MY BATTERY IS LOW AND IT IS GETTING DARK. You can find him on Twitter @Bwhugen, on IG @the_lettersea, and at the-lettersea.com. No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.