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The Librarian
Universe: Reverend Alpert
Word Count: 2200
Summary: Most Revered Dorothy Ives has to deal with the ghosts from her past and present, along with an unexpected letter.
Notes: This is the first story under my new pay rate! Thanks to everyone who voted, and special thanks to the Patreon crew for sponsoring this story, and being so generous that I was able to expand it.  This is possibly the first Alpert story that I haven't felt really squished by.  More notes at the bottom.


The letter arrived the most mundane way possible, with a tradesman peddling toys and geegaws for the Gestaltist High Church acolytes. When the battered envelope finally landed on Dorothy Ives's desk, it had obviously been through an adventure; the corners were singed, another chewed on, and the marks of a good half dozen peddlers and Good Samaritans decorated the back, marking its progress up Forever Road and through the Scattered Cities. Miraculously, it had not only arrived, but remained unopened. The handwriting was unfamiliar.

Dorothy Ives never received personal mail. Perplexed, she opened it and found a letter in careful black ink. The handwriting was unusual, and as Dorothy Ives read, she realized why; it had been written with a claw, not a pen.

Miss Revered Dorothy Ives,

Hello. It's Perfection, who works with Alpert. He doesn't know I'm sending this letter. I wanted to talk to you as me, myself.

You were wrong about me. I am a person, or at least, I will be. Maybe I'm in progress.

Dorothy Ives scowled. What was this? She pulled her deck from her pocket, drew the Five of Wands. It had no reaction; Alpert hadn't done any work on it. And much as she disliked Alpert, this wasn't his style. He usually did his own dirty work, and anyway, the post was the least efficient way to do it. He was perfectly capable of sending mail supernaturally, same as her. She kept reading.

I'm pretty sure you won't believe me, so let me prove it. Alpert is a stupid selfish goat-fucker. He takes himself far too seriously, pretends he's above everyone when really he's not, and he can't handle failure for shit. Also he is one repressed motherfucker.

Dorothy Ives snorted. Perfection's handwriting was appalling, but she was convincing. Alpert could never have said that about himself, never mind in a public letter anyone could've read.

But I'm not writing about him. I'm writing about the High Church. I know you had a wife once, a monster like me...

Mirth gone, Dorothy Ives crumpled the letter in her fist.

How dare she? How dare she mention… (and the name seemed so hard to remember, like it was buried under thick mud) Theresa? Perfection was nobody, nothing, the pathetic fantasies of a dried-up old has-been…

“Most Revered Dorothy Ives?” A messenger acolyte had shoved his head into the office.

“What?”

The boy quailed. “Begging your pardon, ma'am, but the deacon sent me. The head librarian, ma'am… she's… she's dead.”

“What?” Dorothy Ives shoved the crumpled letter into her pocket and instantly forgot it. “Agnes is dead? I— but--” she paused, got herself together. “I'm sorry to hear that.”

“Yes, ma'am.” But he didn't leave.

Dorothy Ives felt a cloak of leaden resignation fall upon her. “This isn't a condolence call, is it?”

“Um.” The messenger looked deeply uncomfortable. “No, ma'am.”

“Well?”

“Well... you see...” a pleading look. “She won't leave.”

...

Dorothy Ives approached the library, in turmoil and alone. Apparently Agnes Phyllis Forthwhistle, former librarian and current ghost, refused anyone else. Not that Dorothy Ives ever had people working under her, but to have to exorcise a colleague, a friend! Why would Agnes, of all people, ask this of her?

She came to the heavy wooden doors, squared her shoulders, and took a deep breath. The doors were thick, and the inside looked virtually unchanged from when Dorothy had first set foot in it, fifty years ago. The plaster walls, the curving wooden staircase up and down, the rose window on the upper floor, slanting sunbeams down to the dark wooden floor. For a moment, she could almost see her awkward pre-teen self, slipping down the stairs with a stack of texts in her arms, but she shook it off.

“Miss Agnes?”

A flickering pale wisp appeared in the front hall. “Ssh! Silence in the—oh, Dorothy! Thank goodness it's you. Just you, I hope?”

“Just me.” She followed the ghost through the entry room and to the main floor, with the front desk and its familiar shelves of books. “What happened? The deacon said--”

“Oh, dearie, I'm old. It was bound to happen sooner or later.”

Dorothy pulled a stool over and sat. Agnes had been librarian when Dorothy Ives had first arrived at the church, orphaned by plague. A young woman then, Agnes had seemed so much older and authoritative, to Dorothy's childhood eyes. She had distracted Dorothy from her grief with books on history and metaphysics, just as she did after Theresa--

Theresa.

“You didn't expect me to live forever, did you?” Agnes said.

“I wish you had,” Dorothy Ives whispered, and she put her face in her hands and began to cry. “How could you ask me to do this, Agnes? After everything...”

“Oh Dorothy. Oh dearie. I'm so sorry.” Agnes fluttered around, tried to make soothing gestures despite not having any substance.

Dorothy Ives wrestled herself under control again. “I'm sorry. I know you wouldn't have asked this of me for no reason.”

“Perfectly all right. Did some crying myself when I came to—quite a shock, you understand.”

“Where's... your body?”

“Down in the basement stacks. Gruesome thought; leave it for the High Guard. Small as I am, I doubt you could carry me up a flight of stairs.”

Dorothy Ives shivered and hugged herself. “No, I couldn't.”

“I understand this must be awfully upsetting, and I'm terribly sorry to do this to you, Dorothy, but I do need your help. It's why I demanded they send you—had to mute quite a few acolytes first, drive them out, ugly scene.” Always so quiet in life, Agnes looked embarrassed about her postmortem theatrics. “Fifty years, we've been friends, so I knew I could trust you with… the Special Collection.”

“Oh!” And Dorothy's anger vanished.

The 'Special Collection' was a small, hidden cluster of books deemed heretical. They contained Gestaltist history that had been officially expunged, along with certain psychological, government, and fiction texts. Dorothy had read all of them. Few others could say the same.

“I have been a Gestaltist all my life,” Agnes said. “When the change in power came, and the Church began snatching up foundlings and orphans, far more than they had before, I told myself that it had nothing to do with me, the children needed someone, and I stayed. When they started banning and burning books, I stayed. I educated the children, and remembered the histories, because someone had to, and it's all I ever knew to do, and I kept my head down, and--” she sighed. “--and now I'm dead and not sure I did it right at all.”

“Maybe none of us do it right,” Dorothy Ives said. “Show me the books, Agnes. I'll take care of them.”

They were buried in a secret compartment under loose floorboards in a storage closet beneath the stairs, mostly filled with cleaning supplies. Dorothy Ives ran her fingers over the familiar titles. Methods of Suggestion. The Founding of Gestaltism. Some of them, she remembered better than others—oh, the histories she had devoured! But now, she found her hand hovering over Young's Shadow Work. She had only read it once, when she was very young, and she'd mostly forgotten it. Since then, she hadn't dared touch it. She still couldn't. It repulsed her.

“Agnes, I need your help with something.”

“Of course, dearie. Anything.”

“What can you tell me about shadow wives?”



Theresa had been a paper woman—not the hard, brittle type that sliced through skin, but the rich, soft, textured papers made from cotton that were used to hold watercolor. She was tall, taller even than Dorothy Ives, soft and roomy in all the places Dorothy Ives had been hard and bony. Theresa of the soft brown eyes and the soft brown hair, who could leave streaks of color on anything she touched. Some mornings, Dorothy Ives would wake up and find herself covered in pinks and greens and yellows, all following the trails of Theresa's hands and lips and tongue.

Back then, Dorothy Ives hadn't thought about the ramifications of what she was doing. She had only been happy.

But then the Church had found her. And Dorothy Ives, the hard little revolutionary who had almost succeeded, folded like a house of her cards. She'd surrendered her cause, given up everything.

And then she'd exorcised Theresa.

The memory was so hard to think about. It was all razored edges and muddy weight, buried deep in the layers of her mind. Dorothy Ives didn't want to think about it, or the “readjustment period” in the education cells, and for twenty years, she'd almost been able to forget it. But now, with the letter, and Agnes, and laying Agnes to rest…

It was like twenty years ago all over again. The tears streaming down her cheeks (and Theresa's, she could hear Theresa crying). The Four of Cups, for love and homecoming, and the Page of Pentacles, to help Agnes on her way (the Three of Swords, for binding and heartbreak).

“You're doing well, dearie, I'm sorry, you're doing beautifully, it'll all be over in just a minute...” (“You've done the right thing.”)

The taste of ash in the air.

And then Agnes was gone, and Dorothy Ives crumpled on the wooden floor, rested her head on her knees, and sobbed. Dorothy Ives didn't try and resist the tears this time; on the contrary, she needed to shed all of them now, while she was alone. Even dead and gone, Agnes gave Dorothy this one last gift, just as she had in life.

Once Dorothy was well and truly drained, she went back to the storage closet, and the Special Collection. She looked at the sad little cluster of books, hidden under the boards in a cloth like unwanted memories, and she slipped the Two of Pentacles between their pages. Weak, subtle, a simple “do not notice” ward that Dorothy Ives had used to conceal Theresa as a young woman. But that was a long time ago, and she'd greatly improved on her technique since.

She couldn't hide the collection better, not right away. The High Church might suspect her, despite her reeducation. They would hopefully not suspect harmless little old Agnes, who'd always kept her head down, her manner quiet, and never lost a name. Dorothy knew what the High Guard were like; she'd run clean-up for them for years. They were used to heavy, loud wards, torturous booby-traps. The Two of Pentacles was so quiet, it'd hopefully elude them. Dorothy Ives would have to come up with something better later, when her head was clearer.

She resisted the urge to hide Shadow Work in her pocket. Too obvious.

It proved a wise choice. She went to the deacon to announce the job done. Acolytes came to take Agnes's body away (to bury, not burn, there would be no ashes) and the High Guard came, ostensibly to insure the library was truly cleansed. Dorothy Ives didn't bother to hide her tear-stained face, her obvious exhaustion. Let them think it was solely for love of Agnes. They searched her, to “insure her safety,” handed her paperwork, and she went home.

There, Dorothy Ives collapsed on her bed, staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. Automatically, she reached for a little cloth bag under her pillow and pulled out an old, worn deck, carefully drawn by hand. She had made much more proficient and powerful decks since, but somehow, she always got the best answers from this, her first deck. Still staring at the ceiling, she shuffled, letting the automatic movement bring quiet to her mind. The deck never judged. The deck never gave her away. And the deck never lied.

She pulled a card at random. The Lovers. She laid down three more across her chest, left to right. Three of Swords. The Tower. Wheel of Fortune.

Almost entirely major Arcana. She'd be alarmed, if she wasn't so tired.

After studying the cards for a moment, Dorothy Ives put them back into the deck and put it away. As she rolled over onto her side, she heard and felt crumpling paper against her side.

Perfection's letter. She'd forgotten about it.

She pulled it from her pocket, smoothed it out as best she could and read the letter again—the whole thing, this time. She thought. She frowned.

Then she got up and went to her desk to pull out pen, paper, and matches.

The match crackled into life against her thumbnail. Dorothy Ives took a deep breath, stared into the flame, and then she burnt Perfection's letter.

The smell of ash stung her eyes and mouth.



Notes: Sending mail in Reverend Alpert's world is torturous. If you don't know someone with supernatural abilities that facilitate sending mail, you have to do it via wandering tradesmen, many of whom are unreliable.  Even the reliable ones often need to hand off the letters to other tradesmen in turn, or suffer accidents, or get robbed, so getting any mail anywhere without divine or supernatural assistance is nigh-impossible.  Lupa from Forever Road had a lot to do with Perfection's letter making it.
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