Now, many of you Hushlanders may be scoffing at the disguises used by the Smedry group. Before you pass judgment on them, realize that they were somewhat out of their element. Imagine if you were suddenly thrust into a different culture, with very little knowledge of its customs or fashions. Would you know the difference between a Rounsfield tunic and a Larkian tunic? Would you be able to distinguish when to wear a batoled and when to wear a car-foo? Would you even know where you wrap a Carlflogian wickerstrap? No? Well, that’s because I just made all of those items up. But you didn’t know that, did you?
Therefore, my point is proven. All things considered, I think the Smedrys did quite well. I’ve seen other infiltration teams—ones without Grandpa Smedry, who is widely held as the Free Kingdoms’ foremost expert on American culture and society. The last group that tried an infiltration without him ended up trying to sneak into the Federal Reserve Bank disguised as potted plants.
They got watered.
“Are we ready, then?” Grandpa Smedry said. “My grandson will be leading this infiltration. Our target is the central downtown library.”
Sing and Quentin glanced at each other, looking a bit surprised. Grandpa had mentioned a library infiltration to Sing, but apparently the downtown library was not what he’d expected. It made me wonder, once again, what I was getting myself into.
“I realize this will be a most ambitious mission, gentlemen,” Grandpa Smedry said. “But we have no choice. Our goal is to recover the legendary Sands of Rashid, which the Librarians have acquired through some very clever scheming and plotting.”
Grandpa Smedry turned, nodding to me. “The sands belong to my grandson, and so he will be lead Oculator on this mission. Once we breach the initial stacks, we’ll split into two groups and search for the sands. Gather as much information as you can, and recover the sands at all costs. Any questions?”
Quentin raised his hand. “What exactly does this bag of sands do?”
Grandpa Smedry wavered. “We don’t actually know,” he admitted. “Before this, nobody had ever managed to gather enough of them to smelt a Lens. Or at least nobody had managed to do it during our recorded history. There are vague legends, however. The Lenses of Rashid are supposed to be very powerful. They will be a great danger to the people of the Free Kingdoms if they are allowed to fall into Librarian hands.”
The room fell silent. Finally, Sing raised a meaty hand. “Does this mean I can bring weapons?”
“Of course,” Grandpa Smedry said.
“Can I bring lots of weapons?” Sing asked carefully.
“Whatever you deem necessary, Sing,” Grandpa Smedry said. “You’re the specialist. But go quickly! We’re going to be late.”
Sing nodded, dashing back down his hallway.
“And you?” Grandpa Smedry asked of Quentin.
“I’m fine,” the short man said. “But … my lord, don’t you think we should tell Bastille what we’re doing?”
“Jabbering Jordans, no!” Grandpa Smedry said. “Absolutely not. I forbid it.”
“She’s not going to be happy.…” Quentin said.
“Nonsense,” Grandpa Smedry said. “She enjoys being ignored—it gives her an excuse to be grumpy. Now, since we have to wait for Sing to get his weapons, I’m going to go get something to eat. I was clever enough to pack some lunches for myself and the lad. Coming, Alcatraz?”
I shrugged, and we made our way out through the cooler—passing the armored knights—and walked back into the shop. Grandpa Smedry nodded to the two hillbilly attendants, then walked out toward his car, apparently going to grab the briefcases stuffed with food.
I didn’t follow him. At that point, I still felt a little overwhelmed by what was happening to me. Part of me couldn’t believe what I had seen, so I decided to try to figure out how they were hiding that huge room inside. I turned, wandering around to the back of the small service station, then I carefully paced off the lengths of its walls.
The building was a rectangle, ten paces long on two sides, eighteen paces long on the other two. Yet the room inside had been far larger. A basement? I wondered. (Yes, I realize that it took me quite some time to accept that the place was magical. You Free Kingdomers really have no idea what it’s like to live in Librarian-controlled areas. So, stop judging me and just keep reading.)
I kept at it, trying to figure out some logical explanation. I squatted down on the hot, tar-stained asphalt, trying to find a slope in the ground. I stood up, eyeing the back of the building, which was set with a small window. I grabbed a broken chair from a nearby Dumpster, then climbed up to peek into the window.
I couldn’t see anything through the dark glass. I pressed my face against it—bumping my glasses against the window—and shaded the sunlight with my hand, but I still couldn’t see inside.
I leaned back, sighing. But … then it seemed as if I could see something. Not through the window, but alongside it. The edges of the window seemed to fuzz a tiny bit, and I got the distinct, strange impression that I could see through the wall’s siding.
I pulled off my glasses. The illusion disappeared, and the wall looked perfectly normal. I put them back on, and nothing really changed. Yet as I stared at the wall, I felt the odd sense again. As if I could just barely see something. I cocked my head, teetering on the broken chair. Finally, I reached up a hand, laying it against the white siding.
Then I broke it.
I didn’t really do much. I didn’t have to twist, pull, or yank. I merely rested my hand against the wall for a moment, and one of the siding planks popped free and toppled to the ground. Through the broken section, I could see the true wall of the building.
Glass. The entire wall was made of a dark lavender glass.
I saw through the siding, I thought. Was it my glasses that let me do that?
A footstep sounded on the gravel behind me.
I jumped, almost slipping off the chair. And there he was: the man from my house, the caseworker—or whatever he was—with the suit and the gun. I wobbled, feeling terror rise again. Of course he would chase us. Of course he would find us. What was I thinking? Why hadn’t I just called the police?
“Lad?” Grandpa Smedry’s voice called. He appeared around the corner, holding an open briefcase smeared with ketchup. “Your sand-burger is ready. Aren’t you hungry?”
The man with the gun spun around, weapon still raised. “Don’t move!” he yelled nervously. “Stay right there!”
“Hmm?” Grandpa Smedry asked, still walking.
“Grandpa!” I screamed as the caseworker pulled the trigger.
The gun went off.
There was a loud crack, and a chunk of siding blew off the building right in front of Grandpa Smedry. The old man continued to walk along, smiling to himself, looking completely relaxed.
The caseworker fired again, then again. Both times, the bullets hit the wall right in front of Grandpa Smedry.
Now, a true hero would have tackled the man who was shooting his grandfather, or done something else equally heroic. I am not a true hero. I stood frozen with shock.
“Here now,” Grandpa Smedry said. “What’s going on?”
Looking desperate, the caseworker pointed his gun back at me and pulled the trigger. The consequences, of course, were immediate.
The magazine dropped out the bottom of the gun.
The sliding part on the top of the weapon fell off.
The gun’s trigger popped free, propelled by a broken spring.
The screws fell out of the gun’s sides, dropping to the pavement.
The caseworker widened his eyes in disbelief, watching as the last part of the grip fell to pieces in his hand. In a final moment of indignity, the dying gun belched up a bit of metal—an unfired bullet—which spun in the
air a few times before clicking down to the ground.
The man stared at the pieces of his weapon.
Grandpa Smedry paused beside me. “I think you broke it,” he whispered to me.
The caseworker turned and scrambled away. Grandpa Smedry watched him go, a sly smile on his lips.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Me?” Grandpa Smedry said. “No, you’re the one who did that! At a distance, even! I’ve rarely seen a Talent work with such power. Though it’s a shame to ruin a good antique weapon like that.”
“I…” I looked at the gun pieces, my heart thumping. “It couldn’t have been me. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
“Have you ever been threatened by a weapon before today?” Grandpa Smedry asked.
Grandpa Smedry nodded. “Panic instinct. Your Talent protects you—even at a distance—when threatened. It’s a good thing that he attacked with such a primitive weapon; Talents are much more powerful against them. Honestly, you’d think the Librarians would know not to send someone with a gun against a Smedry of the true line. They obviously underestimate you.”
“What am I doing here?” I whispered. “They’re going to kill me.”
“Nonsense, lad,” Grandpa Smedry said. “You’re a Smedry. We’re made of tougher stuff than the Librarians give us credit for. Ruling the Hushlands for so long has made them sloppy.”
I stood quietly. Then I looked up. “We’re really going to go into the library? The place where these guys come from? Isn’t that kind of … stupid?”
“Yes,” Grandpa Smedry said, speaking—for once—with a quiet solemnity. “You can stay back, if you wish. I know how this must all seem to you. Overwhelming. Terrifying. Strange. But you must understand me when I say our task is vital. We’ve made a terrible mistake—I’ve made a terrible mistake—by letting those sands get into the wrong hands. I’m going to make it right, before thousands upon thousands of people suffer.”
“But … isn’t there anyone else who could do this?”