It seemed as if everyone in the room was holding their breath – Veronika, who would have to breathe eventually, Lady Knight-West, whose need to breathe had left her some time ago, and Amanana, whose breathing requirements Veronika was not all that certain about.
Then Amanana laughed – musically, beautifully, and in a way that seemed to leech all the tension out of the room- not room, Veronika managed to remind herself this time. More of a hallway, no corridor worked better – oh, dear.
She groped behind her until she found a crate and sat down on it with a thump. She hated when this happened, and more that it had happened more than once in the same work day.
The other two ignored her.
“There was a death up in Storage, another one due to the window. Polly Elizabeth Kowalski, born-” Amanana rattled off dates; Veronika tried to pay attention, but everything seemed to be fading in and out of her perception. “-can’t be sure, but she did disappear some time on her first day here, after lunch, from what I’ve put together.”
“Wait.” Veronika stared at Amanana. “How did you know? How do you know who it was?”
Amanana winced. “I don’t know who it is you found today. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to mention, but we found Polly, Miss Kowalski – well, a couple weeks ago, as far as time goes.”
“A. A couple… A couple weeks ago.” As far as time goes. “The two that I found today were skeletons.”
“That is more of a matter of the window itself than it is of the time the bodies were there.”
“Skeletons?” Lady Knight-West leaned in. “There are more deaths?”
“There are no details yet,” Amanana apologized. “But when there are, you know I will bring them to you. For today, Miss Kowalski will have to do. That’s K-o-w-a-l-s-k-i-”
“An s-k-i, not an s-k-y? Interesting. Thank you.” Lady Knight-West turned to her records, her pen scratching on a card. As she scratched, she faded until Veronika could see the cabinet through the spectre.
Veronika didn’t argue at all as Amanana took her arm and tugged her to her feet, nor as the woman guided her, pulling the cart with her other hand, through the corridor. She barely blinked when Amanana opened three drawers in a row – making sure Veronika saw the pattern – to swing a records cabinet open like a short door.
She didn’t say anything when she was pulled to a reading nook, either, and she couldn’t even come up with a complaint when Amanana started going through the cart.
“Do you have something to eat? I’m sure you do, yes, everyone’s fed you, you said that, I believe, and we always do feed the new people. It helps with things like that window. And getting lost. But ah, it helps with things like being grabbed by an angry spectre, too, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think she’d do that, I didn’t think she’d actually grab you. She gets a little rougher every time. And I hope you know, I hope you know I never would have let her actually hurt you – hurt you for real, I didn’t mean to let her hurt you at all.”
“I-” Veronika decided on the side of diplomacy. “Of course. She was just a little – distressing at all.”
“She is. At some point, she may need to be exorcised. I sincerely hope not; she’s very good at what she does and I’m rather fond of her on her good days. That’s actually a large part of why we took that shortcut – I wanted you to meet her, to see what she was like.” Amanana sighed. “What she’s like, sadly, is sometimes not so good.” She pulled out a few things from Veronika’s cart, pushed a panel, and folded down a small table. “These carts are really quite good. If you know where to click, you can even get a little tent. Let me tell you, a couple times when I took a wrong turn, that tent was amazing. But right now- right now, let’s see.”
She poured some water into a cup and set out a plate with cheese, sausage, and bread. Veronika looked up at her.
“Go, go. I’ve had enough to eat.”
“I can’t just eat while you sit there,” she protested.
“Well, if it makes you that uncomfortable.” Amanana sat down and set herself out a small plate with a token of each of the foods and a similarly small cup. “I am going back to my department soon, of course, and I was not the one attacked by a spectre-”
“But you’ve already given me food,” she protested.
“Well, yes, and everyone should. But I wasn’t anticipating the attack, and that was pretty nasty. So go on, eat up, drink up. I don’t want you fainting away before we reach the skeleton room.”
Her mischievous smile was just enough to get Veronika to huff playfully back at her. “As if I would! Do you really think that is going to end up being what gets me, really? With everything else?”
“Some people, it’s the oddest things that get them.” Amanana didn’t lose her smile. “I promise, I’m not attempting to sell you short in any way. I swear it. She leaned forward over the little table, now unsmiling. “And let me tell you, if you ask any other archivist here how long it took for me to swear something to them, they will tell you it was much longer than their first day. Because it is not something I do lightly.”
“But you-” Veronika picked up the cup and sipped the water as if it were the most carefully-brewed tea of the finest leaves. “-You would swear to me just regarding you selling me short? Or, in this case, not? That seems – it seems rather trivial.”
“Well, then, let me ask you this. Go ahead, nibble a little, I will form the question in a wordy enough manner such that it takes a moment or two to get through.”
Veronika couldn’t help but chuckle at this. Certainly others she’d encountered in her field, they would do such a thing – but not out of courtesy. Being around as many books as they were seemed to make them just want to use more and more words.
She formed a small sandwich of bread, cheese, and sausage and took a pointed nibble.
“So, as I was beginning to venture on, I would like to know – regarding your time at the Fillion, which, as we both had some familiarity with that fine establishment, we can share some common understanding regarding – oh, dear, and that was a clumsy way to even begin, wasn’t it?” Amanana chuckled musically, the notes tinkling away into the archives. “Let’s see. Where was I, ah, the Fillion, the fine establishment, which we both know – of which we both know something-”
If she kept this up much longer, Veronika would not only have finished her little sandwich, she would be hopelessly lost about the beginning of the question.
Amanana laughed again. “You worked there for some time, I believe?” She didn’t really pause, but nodding was easy enough to fill in. “And I don’t believe that you really would have taken a potential job at the Bellamy just as a step up from the Fillion. So what I am trying to ask-” She paused as Veronika finished her bite and swallowed. “-is what made you leave the Fillion?”
Veronika almost answered in a way that was far too candid. Instead, she sipped the water and chuckled herself, although far less melodically than Amanana’s titter and with far less humor than she’d been feeling a moment ago. “There was a constant strain there,” she murmured, “and I trust you will not repeat this. “There was a constant feeling that, since everyone else had been there since the Fall of Rome – metaphorically, I believe, although I’m beginning to be less sure – it’s contagious, Amanana, I’m going to take an hour to answer your question!”
“Well, then, you’ll have been well rested by the time we move on.” Amanana’s smile had a cheerful twinkle to it.
“-well, they tended to assume that everything one did was either poorly-thought out, a lucky guess, or the result of being uncomfortable with something.”
“In short, perhaps, they sold you short such that you were constantly needing to prove yourself? And thus you left there?”
“And thus, I left there,” Veronika agreed.
“So. No, it is not trivial to me. And while I didn’t know that – I’ve not even seen your C.V. – I have to admit that you appear far less concerned with, say, being attacked by several malignant beings than you are at the thought you might not be able to handle some skeletons. Which is, I must say, a very good trait in an archivist here at the Bellamy. Chin up, and all that, yes?”