The door was just a wooden door, made from three wide planks. Sal had just walked through the wide rooms and long hallways of the Vatican Library, with their marble and their frescos and their saints in a million colors, the kind of stuff that hit you over the head with the knowledge that you were most definitely not in America any more. Old Europe. Old money. Old secrets. Secrets within secrets. Compared to all that, this door looked like it was going to lead to a broom closet.
Except there was Father Menchú, his hands behind his back, waiting for her.
And there was a seven-pointed star on the door.
“Looks a little Satanic for around here, doesn’t it?” Sal said.
“Everyone says that the first time they see it,” Menchú said. “It’s a old symbol of protection. The Society’s entire library is shaped like that star. Ready to see it?”
“You sure you’re all right?” Menchú said.
“I’m fine,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”
Menchú opened the door. They found themselves in a little room with no apparent purpose—bad architecture, which, considering it was the Vatican, was a little surprising. If this were in America, there would be vending machines here, Sal thought to herself. Vending machines and trash cans. But it was just the top of a staircase, a twisting, black metal staircase.
“It’s wrought iron,” Menchú said.
“More like overwrought,” Sal said.
Menchú laughed. “You haven’t even seen all of it yet.”
The stairs corkscrewed below them for what seemed like at least four stories. The middle column was a rod of iron. The outside was a lattice of metalwork that Sal thought at first was covered in barbs, until she saw that the barbs were animals and trees, figures of people in the act of various gestures. The wonders of the natural world. It was beautiful. It was like being inside a birdcage.
The ceiling above them vaulted away from the staircase and down in seven separate vertical segments, like frozen waves, like outstretched wings. We’re in the center of the star, Sal thought. There was light below them. Sal looked down.
She was looking at a city. A city made of books. Books were stacked into skyscrapers, piled into neighborhoods. They seemed to cover the entire floor, from the walls to the bottom step of the staircase. As she got closer, Sal could see narrow pathways through the towers. Someone had started off with a system, bookcases in neat columns across the room. The bookcases were all still there. But the project had gotten out of hand, and now the cases were jammed, and there were stacks of books on top of them. Though, off to the left, there was a place that looked like a clearing, a source of light.
“Asanti?” Menchú said.
“Yes?” a voice called from the clearing. Sal couldn’t say why, but she liked whoever was talking already.
“Is everyone here?”
“Yes,” Asanti answered. Sal could just about hear her smiling.
A different voice, then—Grace’s. “You’re late. By eight minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” Menchú said.
He really means that, Sal thought. What does that mean?
“I’ll meet you at the bottom of the stairs,” Asanti said. “I’ve moved a few things around, so it’s not as easy to get through.”
Asanti was tall, a good three inches taller than Sal, and her long graying dreadlocks, piled and twisted beneath a colorful scarf, made her seem taller still. But there was nothing imposing about her. Only a quick smile, eyes that seemed to spark.
“So you’re the new recruit Menchú thinks so highly of.” She extended a hand. “I’m Archivist Asanti.”
They shook hands.
“Welcome to the Black Archives of the Societas Librorum Occultorum. Come in. The others are waiting.”
Asanti guided Sal and Menchú through the towers of books, talking as she went.
“The library was built in the 1400s—the architecture gives that away, don’t you think?—when the Society’s collection grew a little too large and a little too dangerous to have in broad daylight, or just sitting in some monastery. Take a left. No, the other left. That’s it. We are now in the only central chamber of the library. There are seven chambers radiating off of this one. Each one has a small antechamber, with the larger rooms beyond that. Just in case something gets out in the library, you understand, and we need to seal it in.”
Sal glanced back at the staircase. Now it looked like a strand of DNA, ascending into the gloom until it disappeared in the middle of the ceiling.
“Let me guess,” Sal said. “The antechambers are really small, awkward spaces.”
“That’s right,” Asanti said.
“Like the room at the top of the stairs.”
“Exactly,” Asanti said.
“The idea being that at least some of the things that get out of the books, if they get out, are too big to fit in those spaces.”
Asanti looked back at Menchú. “I see why you brought her on,” she said.
“How often do they get out?” Sal asked.
Asanti and Menchú looked at each other.
“It hasn’t happened yet, on our watch,” Menchú said.
“And before that?” Sal...