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Below the Serapeum
by Kelsey Dean
“Lift up your gown, Halena. We’ll settle these around your back and stomach so that you’re at the center of the scrolls.”
Aunt places a thin bandage around my waist and then helps me unroll the papyrus. We wind it back up around my body, covering the bandage like a stiff cocoon, or the crusty, left-behind exoskeleton of a sand beetle.
“It itches,” I say, but I don’t fidget. There is still a smoky film hanging over the whole city from yesterday, when the Epirians set the Great Library ablaze. It didn’t burn the way they wanted: too many scholars ran back inside, screeching war cries like eagles, slopping all the water they could carry over the shelves and cabinets. The ones who survived the fire are imprisoned in the Epirian ships, probably until their executions can be arranged. They were glorious, for a shining moment, but in the end, all they did was thicken the smoke and slow the destruction of our people’s history–it took hours rather than minutes.
“Halena, take the scrolls to the closest serapeum. The priestess will know what to do. Can you walk normally?”
I take a few steps, then twirl. The scrolls don’t impede my movement much until I try to dance. When I attempt to draw a circle in the air with my left hip, the papyrus slips down past the edge of the bandage and sticks into the skin on my side like a dull blade.
“Oof,” I say.
“No need for dancing right now,” says Aunt. “Just take the scrolls, and don’t draw attention to yourself.”
I’m at just the right age to not draw attention to myself. I still wear the simple white dress of a child–boxy, sleeveless, and knee-length–along with leather sandals and a light head covering. Both boys and girls dress the same in our city, because our paths have not yet been chosen. First, we must learn who we are. Habib, my brother, will surely be an architect. He gathers stones and builds tiny pyramids in the dirt on our street. My friend Moz will find a place in the city guard, and at my age my mother started her embalming apprenticeship. I can’t see my own path yet, but I need to discover it soon.
The streets are not empty, but they are quiet. People are not smiling or laughing or calling out to one another. Even the goats and sheep bleat halfheartedly. The weight of the blackened library is making everything heavy, sad despite the bright sun. I wave at my neighbor Rathi as she passes with a basket of thin discs of bread. She offers me one and I shake my head politely. She chose her path just last year, and now she wears the longer, brighter dress of a woman who will soon be eligible for marriage. I know she is always happy to go to the market, where she might meet a future husband, but today she looks reserved. We don’t speak a word to each other as our sandals raise puffs of dust in opposite directions.
I feel reserved, too. I feel like this city that is part of me is bleeding but cannot let the pain show. The Epirians have lived among us for decades, mostly in peace–we are similar people in many ways. We share the same gods, the same language, the same black hair and sun-deepened skin. Our city has been governed by both Epirians and native Maseeris since before I was born. Only a small sea lies between our nations.
Now, the sea between us is growing much deeper, wider, and more violent than the one I can see glittering between houses as I climb the hill to the serapeum. I can feel it in my blood. Why did they attack us like that? Why are they suddenly so eager to erase our history and knowledge, especially one that we shared? I want to scream my questions down from the hill, but I know we can’t act brashly–we must be quick to hide what we have left, then work to understand our enemy. Even Maseeri children like me know that this is the only way. I climb higher up the hill and glimpse the edge of a charred expanse down behind rows and rows of homes, a blackened gap framed by too-bright water and ashen roofs.
As my heart rate increases, I hear the blood in my ears. I look away from where the library stood just yesterday and walk faster, eager to remove the layered ring of papyrus from my waist and to let the buildup of sweat air out. I can feel it clinging to the bandage, gathering along my spine and belly.
The serapeum is in sight. I almost break into a run, but remember that Aunt said not to draw attention to myself. I trudge across the last stretch of road like anyone else would after a long uphill climb.
The serapeum is cool and dark, built with smooth white stone. Inside it, I feel like a burrowing insect; it is like a cave, sprawling with tunnels and spotted with tiny windows that let in beams of sunlight. The hall that leads inward from the entrance is striped with light and shadow.
I hear footsteps before I see the priestess. She walks toward me, coming from the central chamber of the serapeum.
“Come, child,” she says, and turns back toward the chamber. I follow. I run my fingers along the wall and they make faint whispering sounds against the stone. It gives me a chill that makes me pull my hand away.
The central chamber is round, with several doorways leading into it. I get the feeling that some of them spiral into tunnels that wind down into the hill, under the city. There is a big hole in the dome above us, which lets in more light than the hallway’s windows. Everything inside this place is white–but not stark. There is a softness to the dome and walls, like it was molded gently from clay by a giant god’s hands.
“Have you been in a serapeum before?” The priestess turns to me and examines my face. I snap my mouth shut.
“Yes, but only when I was little. Only when my brother was sick. The priestess healed him, but I don’t really remember what the serapeum was like.”
She spreads her arms wide and smiles up at the dome. She has a beautiful face, with a narrow nose and catlike eyes that are almost golden. The light gray fabric shrouding her body hangs artfully around her, gathering in folds at her shoulders and elbows when she raises her arms.
“This is a place of solitude and peace,” she says. “A place where we can hear the gods. A place for reflection and healing.”
“Yes, Priestess,” I reply.
“It is also a place for secrets,” she adds. She looks directly into my eyes and extends a hand toward me.
I raise my dress to my hips and reach my hands underneath. The innermost layer of papyrus is warm and slightly damp from my sweat, and I unroll it and wipe it hastily on the fabric of my dress before handing it over.
“You have courage,” she says, taking the scrolls. “And determination. Are you ready?”
“To help rebuild the library.”
I frown, even as my heart begins to beat faster.
“But they’ll just burn it down again.”
The priestess laughs. It is a light laugh, airy, but there is something about her that makes me wary. Maybe it’s those golden eyes, the way they flash.
“Child, it will not be the same kind of library.”
“What do you mean?” My voice has gone quiet. My heart skips a beat as I imagine something bigger, greater than the library we just lost. In my mind, it is hazy with light, so I can’t quite make it out, but behind the glare I can feel text after text, scrolls cascading like landslides, webs of stories and scripts holding the whole place together and glinting with promise. I can practically hear the scholars chanting mantras of knowledge, children reciting poetry, librarians scratching records with notes, names, dates.
“Bring more scrolls and I’ll show you,” she says.
As I walk back down the sun-striped hall, retracing my footsteps, I hear the heavy scrape of stones being shifted.
I collect scrolls for days. Aunt sends me to neighbors and distant cousins with fruit, meat pies, woven trinkets. After they invite me in, I wrap my body with their secret texts, the last remnants of the library– copied notes, newly-written histories and summaries, and checked out scrolls that the Epirians don’t know about because they burned the records. We are busy recording everything we can remember. Knowledge is so easily forgotten.
“Young Halena here is thinking of becoming a priestess now, is she?”
I hear the voice of Tabarus, an Epirian shipmaster, booming out from the open window back home. I stop walking; I am carrying scrolls and cross from the heat, but I won’t be able to sit and eat my midday meal with him there–not without removing the papyrus first, and giving my skin some much-needed relief. I’m starting to develop a rash.
What is he doing here? It has been a long time since Habib and I last visited him on the docks, curious about the inner workings of the massive ships along our shore. He is a good man, patient and jovial, but Epririans have seemed so different for the last week or so. There is a tension between us that was never there before. I do not greet my Epirian school friends on the street when I see them; they bow their heads and look away when I pass. Is it guilt? Or do they suddenly wish to disassociate themselves from us Maseeri?
“She is examining her options. Her body will begin changing soon, so she needs to settle on a future.”
“So, she’s lost interest in slaving away on sails and carpentry? Can I still count on you, Habib?” I can hear in his voice that he is trying to make the conversation pleasant, but Habib doesn’t respond. Neither does Aunt. I take that to mean his welcome has worn thin and he will be leaving soon. I stomp in through the door. I see Tabarus and his son, my friend Povius, sitting cross-legged at our short dining table.
“Halena! There’s my girl!”
“I’m not your girl.”
“She’s cross from the heat,” begins Aunt. She rattles on about my poor attitude, obviously hoping to placate Tabarus and encourage him to take his leave in peace.
“I’m sorry about the library,” whispers Povius. He says it during a lull in Aunt’s speech. His father looks at him sharply, and then softens. He glances down at the dirt floor.
“We all are,” he says. “But orders are orders.”
And with that, they excuse themselves from our home, leaving something like regret in their wake.
This time, the priestess lets me stay once I’ve unwrapped the scrolls from my waist. Some of them aren’t really scrolls anymore–people have taken to writing on anything they can, from thin towels to small wooden boards that I have to strap to my body. My sweat has ruined a few texts, and others have left marks and splinters on my skin despite the bandage I wear. I don’t complain, though; this may be the most important task of my life. Mild discomfort is certainly worth a new library.
We stop at the edge of the central chamber, where an impossibly tall stone figure blends into the wall: an indistinct rendering of Minosega, the snake goddess, complete with a ringed collar formed by a coiled snake. She is silhouetted by writhing lines carved into the wall.
“Cunning, healing, transformation,” I whisper as my eyes run along her form. Minosega is one of our most important deities–we all transform many times in life, with her blessing. I think of my own rapidly approaching transformation, when I will shift from child to adult, and shed my white dress like a snake sheds skin.
“Today we focus on her cunning,” says the priestess as she presses her hands into Minosega’s hip and leans into her.
Minosega moves. Her whole lower half slides to the side and reveals a dark, hidden doorway. I can make out the faint light of a distant torch deep inside the room. The priestess doesn’t say a word as she steps inside and beckons to me, sliding the hips of the goddess back into place behind us.
The torch isn’t as far away as I thought, it’s only dim. It marks a flight of stairs curling downward into darkness, and when the priestess begins to descend without the torch, I hesitate. She stops and looks up at me, her face barely illuminated by the dull orange light.
“You’ve seen the glowing summer beetles, yes? Caught them and examined their golden bellies?”
“There are other creatures that glow,” she says. “Other small, toothless beasts that are not to fear.”
I gulp down my apprehension and step down beside her. She smiles and leads me further and further into the hill, and as we walk, light begins to glow from the walls and ceiling. I gasp at the wide patches lighting up.
“What is that?” I ask.
The priestess stops again, and pulls me close to the wall. I see that the light is made up of little moving worms, or snakes, or something else entirely, each smaller than my smallest finger. They protrude from cracks in the wall, swaying, bobbing eyeless heads. But then, maybe their eyes are just too small for me to see.
“They are blind,” says the priestess, “but they give us light. They feed on moths and termites and all the other little insects that might ruin our records, so that we can continue to access the knowledge our people have compiled for centuries.”
She steps down just once more, and is on solid ground. In the glow, I can make out piles and piles of scrolls sprawling outward from us, along with all the other materials that can be used like papyrus. She takes the towels, planks, and scrolls from my arms and adds them to the mountain looming up from a table nearby.
“These are just from yesterday,” she says with a tired smile, gesturing to the table. “Children like you have been bringing information to me from all over the city. I haven’t had time to organize this lot yet.”
My mouth is hanging open. The priestess puts her fingers under my chin and closes it for me.
“So, Halena, does this path feel right to you? Will you be a new kind of librarian for your people?”
I can’t say anything at all, so I nod. I’ve never felt more sure of myself than I do at this moment.
Going down the hill from the serapeum with papyrus around my waist is more uncomfortable than going up. My hips move haltingly from side to side as I pause to find my footing with each step, flailing my knees around as gravity works with me on the descent.
“Halena!” Povius waves at me from another path on the hill. I frown at him and keep walking.
“Halena, wait!” I see him out of the corner of my eye, cutting across the sparse grass on the hill, jogging toward me. But I don’t care if he’s sorry about the library. It’s still gone. I take off running down the hill until my feet are barely touching the earth anymore–and then I’m flying, flipping through the air and hitting the ground hard, over and over, raising a violent cloud of dust as I tumble to a stop at the end of the slope. I sprawl on the road and look up through the haze of dust into the blindingly blue sky, aching all over and trying to remember where I was going in such a rush.
I hear Povius calling my name. Then he stops. I turn my head toward where his voice was coming from, and I see him bending over and picking something up from the ground. My heart stops. I put my hands on my waist and feel nothing but the soft fibers of a sweat-soaked bandage. Povius has the papyrus that the priestess sent me home with, my first lesson in library arts: how scrolls are traditionally categorized and stored.
“No,” I say, but the sound barely escapes my dusty throat. I cough. I hear footsteps and shouts, and I see Povius slip the scroll under his white tunic before people come running into sight, swarming around me to check that I’m alive. They think my tears spring from the bruises forming all over my body, but I’m weeping at the sight of Povius retreating, glancing back at me over his shoulder with a pained look on his face.
Mama is home from work when I limp through the door, supported by several concerned neighbors. Rathi tells my mother what happened and offers a jar of salve for my bruises. Mama takes it with a smile.
“Thank you, everyone,” she says, and soon they are gone.
I am in my bed. My back hurts too much to lie on it, so I curl up on my side and worry myself into a tight ball. I squeeze my arms around my knees even though the bruises on my thighs and arms pulse with pain.
“Stop that now,” says Mama as she comes over to spread more salve on my skin. “And tell me what’s really wrong. I know it’s not these.” She taps a bruise so lightly that I barely feel her touch.
“The scroll I had,” I say. “Povius saw it. He took it. It’s from the Great Library, so it shouldn’t exist, and now it’s not going to exist anymore. He’ll show his father, and the Epirians will find them all and destroy them. They’ll burn the serapeum and my path won’t exist anymore either.”
I sob into my pillow. Mama strokes my shoulder.
“Halena, the Epirians would never burn a serapeum; they worship the gods the same as we do.” I shake my head.
“They don’t care. They’re going to destroy everything. And I only just discovered my path today–I felt it in my bones–I was going to be a secret librarian under the serapeum!”
Mama sighs. Aunt sits on the side of my bed, taking over for Mama.
“Do you know why the Great Library was burned, Halena?”
I stop crying and look at Aunt through blurry eyes.
“No,” I say.
“Do you remember when Tabarus and Povius came to see us?”
“Do you remember how Tabarus said ‘orders are orders’?”
“The Epirian emperor is a strong man. Too strong; he is foolish and blinded by power. He will not be defied, and will not listen–he wants to make a new world, an Epirian world with no history but the one he writes himself.”
“Why doesn’t anyone tell him no? Why don’t they say he’s wrong?”
Aunt shakes her head. The lines on her forehead gather into a look of sadness.
“His people chose him to lead, and once, he was a good emperor. Now, although he is not, they follow his orders because they must–because who wants to betray their own people?”
“Aren’t they betraying their own people by letting the emperor ruin the world?”
Aunt looks at me appraisingly, and Mama smiles.
“That,” says Aunt, “is a very good way to look at it.”
“And that’s exactly how many Epirians feel,” says Mama. Her eyes glimmer with approval.
“They don’t like the emperor?”
She shakes her head slowly, still smiling.
“Why do you think they burned the library’s records? Why do you think they haven’t searched our homes? The Epirians who live here know that the library lent texts out to people,” says Aunt. “Why do you think they haven’t eradicated every last trace of the library?”
“They want it to be rebuilt,” I whisper. “They want everything to be saved.”
“The Epirians, the ones who know us and live among us–they don’t want Maseer to be erased.”
After supper, I am able to sleep, but I have dreams of Povius shedding his white tunic and then his skin, revealing the towering form of a faceless emperor wreathed in flames.
I wake at dawn and force myself out of bed, even though every movement hurts. If I am to reach the serapeum, I’ll need to be there before anyone is awake to stop me and tell me to rest. But I can’t rest until I tell the priestess what happened to the scroll, so I make my way up the hill by the half-light of the early morning. It takes me twice as long as usual. Every step is like pulling up an anchor that keeps slipping back into the sea.
I expect the priestess to be sleeping somewhere in the labyrinth of the serapeum, so I plan to stretch out under the open skylight in the main chamber until she wakes. A nap in the morning sun sounds perfect after my strenuous climb.
“Halena,” the priestess says as I survey the patch of light for the best place to stretch out. I jump and stifle a scream. She walks out from the shadowed dais where she was apparently sitting.
“I knew you would be coming.”
“How?” I ask, my stomach turning into a knot of anxiety. She must know that I abandoned the scroll, must have received a message from the gods that I am not the girl meant to do this job. Tears well up in my eyes. I was so sure yesterday. It felt so right in that room of jumbled texts and secret histories.
“Because you forgot this.” She pulls the tightly coiled scroll out from her gray sleeve. It looks perfectly unruffled. The tears spill and no new ones form. I dash the water off my face.
“How?” I say again, my voice catching in my throat. She smiles warmly as she presses the scroll into my hand.
“Epirian and Maseeri children are not so different,” says the priestess. “You are all clever, and filled with good hearts.”
I hug her tightly, despite the fact that she scares me a little bit, and then let out a laugh that refuses to end. I run back outside to see the sun rising into the sky and a future that looks brighter than the light spilling onto the waves. I will build a new library below the serapeum, scroll by scroll. And when our history rises once more to the surface of this city, I will be ready.
About the Author
Kelsey Dean hails from Michigan, but currently resides in Seoul, where she works as an English teacher. She reads, writes, paints, and studies various languages when she has the time. Her work, particularly her poetry, can be found in a variety of publications, such as Liminal Stories, Lilac City Fairy Tales, Cicada, and Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. Her YA short story ‘Starfishing’ is available on Audible and you can view more of her work on Tumblr.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, a voice actress, a force of nature, and a mess. She is responsible for creating the epic fairytale fantasy realm of Arilland, and dabbling in a myriad of other worlds beyond.
Her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups across all genres. Alethea also narrates for ACX, IGMS, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. Born in Vermont, Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.