Every local on the island knew about the banned books. What they didn’t know was that they were stupidly easy to find. But that was only if you knew where to look, and if you knew what you were looking for.
Nobody knew what they were looking for anymore, though. Their vision had been whitewashed; their ears were now only peeled for the distant wail of sirens, their skins accustomed to the sting of rancour that pervaded the air.
The people’s anger was at times a living beast that walked among them, and at times an ash-filled cloud that smothered them wherever they went. They saw the same shades of black and white everywhere they went, and sometimes Annaliese wondered if they remembered a time when they could see colour, or a time when they remembered something called a story. Tales of the impossible, the imaginary and the imagined, that led their minds into uncharted territories, made them dream and wonder. Annaliese herself could barely recall those her mother used to tell her when she was a baby.
The king had denounced stories. “We are a self-sufficient nation, strong and mighty,” he said at his inauguration ceremony. “We don’t need relations with anyone else that may be a liability. We don’t need their stories. Stories are meant for those who have no goals, only dreams. And we are so much more than a dream.”
The crowd had gone wild that day, erupting in cheers and whistles, eager for a new reign that would steer them towards a future with more certainty. Annaliese could remember standing among the crowd, swathed in the fog of euphoria that had descended upon them.
She remembered her parents hugging each other, tears in their eyes, clutching each other’s worn, faded clothing.
She remembered the dream the king had sold to his people, except he called it a “plan”, because “unlike our neighbours, who are rowdy, disorganised, and have their heads in the clouds half the time, we are on our way to achieving it”.
And they had all believed him. Oh, how they had! She remembered marvelling at the thought of an island-city ablaze with lights, wearing a crown of glass and steel buildings that pierced the clouds.
She remembered the rare break in the sky that day, as the steel-grey clouds parted momentarily to let in a sliver of sunlight. She remembered wondering if this was a sign of good things to come at last. And she knew she wasn’t alone in her hope.
That ray of sunlight was the last she had seen since then.
“Royals,” her best friend Tomlin would spit. “Every single one of them is dishonest. Right down to their rotten core. And we’re just lambs for the slaughter.”
Annaliese wasn’t so sure about being a lamb, or that they were on the way to the slaughterhouse. It was more like they were getting their blood drained out drop by drop every day, until all that was left of them was a pale, hollowed-out corpse.
Meanwhile, the king’s palace glowed iridescent in the light, blinding you with its sapphire, emerald, gold and ruby tones. It was an architectural marvel that impressed ambassadors and envoys alike, and had the other monarchs turning green with envy.
But there were those who remembered. There were those who were more enchanted by the colours, the stories, the sunlight that drenched the land, than the wild promises of a demagogue. There were those like Annaliese and Tomlin who held on to the tales their parents told them, the memory of a thing called books, which were magical in their own right.
Now, as she unearthed the leather-bound book, Annaliese wondered if Tomlin had more of a clue than her about what they were to do with it.
The books were a strange entity. Annaliese couldn’t understand the writing on the page, but she could envision the stories as though they came to life right before her eyes when she opened the book. They were stories of the past, stories of struggle, strife, triumphs, and failings. Of men who sought power and women who braved the odds, of children who ventured through time and across foreign lands to find new ways of living. And they all told stories of love, courage, and hope even in the bleakest landscape.
They were nothing more than printed text on bound pages, but they could slip under your skin and transform you from within – skew your thoughts, fill you up like no mortal morsel could. She wished she understood what the words meant, just so she could experience the stories properly.
“The emperor wouldn’t want us finding these,” Tomlin whispered next to her. Annaliese felt the same misgiving drumming in her chest, but saw in her friend’s gleaming eyes the shared understanding that they were on the brink of a major revolution.
They stole out of the catacomb at nightfall. Armed only with the handful of books they could carry, Annaliese and Tomlin crept through the foggy gloom that beset the kingdom every night. They could see no further than five metres around them, so they relied mostly on their ears to navigate their way to the exit and avoid being spotted.
Security was said to be lax in this part of the palace, because the emperor was certain that no one would remember the existence of books, much less bother to steal them. But even at this hour, patrol was heavy. The palace had doubled up on security ever since a Liberebel (the term was coined by the emperor, who warned the people of these “terrorists who commit unlawful acts based on their radical beliefs after reading banned books”) scaled the walls and tried to break into one of the secret underground vaults called a library.
“This way,” Anna said, squinting at a pinprick of light ahead. She barrelled ahead, hugging the books close to her.
Behind her, Tomlin hissed, “Anna, slow down!”
But they had no time to lose. Any minute now the guards might spot them. They could not afford to fail.
As she stumbled through the dark, her foot caught on something. A root? A snare? She pitched face-first to the ground. Books went flying, their pages flapping like the wings of startled birds. Annaliese scrambled to rescue them as Tomlin glanced around to ensure that they hadn’t been noticed.
A few metres away, just shy of a muddy pool, lay a stack of papers that had been freed from a leather-bound book. Annaliese seized them before they could get soaked through.
They were letters. Partial ones, at least, for they were half-burned from the bottom up. The ink was legible, if slightly smudged, although that made no difference to Annaliese or Tomlin, since neither of them could read.
But much like the books, the letters required neither literacy nor any esoteric knowledge to be understood. As soon as Annaliese unfurled them, they revealed their contents (which was, for the most part, intact) as though the author himself was intoning by their ears.
They were addressed to the Ruler of the Free People (which sounded like an oxymoron to Annaliese), some in a tight script and others in a loose scrawl.
To: the Ruler of the Free People
Whomever you may be, I would like to first congratulate you on having ascended to your position.
Stories are a unique form of magic, one that has tremendous power. Those who do not believe in them will never be able to harness or wield that power. He who seeks to destroy the written word will never truly be free, for he will only fear what he does not understand.
I wish you a just and open reign.
[Name redacted for the author’s personal safety]
“An author,” Tomlin breathed. “I thought those were a myth.”
“Maybe they did exist – once,” Annaliese said. “Don’t all myths stem from some true story or other? Question is, why would someone burn these letters halfway?”
Tomlin raised his brows. “Maybe someone didn’t burn these letters halfway. Maybe they were salvaged from a fire.”
Everyone knew about the fire of 2020 but no one spoke about it anymore. It had swept through the right wing of the palace, destroying the royal library and the private printing company close by, which was responsible for publishing books and daily newspapers. It was the last free printing press that remained after the emperor came to power, and even that was gone now. Books became a thing of the past, a relic of the Old World, where freedom was synonymous with chaos and love was but a luxury and an afterthought.
But the books and letters told a different story. Their description of the Old World filled Annaliese’s thoughts with colour, and she felt a yearning so keen it pulsed through her veins, infusing them with a new life. In them, she was reborn.
They doubled back for the books, pressing close to the shadows as they skimmed the length of the palace grounds. When at last they found the hole in the wall again, the door was shut. Its blackened face seemed to glower at them like a hunchbacked crone.
Annaliese nudged Tomlin. “Did you close the door just now?”
“No, I left it open.” Tomlin reached for her hand. “We should leave.”
“We have to take more books,” Annaliese protested.
“No, Anna. We’re already risking too much.”
“But just think, Tommy,” Annaliese whispered, “how much we can learn if only we knew how to read them all. We would be truly free then.
“Free?” A third voice boomed, making them both jump. “Perhaps you’re not quite sure what captivity really is.”
Annaliese squeezed Tomlin’s hand as a man slid out of the darkness, flanked by two pairs of guards. They each wore an unmistakable white mask that concealed half of their faces. In the Old World, the masks were only worn by extremists who believed in the purity of their kind. Annaliese never understood why the king would endorse a group like that, but it was dawning on her day by day. It was easier to see everyone in either black and white, devoid of colour or shades of grey, just like it was easier to hate what you didn’t know. The alternative response was fear, and bullies never admitted to that.
The masked leader’s lips quirked into a mirthless smile. “Lock them up,” he ordered. “I’m sure there are more of them around.”
Two of the guards split up and faded into the night, their masks floating through the dark like ghostly half-faces.
Struggling proved futile, especially against the iron grip of the remaining guards, and later the steel bars of their holding cell.
Their masked captor gave them a hard shove, pitching them into the dank space.
“I’d like to see how the written word will set you free now.” His face was a hateful, grotesque mask behind the bars, which he gripped between his thin, pale fingers. “Especially when you can’t even read.”
Annaliese forced herself to remain where she was and look him in the eye. Behind him, his guards loomed expressionless in their white masks and rust-red cloaks. Nothing but a bunch of cowards hiding behind their masks.
She drew herself up to his height as much as she could and spat, “You’re just afraid. If only half the people in this city could read, you know your narrow little mind would never match up and all you’ll have are your fear tactics and the worn coattails of an equally paranoid tyrant who calls himself an emperor.”
Before their captor could respond to that, one of the guards raised his arm and brought down a bookend on the latter’s head in one swift move.
A dull thump resounded through the cell and the man went tumbling to the ground. Annaliese and Tomlin stared at his prone form, their breaths catching. For a moment, there was only the sound of water dripping from the cold, leaking ceiling.
Then the pair of guards yanked off their masks and cast them on the floor, flashing their Liberebels tattoo on their wrists. Howard broke into a grin as he appraised the young recruits. “I knew we had a good reason for choosing you two for this mission.”