It was late indeed when Inkstain, ever-present satchel of papers in hand, emerged from the depths of the Archive into the stately Forward Foyer. So late that all staff, save a wandering guard, had gone home. Thumbprint shot out of a chair she'd hardly spent any time sitting in to confront him. "Where have you been?” she hissed, her practiced professional facade having crumbled over the course of a very aggravating night. "A formal dinner with my husband and his family, in his father's home — my professional superior's home — is awkward enough. Not having all of my family there, not having you there, made it practically unbearable!"
An almost childish look of surprise played across his greying face. "Oh, my. Was that tonight? Sorry, my dear, couldn’t be helped. A sudden opportunity to get a glance at some ancient papers came up, and in my zeal I must have lost track of time. One must grasp opportunities as they float by."
Rubbish! Thumbprint’s father was no absent-minded teacher who misplaced his thoughts between pages! "Don’t give me that rot! I've been checking time here for a bell now waiting for you to appear, and that was after looking about with no sign of you. I even sent the apprentice out to search the places I can’t go, and nothing. You came here and then you weren't here! Lodestone was more than happy to tell me as much in looks if not words."
Inkstain’s face hardened. "Manners, daughter. We will not make gossip of our fellows within their own domain." He took her by the arm and led her out of the Archive — Lodestone's domain — deftly ignoring her sharp-browed attempts to continue the argument she was determined to have. Only when the two of them were sitting in a public alcove did he consent to continue it. "Lodestone doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does, young maiden. He could one day learn some of what I have to teach, but his pointless feuding shuts doors. He'd have a chair in House Leadership by now, Pigment too, if they could only keep their personal history out of their politics."
"History can wait! This is the here and now —" she knew the instant the words came out of her mouth to stop talking.
Inkstain's cheeks puffed up and burst forth a scoffing laugh, for now it was his professional pride rubbed raw. "History can wait? It can just sit in a box down a hole somewhere until someone bothers to come open it? Tell that to the spirit of old Tinderbox, forbearer of our noble House, and our very own bloodline."
Oh no, Thumbprint’s father could filibuster for hours once he got started on that topic. She wouldn’t let him change the subject so easily. "I am presently the endpoint of that bloodline. Had I any mumps to carry it onward, they would have been interrupting dinner with constant pleas to know where their beloved grandfather was.”
Her father looked to her with bemused interest. "And just how did you handle this sudden professional, political, and dare I say personal embarrassment?"
The flustered newlywed breathed in deep, taking a moment to compose herself, to put back in place the face and tone of benign politeness which she wore at work. "We held off on eating until the cook started dropping rather unsubtle hints that he had another party to attend to. We were partway through the first course when the messenger came with your notice. Pigment read it, chucked it in the fire, and didn’t say anything apart from 'he's not coming'. He had that look on his face, though." A look from Inkstain insisted on clarity. "That look he gets when he's speaking about Lodestone. This was how I knew to come looking for you at the Archives. Mother brushed the rough edges away with a mention of the work you've been doing for your next book, the lengths you jump to get interviews. The usual natter, if I may be so bold. She and Gearslip did what they could to keep a conversation going through the rest of the meal. For our part, Slag and I detailed our visit to the office that's to be refurbished for him, now that he'll be running the metal shop.' She crossed her arms atop her lap, as her mind's eye travelled down the halls and chambers of Underhaven to the room her husband would soon occupy. "It's a rather artless place as-is, a little too practical for both our tastes. Which I'm sure you'll notice too if ever you're not too busy with sudden literary emergencies to come by."
The ending side-swipe, delivered in a tone as dry as one would use to say the words 'my feet are green', received not a frown but a chuckle. "Good! Sounds as though everything went well in the end. You'll have to smooth over several more little bumps like this, if you can take on the role I have in mind for you. But keep up the strong back against your superiors. It will serve you well to let others know there is only so far you can be pushed."
Thumbprint's shoulders slumped, the fight cleaned out of her by the realization that this was another of her father's tests of character. Tests which had never ceased, even though she was well past the days when she needed such prodding in order to grasp her career goals. She had to admit to herself, again, that as frustrating as these unannounced challenges were in the short term, in the long they had a history of working in her favor. With quiet surrender in her voice, she asked. "What role?"
Hands to his jacket lapels, Inkstain took on his own air of professionalism, one of lofty authority humbled by the weight of time. "The role you've been training for all your life. And I don’t mean the one in the Library."
The following night — after an evening spent making excuses to Pigment and being whisked away to a place she didn’t know existed, through doors which were not connected to the Archive, and putting her name to any number of non-disclosure contracts — Thumbprint found herself standing in a room deep below the main of Underhaven. A room brightened only by the dull glow of moonmoss growing from slats set in the walls, for light by torch or lamp would have called for more ventilation than was present. A room which lay within the labyrinthian complex that her father informed her was called Special Projects and Studies.
It may as well have been the cataloging alcove of the Museum. On a table between herself and Inkstain lay an island of information. Classified orders set down by the Third Conclave. Redacted pages from Klant's Account Of The Fall. A litany of observational studies. Crude, childlike drawings of alien skies, alien things, of faces troll and conehead and preserver and utterly nameless. A hand basket full of webbing-encased lumps. Miniscule hand impressions in clay. Pages of vocabulary. Musculature drawings. Spools of silken thread that she could tell at a glance came from no spider or worm. Clawed scraps of a very old star-chart. The crowning centerpiece a full scale statue, glazed blazing red, with gold-leaf eyes and wings of silver-frosted glass.
"No. Just, no." All her Scholarly training compelled the astonished female to accept the bounty of evidence as proof that there was in fact a Preserver being held somewhere in this facility. And yet the idea of something being hidden so well, for this long, was unfathomable. "This, all of this... How?"
"Trickleclaw is quite real, I assure you," her father answered. "I've been its watch-keeper since not long before you were born. Seeing to its basic needs, mostly, but also mining its memory all the way back to the days before our folk came to this world. Your great-aunt had the task before me, and up and up our line all the way back to Primrose. How's that for history, eh?"
Thumbprint’s face drew a blank slate of surprise. Inkstain making jest of history? Within a place where she'd never known him to be? "Hello, my name is Thumbprint. Have we met?"
He snorted. "I am the same troll you have always known. You have merely graduated, as of fulfilling your marital contract, to a level where you may know more about me. And yourself." He waved a hand at the scroll in his daughter's hand. She had quite forgotten she was holding it. "Did you get down to the part about imprinting?"
"Yes." Coming from her father, such a question always came with the implied request of a summary of the text. "Primrose's goal was to lead the insect to transfer its loyalty from the Changing Ones to Troll kind. Take advantage of its... selective memory?... that in time it might remember what she wanted it to, to remember us kindly. Feed it specific input in order to reach that desired output. Cut off access to anyone who may give it reason to hold a grudge. The reasoning being that if it could adopt compliant behavior while confined to the Palace, it could do so here. A plan she expected to take several generations to play out, hence the letter." The anticipation of an investment of deep time seemed a reasonable way to run the experiment. The Changing Ones after all had enjoyed uncountable ages to bend the creature to their will.
"An ambitious plan. And one that worked too well." The elder troll leaned in over the table, conspiratorially. "Listen to me very carefully. Look at me very carefully. Focus on what I am saying. The insect has imprinted not upon our people but upon our family line. For centuries now, attempts to pass the creature off onto anyone else have not gone well. Not for the supposed caretaker, not for the delicate state of trust it has in those of us who can handle it safely.”
When she was young, father and daughter would play a learning game. Her father would tell her a story from one of his history books, without letting her see the pages, and she would have to work out if he was telling a fib, if what he said happened had really happened. The game always started with the words 'Focus on what I am saying'. When she was older, she understood that it wasn’t just about comparing the facts she'd memorized against the ones he was providing. He had also been referring to body language, how one said what they said. Now she realized it was but another secret test, building up her ability to spot lies, and to make more convincing ones herself.
Without competing texts from which to spot contradictions, she had to find the lie logically. 'He didnt start the game until he mentioned the imprint. So only that can be false. Trickleclaw is real. It is here. He is its keeper. And there is no imprint. But why lie about that down here? Who is there to lie to about it?... He's hiding it from his superiors! Keeping it to himself...' The skin on the back of Thumbprint's neck tingled as the implications of this realization washed over her.
Her father let slip a half grin, his lip curling up only on the side of his face opposite the door. A door which was closed and guarded only on the other side. "You have a look on your face that tells me you know exactly what the situation is.” He tapped his nose, the old signal that she had won the game, and casually talked past his daughter’s agape expression. “To answer one of the many questions you haven’t asked yet, yes, I am perfectly fine with cloaking this much of our people's past. For it has been deemed by our superiors to be beyond the scope of what most should know.”
“You mean it wouldn’t do to have everyone in Underhaven get the wrong impression, eh? Thinking that we, the descendants of captives, have become the captors? Eternal backpedaling to keep the House Founders’ names clean?”
“There is that, yes. Much of what is done down here involves analyzing scraps of information and determining how best to deliver it for proper consumption. I have a more personal reason, however. The future. Your future. I may spend much of my time venturing into the past, but I am savvy of the way things work in the here and now." Three taps of a fingernail on the table's edge underscored his next words. "Rank begets rank. I can tell you as a father, who was once a mump himself, that the best way to secure a solid future for your own mumps is to maintain the rank you have, and keep a firm foothold on the climb for more. For rank provides access. Access to the time of private tutors. To the ears of potential patrons. To the favors of powerful allies."
The trawl-line he was trailing sounded too perfect, too planned, much like the table setting. "You said yesterday that I’d been ‘training’ for... this... all my life. Led blindly toward it, you mean! Toward this sales pitch.” Letting the scroll go, she took up one of the spools of thread. One of the documents she’d skimmed through was quite clear on the need to ‘milk’ the bug’s silk supply regularly so it couldn’t build up enough of a surplus to blind its keepers with. “Is this why I spent all those nights learning to make string? What else didn’t I see coming? When I was a mump, how many tutors and patrons were set before my eyes in advance? Whether or not I needed them for my own wants? How much of my life has been mine to live?"
Inkstain looked genuinely hurt by that jibe. "I'm pained. Your mother and I both allowed you all the freedom you required to pursue your own goals, and have done nothing but support and encourage you. Who stayed up with you to talk through the indexing system? Who got you those after-hours training sessions with the bookbinders? Who wrote the drill cards?" Inkstain stood, moved to his daughter's side, offered her an arm which she accepted. He wrapped it around her shoulders, squeezed them close. The other hand cupped her chin, and drew her eyes toward his own. "You are where you are, the Library, by your own choices and efforts. Do not doubt that I am very proud of you for achieving exactly what you sought."
It was the daughter who felt a rush of shame, quietly wishing forgiveness for the thoughtless outburst. It was the father who continued speaking. "As much status as you have acquired, do not make the mistake of complacency. You could be waiting four hundred years or more for Pigment to stand down and let you have it all, with a head office of your very own. That is assuming, generously, he and Lodestone don’t tear each other off their perches and take their acolytes down with them first." He pulled away from the embrace, shaking his head. The blue glow of the moonmoss cast vibrant lines into the hem of his jacket back. "I wish there had been more time to ease you into this work. The unhappy truth is, back when you were knee high to me, climbing over my hems to get at some new book on a high shelf, I could not foresee how poisonous the ground between Pigment and Lodestone was going to get." Turning to face his daughter again, he stated firmly, "It's long since become a vendetta, and you may yet be hit in the crossfire. It is time you began investing in a future outside of Pigment's shadow. Special Projects and Studies was built by our ancestors, and has long been our family’s path to that security." He let go of his daughter and took hold of the crimson statue. "Trickleclaw keeps our feet in the door. And I've not doubt that with your skills, a bit more specialized training, and I dare say some work on your temper, you could be running this whole department inside of two centuries."
'As did my ancestor Tapestry before me,' Thumbprint’s trollish ambition was quite thoroughly peaked by her father's words. She could feel it welling up behind her ribs, beating like a second heart. 'After all, it would be irresponsible not to take advantage of the advantage this captive provides. And I suppose he's right, it could go either way in the Library, if Pigment and his allies breach the stalemate.' She gazed across the table's contents, past them, through to the lofty future her father envisioned. Yet a shade of worry crept into her bright vision and held her back from taking the plunge. She regarded her father with a shade of guilt, "Does Mother know?"
"About my concerns for your future status? Yes." He motioned about the contents of the table. "About this? No. Oh, she's worked out that I am involved in some off-the-books research, surely. As will your Slag, I suspect, in time. Pigment, for all his faults, did not raise a dullard. I would like that it were possible to tell her where I've been spending so much of my time, but that is not my decision to make. After all, I did sign those agreements and a troll's word is their bond."
"One simply has to be selective about the words, hmm?" Thumbprint asked with a conspirator’s twist to her lip, her voice pointedly back to one of 'professional courtesy.' She reached a hand out for the statue.
He nodded, and relinquished the item. "You're learning. And as always, there is learning yet to do." He lay his empty hands flat down upon the table, but his eyes stayed firmly in her direction. "None of this leaves the area, but I expect you to memorize it all before you meet the creature. I'll make the necessary arrangements with House Leadership to re-arrange your schedule in the Library." Thumbprint was beginning to see the pattern in the way her father had been speaking, things unsaid yet implied. By assigning her to a new task through Leadership, Pigment need never know that she had volunteered for this new apprenticeship, and had no means of saying 'no'. Deeper truths hiding under open ones were the rule here. "Welcome to Special Projects and Studies."