There was nothing remarkable about the leather-bound book. In the eyes of an ordinary historian, it would not have differed from hundreds of other manuscripts in Oxford's Bodleian Library, ancient and worn as it was. But I knew there was something special about it from the moment I picked it up.
Duke Humphrey's Reading Room was crowded this afternoon in late september, and orders for library materials were quickly being met now that the summer crowding of visiting scholars was over and the fall semester frenzy had not yet begun. Still, I was surprised when Sean stopped me at the counter.
"Diana, the scripts are ready," he whispered with a hint of banter in his voice. On the front of his Scottish-patterned sweater there were rust-colored stripes from old leather ties, and he brushed it embarrassingly. A strand of sand-colored hair fell into his forehead as he did so.
"Thank you," I said, sending him a grateful smile. I was a big fan of the rule that set an upper limit on how many books you could borrow per day. Sean, who had had many drinks with me in the pink-plastered pub across the street during our student days, had complied with my wishes without a hernia for over a week.
He smiled at me and pushed the manuscripts – all of which contained fine examples of Alchemical drawings from Bodleian's collections – across his battered desk. They all lay in their own gray cardboard boxes, so that nothing would happen to them. "Oh, there's another one. Sean disappeared into the cubicle for a moment and came back with a thick, quarter-format manuscript that was simply bound in speckled calfskin. He put it at the top of the pile and bent forward to inspect it. The thin gold frame of the glasses gleamed in the dim light of the old bronze reading lamp fixed on a shelf. "This hasn't been ordered in a while. I will make a note that it should be put in a box after you hand it over again.«
"Should I remind you of that?«
"No. I've already taken note of this."Sean tapped himself on the head with his fingertips.
"Your brain must be better organized than mine."My smile got bigger.
A gilded sheen shone along its edges and caught my eye. But the faded hints of gold could not explain a faint, iridescent flicker that seemed to escape between the pages. I missed my eyes.
"Diana? Are you okay?"Sean asked, frowning anxiously.
"I'm fine. I'm just a little tired," I replied, lowering the books a little from my nose.
Gillian made a compassionate sound, but her gaze followed me.
Coming to my usual place, facing the arched, leaded windows, I resisted the temptation to let the manuscripts dump down on the table and wipe my hands. Instead, I carefully laid the pile down out of reverence for their age.
Sean looked at me shyly and pulled the order slip, but it was stuck between the volume and the first pages. "This one won't let go," he remarked.
Muffled voices chattered in my ear, disturbing the familiar silence of the room.
"Did you hear that?"I looked around and was amazed at the strange sounds.
"What?"Sean asked, looking up from the script.