Chapter 14: The Ancient Library

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When I arrived at the library, I shooed the animals away and climbed the steps. Jamaini citizens in fine velvet cloaks and silk tunics were coming and going, taking out books and returning them. The guards ignored me as I passed through the pillars into the entrance hall beyond.

I stepped inside and instantly my jaw dropped. I gazed upwards in amazement. It must have been at least twenty storeys high. Books were stacked on shelves along the round walls, from the floor right to the very top. Staircases zigzagged up the walls, leading to platforms where you could browse the higher shelves. The platforms at the top were so far away I could barely make them out. Just looking at them made me dizzy. Oh God! Where to begin? There must have been well over a million books to choose from.

I was standing there, my head tilted back, my mouth open in bewilderment and my heart sunk to the ground when I felt something tap my knee. I looked down to see a very short, elderly man with a long grey beard, peering up at me through thick spectacles.

"May I help you, Your Massiveness?" he said in a soft voice, bowing deeply. I wasn't very tall for my age and this was the first time I'd ever been addressed as "Your Massiveness".

"Y. . . yes," I stammered, crouching a little. It felt strange to be so much higher than a grown-up. "I'm looking for information about the Imperial Garden."

"Ah! You'll want the local history section, Your Humungousness," he explained with a gracious smile and another bow. "That's over here. Up these stairs to the sixth platform. Everything ever written about the Imperial Garden is in that section."

"Thank you," I nodded and turned my eyes towards where his gnarled finger was pointing. I gulped. My stomach turned a somersault.

"It's a pleasure to serve Your Giganticness," the short man said, bowing again so low this time, his beard touched the floor, and shuffled off.

I mustered my courage and hurried up the staircase he'd indicated, gripping the handrail and trying not to look down. Higher and higher I climbed, counting the platforms breathlessly as I went. When at last I reached the sixth platform, I was gasping for air. The muscles in my legs were trembling and my hands ached from holding the handrail so tightly. Chest heaving, I fixed my eyes on the shelves in front of me and tried not to think about the steep drop behind.

My heart fell. There were at hundreds of books in front of me. I scanned the titles: How the Imperial Garden was Built, King Edward the Generous: Founder of the Imperial Garden, Notable Head Gardeners of the Imperial Garden, The Botanical Expeditions of Sir Cuthbert the Crooked — plenty of books about the Garden's history. I searched for something that looked like it might tell me what I would find inside its walls.

Finally my eyes fell on a slim volume entitled The Imperial Garden's Legendary Plants of Power. This looked hopeful. I pulled it out and it fell open on a full colour painting. As soon as I set eyes on it, my blood ran cold. It showed an ancient-looking tree with a thick trunk and gold heart-shaped leaves. Its bark was smooth and dark, almost black and it was covered in small fruits, the size of cherries. All were a livid, dangerous red. All except one — one single fruit right at the top of the tree — which was white. It stood out from the rest of the crop despite its small size. A shiver ran down my spine. There was something sinister about this tree. Something I couldn't explain but I felt very strongly. Just looking at the picture made my skin crawl. I breathed in deeply to calm myself and read the words on the opposite page.

The Plague Tree

The Plague Tree is one of the most powerful plants, rumoured to grow in the Imperial Garden. Legend has it that every fifteen years it produces a crop of red fruits and one single white fruit. The red fruits can be made into a potion that causes Red Plague - a plague so virulent, it can wipe out a whole city. Its only known antidote is a potion made from the white fruit, which has to be picked on the full moon night. The wood of the Plague Tree is said to be one of the hardest known to man. It does not give up its fruits easily. The stems must be cut with a sharp knife.

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