24. Xialo

Another episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.

In his rootless frustration and boredom, Valentine turns back to the archives. Perhaps if he knew more history and read more fluently, he could understand these people better.

Except for a very small rare books room, the stacks of the Liamelia archive are open. Once Albertus shows Valentine how to use the card catalog, he’s free to browse the archives, perusing books, ledgers, maps and journals. Most of the records are of interest only to bureaucrats — tax and insurance records, building codes, records of old zoning disputes. As the city grows, the chronicles become increasingly sprawling and specialized.

The card catalog has its quirks. Some subjects are lovingly cross-referenced, while others show substantial gaps. Valentine browses aimlessly for a day or so, then spends a morning reading up on the murderous career of a highwayman called The Gentleman who terrorized the area 1000 years ago. This was before the city walls were constructed, when there was significant traffic among various sprawling settlements. Now everything is walled, and most trade goods come through the harbor, not over land. He learns that for political and economic purposes, Liamelia faces towards the mouth of the river and the sea beyond, and away from the surrounding countryside. Now there’s a single highway leading back towards Xiomelia and the egress point for Physryk. Agricultural suburbs are either enclosed within the city walls, or are owned by nobility responsible for protecting them. The settlements that once dotted the foothills and traced the river and creeks upstream have withdrawn to the outskirts of the city, fallen to the ownership of a handful of ducal families, or reverted to wilderness and been incorporated into wood elf territory.

The old maps illustrating The Gentleman’s territory awaken Valentine’s curiosity. Up until roughly 300 years ago, a variety of small settlements cropped up and disappeared — poor soil, lack of capital, and hostility from local wood elves and Drow seem to have been the major reasons why settlements collapsed and withdrew closer to Liamelia. Within the last 150 years, after the city walls were built, Liamelia turned away from the neighboring countryside and towards the sea, and the practice of creating settlements was no longer encouraged.

With a sense of mingled reluctance and shame, Valentine searches the subject index for “Xialo.” He’s pointed towards a letter describing the massacre site, which is kept in the closed stacks. The index card notes, “Review required prior to release.”

“I don’t think there can be any objection to your reading it,” Albertus says when Valentine asks. “I imagine you’ve seen more sensitive intelligence since you came here. And it is a special case — family history, as it were. You know where the reading room is for the closed stacks. I’ll bring it to you there.”

Valentine has never seen anyone use the closed stack reading room. He waits outside in the hall until Albertus bustles up holding a single manila folder. Alburtus unlocks the door with a key, then taps out a combination on a tiny brass key pad just above the doorknob. There’s a distinct whirring and clicking as tumblers fall into place and the door swings open. The room is windowless, and empty except for a table, chair and gas lamp. Albertus fires up the lamp, places the folder on the table. “Pens and paper aren’t permitted, and note taking isn’t allowed. Return the letter to its folder when you’re done. The door will lock automatically behind you. Come find me so that I can re-shelve it.”

Albertus withdraws, and Valentine sits down in that strangely Spartan atmosphere. There’s a list of names stapled to the outside of the folder — people who have been permitted to read the contents, along with dates of access. The first set dates back 75 years:

Lucius Ceralac

Marcus Shelawn

Brutus Quintus

Titus Quinctus

Appius Claudius

Horatius Servilius

Then, five years later:

Xardic Ceralac

Finally, in fresh ink, with that day’s date:

Valentine Shelawn

He opens the folder.

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