Hands; hairy, sweaty hands, thumped down on his book. He jumped, and his own hands reached out instinctively to push the intrusive hands away, take the pressure off the spine of the book and check that the pages weren't damaged. The hands wouldn't push away, so belatedly he looked up.
The face wasn't much better than the hands; a thick beard covered everything below a nose that tried hard to be straight where it wasn't broken, and there were tiny threads of red from broken blood vessels there. Leather flaps from a metal helmet covered up the rest of the face, with only brown eyes peering out from the holes cut for vision. As he took that in, the smell hit him, and he pushed back away from the desk. It smelled like horse, but perhaps one that was sick, or thinking of being sick. One of the huge, hairy hands left the book and grabbed his shirt, pulling the coarse fabric tight around him and dragging him forwards again. He tried to stop himself by planting his feet, but all that happened was that he was pulled to his feet.
"Tomaz?" said the man wearing a helmet, also straightening up and pulling Tomaz off the floor as he did so. The man was just huge, Tomaz decided. He nodded, trying to look down and check on his book.
"You know this library?" Tomaz nodded again, wondering where this conversation was going. When he'd come here this morning he'd been expecting to spend most of his day restoring books and copying out books that were getting to the end of their lives, and this was the only chance he'd had all day to sit and read a little. Invading barbarians weren't anywhere on hist list of expectations. He looked past the man holding him and found that there were three other people stood there now, all looking amused.
"Good," said the man holding him. "We're looking for some information, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of organisation to the books."
"Oh but there is," said Tomaz immediately, forgetting in his haste that he was still hanging an inch or so above the ground. "It's really quite easy when you get used to it, but researchers do say that at first they find it tricky. Generally they come round to our way of thinking tho–"
"Yeah," said the man. "Sounds great. This here is Annejecta, she knows what we're looking for. Talk to her. Nicely." On the word nicely he leaned back in closely to Tomaz's face, lowering him back to the floor with the implicit promise that he could be picked up again just as quickly if he wasn't talking nicely. Tomaz stumbled slightly when he was released, only then realising that he'd been letting the man take all his weight still, and had to support himself on his desk. There was a titter of laughter somewhere in the group, and he felt his face flush with embarrassment.
"Right," he said, his voice a little higher-pitched than he wanted. He make a fuss of clearing his throat, and started again, in what he hoped were deep, magisterial tones. "Right. What are you looking for, exactly?"
"Something on the Hinterlands," said a woman, moving so that she was visible from behind the bearded man. She was wearing a merchant's coat, though the collar was turned up slightly and there seemed to be several more pockets sewn on to it than even the merchants had. The coat was a little slow to move with her, and pressed against her as she turned, looking like there might be heavy things in the pockets. Her hair was a pale blonde cut to shoulder length, and her eyes were grey smudges in a face that seemed slightly out of focus.
"Surely the desk librarian could have helped you with that," said Tomaz. "There is a shelf of travel guides in the main lib–"
"Not travel guides," said Annejecta, the woman. "We're not looking for a holiday. Something on their history, their sociogeography, their significance in the last century."
"Oh," said Tomaz. "The librarian would have help–"
"They wanted paying," said the man with the beard, in a tone that suggested he didn't think that looking for books was something that should cost money.
"I'm not surprised," said Tomaz, a little surprised that he'd been able to finish his sentence. "Finding those books won't be easy."
"Hah!" One of the two who'd not yet spoken snorted indignantly. "How can finding a book be hard at all? These librarians are worse than the merchants. Next, he'll be wanting payment for waking up and breathing in the morning!"
"Shut up, Shay," said Annejecta, not turning to look at him. Her voice was calm, and slightly dismissive. "We won't have to pay."
"Well," said Tomaz. "If you're not paying, then you'll have to take the risks yourself."
"So it's true then?"
Tomaz didn't reply, wondering if she knew what she was asking. He looked at her intently, trying to focus on her face and work out if she was just trying to be clever or if she actually knew where she was. The silence dragged out, and then the bearded man turned and looked at Annejecta.
"I saw... the Magra birds carved into the lintel," she said, looking annoyed with the bearded man. He shrugged and turned away from her to look back at Tomaz again, who decided that he preferred Annejecta being the centre of attention. The bearded man's eyes seemed to lock onto whatever he was looking at, as though it were the only thing in the room.
"I think you'll find they were Tusu birds," said Tomaz.
"No, they were standing below a... tree." said Annejecta, and that confirmed that she knew where she was for Tomaz. The Magra birds stood below the Rekath, the tree-like growth that linked the realms of the mind, while Tusu birds were common birds that sang unexcitingly in the twilight.
Tomaz nodded. "Then yes, this is the Library of Malkuth," he said. "Who will be taking the risk?"