For the third time that day, Atrus heard a knock on the door and set down his pen with a sigh of exasperation.
"Busier than a library in here. Who is it?"
"Marrim. I've got the first shipment."
"Already?" Atrus rounded his desk and hurried to the door. "I thought deducing my codes would take you at least a week."
"Well," gasped Marrim, struggling in with a crate of books, girded with work gloves and armed with a sheath of notes in her pocket, "I haven't broken into all your back rooms yet, but there's already mountains of papers. I suspect a secret bookshelf or two have yet to come too, and there's something way out of the way under the spaceship walkway..."
"Spaceship walkway?" Atrus asked blankly as Marrim pried up the lid of the crate. "Oh--that's not papers at all, that's another Age."
"A fifth place of protection?"
"Something like that. You should go there and take a look at the crystals..." Atrus paused, one hand already resting on the top book of Marrim's haul as if to draw solace from it. "Fascinating things. Don't try to move them though. That took us weeks to calibrate."
"I'll save it for last," said Marrim with a smile. "A treat. At the rate I'm going, I'll be hauling things for a day. There's already a mountain of papers. This is just the most important of what I've found. Journals, some blank books to add to your supplies, a few boxes of mementos. And." She looked him in the eye, her delight infectious. "A few kormahntee."
"Written in?" he managed.
"Certainly. Can't tell whether they're finished or not."
"You didn't...link, did you?"
"Goodness, no! What kind of an apprentice do you take me for?"
"I tend to double-check," said Atrus, slightly sheepish. "By the Maker... I thought everything was burnt. Goodness knows, I might have kept something elsewhere than the library--a work in progress, maybe, a failed age... Could you go find Catherine? I'm sure she'll wish to see this."
"Can I stay while you go through this?"
"I...no," said Atrus uncomfortably. Denying Marrim's enthusiasm was like kicking a kitten, but the thought of her, much as he liked and respected her, watching as he riffled through Maker-knew-what from his past--from that time when he'd still had children, still had a father--was far worse. Seeing her wilt slightly, he fumbled for an excuse. "Goodness knows, anything I wrote twenty years ago is going to be downright embarrassing."
"But Myst is that old, and it's a beautiful Age."
"Quite so, but I didn't write it."
"Oh." A moment of silence. Marrim deflated, but only a tiny amount, which Atrus found bracing. "It's all right," she said. "Do you think Catherine's on the porch?"
"On a day this pleasant?"
"Well, yes--if she isn't, I'll have to suspect an impostor." Marrim smiled again. "Don't worry, she'll be here soon." And then she was gone, letting the study door hang open behind her.
Atrus waited still for a moment, then, fascinated beyond withholding, reached out to the top book in the crate, suffused with the sort of dusty wonder that always came over him while handling forgotten and powerful tomes, only closer to the heart, personal, and driven through with pain. The top book was a journal, and he riffled a few pages with his heart in his throat, and discovered with a sort of relief that it was only a work journal, pages of the most mundane sort of phrase analysis--he thought he might not have been able to stand it if it had been a personal journal, one of the ones he'd kept about the boys, or, older, the little book onto whose pages he'd poured all the agony of his father in a cramped quest for solace. But that book was a journal, and the next book was a blank kormahn, unusually wide and flat and altogether interesting, and it was almost going to be all right.
Then, beneath the great sheet of the kormahn he'd just lifted, he saw two more, twin volumes with stark little seals, one bound in red leather, one bound in blue. His hands shook; the blank book nearly slipped from his fingers; he fought the urge to scream.
"Catherine," he whispered hoarsely, calling her, desperate.
He remembered now. How he had never burned the descriptive books of those two one-way tickets. How he had locked them safely in a back room and let himself forget. Made himself forget, because it was easier that way. Easier to pretend his children were lost irrevocably to their punishment.
Guilt tore into him. Forgetting, not seeing--that was his sin. Not seeing the monsters he had raised from his own blood, born from the woman he loved. Allowing himself to forget that they were his sons, his responsibility, his crime.
And then she was there in the open door with a whirl of red embroidery.
"Atrus, is it--"
She stopped herself short, abruptly aware of the naked pain in her husband's face as he looked up at her, clutching an oddly-bound kormahn to his chest, his ink-stained fingers white to the knuckles and trembling.
"Atrus," she said quietly, soothing, and knelt on the other side of the crate with all the earthy dignity she could muster. "Atrus." She touched his shoulders, and he bowed his head, and then she looked into the crate.
In all her time with Atrus, Catherine almost never swore in her native tongue, preferring the gentler exclamations of the D'ni, or none at all, as suited her dignity--but she lapsed into it then, the foreign words harsh music in her gentle voice.
Then, for a long while, neither of them dared to speak, and Catherine slowly pried the blank kormahn out of Atrus' arms and set it aside, and he began to sob, and she dried his glasses on her skirt, her face white and her lip caught between her teeth, for she would not allow both of them to be crying at once, and Atrus was crying like a child, racked by guilt.
"Catherine," he said finally, finding his voice again and lifting his shaking hands to her shoulders. "I can't do it again." He squinted at her bare-faced. "I can't burn them again. Not even after--"
After they had found Stoneship rain-drenched and Emmit and Branch dead and gone. Channelwood deserted with the baskets still swaying in the breeze. Mechanical silent as the grave under a blue sky. The library populated by ashes.
"--I can't--kill them--again. I can't do it, Catherine. I couldn't possibly--"
"I know," she whispered, and held him very tight.