Elan leaned over still further and peered at the book. It was a plain, if old, electronic vellum print. It looked like an antique bound book of paper pages, with carved wooden covers, but the vellum leaves within would be durable and capable of changing what they displayed in order to convey the illusion of reading an ancient manuscript, but with the capacity to hold potentially hundreds of thousands of texts.
“What is this?” he asked in fascination. The writing on the cover, if writing it was, didn’t seem to be Xidh or any of the classic Mygoni or Zhraakyn pictographic languages he was familiar with. Its style was that of Declivitorion cuneiform, the clay-tablet and leaden-monolith markings found in the oldest sites of human habitation, and even older non-human sites. But that was the thing. Declivitorion cuneiform at this style-stage was Áea, so-called Elvenscript, not human at all. There had been conclusive comparative examples found in the Barnalk system. And these markings were … something else.
“Some call it the Book of Misbegotten Creatures,” Broker said. “Some call it the Zisfrex Agn Mogak, the things neither mortal nor divine. Others – ”
“Ah,” Elan breathed. “The legendary Second Book of Sloane,” Broker nodded. “I thought it was lost – well, in fact I thought it was just a bedtime story antiquarian mummies and daddies told their little antiquarian children,” he reached out to touch the artificial wooden cover, and Broker gently interjected an upper hand. Elan smiled. “Ah,” he said again. “Not even this is the job? You fellows do like your melodrama. What do you need from me, that’s worth the Second Book of Sloane and an interview with a secret Separatist Repositorium in payment?”
“This transcript came into my hands some time ago on what I will call a treasure-hunting trip,” Broker said, “although that makes it sound a lot more ‘maps and clues and booby traps’ and a lot less ‘months and months flying from place to place and filing reports with interchangeable sourcats’ than it actually was. It’s written in a language I don’t recognise, and neither did any of the experts previously involved in its study.”
“So how do you know it’s the Second Book?” Elan asked.
Broker looked pained. “Partly the other stuff I found with it,” he said, “partly the Repositorium’s assessment. Partly – no; largely, I have to confess – wishful thinking.”
“Well…” Elan frowned. “In a way, that should make it easier than Sloane’s original texts, which – as you know – were written in a hodgepodge of dead languages from Terellian to Old Meg to Middle Mygoni American.”
“Right,” Broker said, “and you clever little buggers still managed to translate that.”
“Well, I didn’t personally, of course,” Elan demurred, “bit before my time … but some other frightfully bright translator types did, certainly. And I guess it was largely a human effort, since Sloane was a human scholar-poet and wrote in old Earth languages. So, this book isn’t written in any of the languages found in part one?”
Broker shook his head. “Completely different. Nobody has a clue. There are hints of Declivitorion cuneiform, as you may have recognised from the cover, but there are also signs of Gund influence in some fragments, enough that – like I say – we were able to establish the book’s identity, at least with excusable optimism. The rest…” he sighed. “The Repositorium calls it the language of the butterfly,” he concluded, “which is very pretty but tells us precisely stonk-all.”
“The language of the butterfly,” Elan murmured. “That is pretty, isn’t it? Of course, you know if this is an old Earth language that wasn’t in the Book of Sloane, chances are any hope we might’ve had of deciphering it went up in smoke when the Zhraaki burned the Library of the Still-Beating Heart and built the Dome on top of its ashes, right?” he smiled at Broker’s grim expression. “I don’t think either of us were around to prevent that, if your comment about your age earlier on was accurate … but it’s still something of a sore point for academics.”
“True,” Broker admitted, “and that was what my linguistic experts said as well. The Cantaña Áqui Codex in the Library of the Heart was probably the last place in Six Species space to have any record of this language, and even that would have been a long shot. Most of the experts I’ve reached out to – not that there have been as many as I’m making it sound like, since this is the sort of discovery that could very easily turn into a circus if word got around, and my circumstances aren’t generally suited to being thrust into the middle of a circus – most of them were of the opinion that it’s not even a language spoken by any Earthly culture, but is some sort of code, a secret language Sloane developed while writing the original texts.”
“Book one was a lot of playing around with language and form,” Elan said thoughtfully, “so by book two he’d consolidated his art into a special language of his own? That would mean,” he fought down a surge of excitement. “That might mean the first book is – is some kind of draft, a collection of notes, and this,” he gestured at the book in Broker’s lap, “this is the final product. Sloane’s masterclass,” is that what the language of the butterfly means? The final form of a work of which the Book of Sloane was the larval stage? His thoughts immediately spun off, but he tried to keep his theorising as internalised as possible. Blaren had a bit more patience for rambling human freeform association, but only compared to Molren.
“That’s what the academics I talked to concluded,” Broker said, then added wryly, “after about eighteen months of hemming and hawing.”
And you haven’t actually let me touch the book yet, Elan stopped himself from adding. “Well, they obviously did a lot of the legwork for me,” he said instead. “And Molranoids do have more time on their hands. More hands too, for that matter. But it’s really not much of a conclusion, is it? More like an excited guess based on a whole lot of wishful thinking – like you also said. If the Book of Sloane was a collection of notes and this was the finished product, you’d expect Sloane to be of some use in translating Sloane 2: The Sloanening,” he smiled at Broker’s politely baffled look. “Sorry. I get a bit carried away when I’m excited. But you see my point.”
“This was precisely the obstacle we encountered,” Broker admitted.
“But wait, you can’t mean your boffins haven’t translated any of this,” Elan objected. “Why does the Repositorium call it the language of the butterfly if it hasn’t actually cracked the language?”
“Because that’s how the Repositorium does business,” Broker said moodily. “When I tell you that the Repositorium has been our main translation resource, and our most successful one to date, and I’m here with proverbial hat in hand … ” he lifted the book out of the case, brushed imaginary dust off it with one hand, and passed it to Elan. “We were hoping you might be able to provide us with one of those wild monkey miracles you lot are so good at,” he said.
Elan took the book and gazed at it admiringly. He pulled the strand of well-chewed grass out of his mouth and let it fall. Wild monkey miracles. “Give me a day,” he replied, eyes still fixed on the cover. The language of the butterfly. “If I haven’t made progress by then, I’m not going to.”