Center of Knowledge
Bibliothèque royale de Paradis. Huge golden letters in the classical style can be seen from miles away. The national library was an imposing building, the facade filled with classical sculptures and reliefs, guarded by huge columns at the entrance above stairs that took ten minutes to climb.
The library was one of Queen Historia’s pet projects; what used to occupy a single room in the royal palace was now in a large, sprawling building bustling with people. It quickly became one of the busiest places in the capital, second only to the central market. Not only students and scholars and other academics, but people from all strata of society, from government officials, merchant guild members, the landed aristocracy down to plain peasants, all seemed to pass the hallowed halls of this newly established center of knowledge.
Books upon books in all languages were imported from far away. Hange would bring in airships full of books. Everyone was eager for them, because after a century of isolation followed by rapid opening up, the people’s thirst for knowledge was indescribable. Some citizens became avid readers, and not just of the gossipy tabloids from abroad.
Today, like most days, there were people reading not only in the row upon row of desks in the Main Reading Room, but also in the secondary reading rooms scattered across the building. Readers sat on the grass in the inner courtyard, on the benches that lined the halls, on the staircases and along the corridors and wherever else there was space to read a book.
In the center of it all was the Head Librarian, Gustaf Schreiber. He was of moderate height, a very skinny man, with a grave air and salt-and-pepper hair above a pair of bifocals so thick you wondered how they managed to stay on his nose. He shuffled when he walked, his gaunt face weary, shoulders stooped, suffering from a childhood affliction that left his body weak and frail. But he made up for such frailty with a disciplined mind and sagacity befitting a true scholar. His eyes were bright and keenly observant.
Schreiber was a Marleyan Eldian from across the pond. Formerly a college professor and academician turned librarian who was very proud, and rightly so, of the collection he had built for so far. He used his old connections without reservation, thus despite the lack of funds he managed to bring in thousands of books, hundreds of manuscripts, autographs, estate archives and sheet music. Maps, atlases and globes, thousands of periodicals and monographic series, newspaper volumes, magazines, journals and photographs now lined the hallowed shelves of this glorious athenaeum.
He slept little and worked very hard acquiring and cataloguing and archiving. He had a modest staff consisting of mostly former housewives along with military vets injured in the war. This library was the heart of their little queendom, he liked to remind them, the center of knowledge and incubator of brilliant minds.
Every morning when they opened the doors and people started pouring in, Gustaf Schreiber would beam at them from behind the information counter. He loved how much the people needed the library. He didn’t mind the stuffy aristocrats or rude merchants or curious peasants. Everyone was welcome to this new place of learning. But like any other administrator he had his favorites.
His favorite group was the military. In particular, Royal Air Force Marshall Hange Zoe, who was also head of Military Engineering. To him, Hange was magnificent in every sense of the word. Scientist, inventor, negotiator, diplomat, tactician, war hero, academic, adventurer…Hange was, to Schreiber, the essence of true genius, the brilliant culmination of curiosity and intellect all wrapped up in one formidable package of energy and positivity. Gustaf Schreiber worshipped Hange. He didn’t care one bit that they were often loud, unkempt, uncouth, unrefined. So focused were they on their pursuit of knowledge and its practical applications that Schreiber forgave them of everything. Some derisively called them “Mad Scientist” but Schreiber was mad about Hange, period. He wanted to build a respectable public library partly because he knew Hange approved and he so wished to be praised by this force of nature.
Next in line on his list of favorites was Ambassador Armin Arlert, who was also the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who used to be in the Survey Corps and was now an honorary Army Lieutenant Commander. “The Ambassador” as everyone called him–for he was indeed the Paradian ambassador to the Nations League–was a slight, unassuming man with a shock of blond hair and large, intelligent blue eyes. You’d be fooled by his youthful demeanor. He was anything but, being one of those old souls who had wisdom beyond their years. The Ambassador was a shrewd, cunning man who was not beyond scheming, conniving and deceiving for the sake of saving their island nation. He visited the library every now and then and Schreiber got a first hand account of his many diplomatic missions abroad. Like Hange, Armin always brought specimens with him for Schreiber to appraise and archive. A rare book or two, posters, tickets, bar coasters, photos, postcards and other paraphernalia from the outside world.
Hange liked to bring in live specimens, to the library staff’s horror.
Apart from these two, the other military personnel that came to the library had the same look in their eyes. They were thirsty for information. Schreiber soon found out that their thirst for knowledge was very real and born out of desperation. In order to protect the island they needed to know as much as they could about the outside world. They needed to know what everyone else beyond their borders was doing so that they could learn from them and anticipate them in case they came banging on their doorsteps. They had to absorb and process this knowledge oftentimes in a state of duress.
During the war with Marley the library was turned into a makeshift convalescence ward. The recovering soldiers found comfort in the books Schreiber recommended to them.
Now that the war was over, military personnel still came, reading and researching and preparing for the next war, for the threat was ever present. It never seemed to end, the line of enemies waiting to invade the island. During off duty, military officers would often sleep in the library, books and newspapers falling off their hands as they succumbed to an exhausted sleep. Schreiber never minded, and told his staff to let them be. He hadn’t the heart to kick them out as they burned the midnight candle.
Today, nearly two months after the war with Marley was over, he got a note from his friend, Levi Ackermann.
Schreiber first met Levi three years ago, shortly after he arrived from Marley, at an event where the queen gave him the keys to the building and directed him to build a national library. He smiled as his memory recalled that day.
“Here’s Levi, we go waaaaaay back! Levi, meet Gustaf, guardian of the Gates of Knowledge,” Hange introduced them with characteristic good cheer. Schreiber immediately sensed the camaraderie between the two military officers. It made him jealous. He had fallen for Hange the day Queen Historia introduced them to each other.
The shortest man in the room was his usual suspicious, grumpy self. Schreiber had heard all the rumours about Levi Ackermann.
He was shorter than he imagined him to be, but exuded an aura of power and authority. Unapproachable, taciturn and eternally pissed off, he was one very scary man. You felt the strength emanating from his bones and knew that if you upset him he could easily kill you with one bare hand, maybe even with a flick of his finger. Plus his legend was so great it made him scarier than he probably was.
To most of Paradis, Levi was Humanity’s Strongest Soldier, a war hero all the way back to the titan era. To others he was the devil incarnate. He was many things to many people. The sinner and saint. Angel and demon. Bastard and bitch. Protector and murderer. White Knight and Dark Slayer. His legend was so convoluted that he was whatever you wanted him to be.
Schreiber was relieved Levi and Hange weren’t seen frequently together. Levi, for his part, disliked the librarian but took a liking to the library, and would come every so often. The librarian duly noted that Levi preferred one of the chairs in the West Wing reading room. It was a bergère, a carved and gilded armchair with elaborate, rocaille adornment. It had an ornately carved wing back decorated with guilloche, a carved and scalloped top rail and bold, rolled arms. It had tacked upholstery in crimson leather, with the curved seat rail leading into cabriole legs on scrolled feet decorated with leaf carving. The armchair was actually one of the palace rejects, donated by the queen herself when she did some interior redecoration. Levi would usually come at a certain day and time so Schreiber put out a “Reserved for Levi Ackermann” sign on the chair. Schreiber was scared of him and jealous of his closeness to Hange, but being an astute person he knew he had better win the short man’s good graces.
His efforts paid off when Queen Historia gave him his first non-library related project.
“I would like you to write a children’s book on the late Commander Erwin Smith,” Her Majesty the Queen directed. She was building a comprehensive school and wanted original materials as part of the reading list. She was also supportive of Armin’s dream of building a school of higher learning, modeled after the great universities he visited abroad. To Schreiber’s sheer delight both the queen and the ambassador had a special focus on education.
It was a daunting task, because Erwin was the first authentic Paradian hero.
The research part was easy: Erwin left an entire legacy of disciplined military documentation. Along with the field reports, standard operating procedures, strategic plans, tactical analyses and other writings, Erwin also penned essays, reviews, speeches, educational columns and lectures, enough to make a compendium. That brilliant mindset coupled with years of combat experience, along with a thirst for knowledge so deep and profound, made up for one powerful oeuvre.
Schreiber was more than impressed with Erwin Smith. He decided he wanted to write a children’s book as well as a biography for grown-ups. It blew his mind that someone under such hellish circumstances could see through all the propaganda and mind control and prognosticate the Great Truth: that Paradis was not the last bastion of humanity.
He could have been friends with Erwin, Schreiber thought. Good friends, as they were not much different in terms of age, and both craved knowledge above all else. It was this intense craving that led Erwin Smith to his death. It was this craving that led Gustaf Schreiber to leave his position as college professor in Marley to sail to this god-forsaken island that was constantly under attack from all fronts. But Schreiber, despite his bad health, saw himself as a seeker of truth. He wanted to learn the truth about his fellow Eldians. His cultivation, sincerity and scholarliness won the good graces of the queen herself. Now his task was to write about the queen’s lofty subjects.
A children’s book sounded simple, but it was not, really. Getting the facts to line up to make for an interesting narrative was simple enough. But every good biography consisted of outtakes on everyday life, snippets of conversation not found in the official reports, glimpses of the humour, the daily wisdom, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the hero in question. A one sided, coldly idealized, perfect hero was non-relatable and off-putting. Erwin, in his tall and imposing, golden-haired, blue-eyed perfection could easily fall into this trap.
But Schreiber, published author and sworn bibliophile since learning to read at the age of three, knew that a good book showed the personal weaknesses the protagonist struggled with, revealed the great odds he had to overcome on his road to greatness, exposed the vulnerable and sensitive side that made the hero fully human.
To write a biography worthy of Erwin Smith he needed a bunch of the Commander’s old comrades to share their memories of him.
Hange was more than willing to talk about Erwin, so genuinely fond were they of the great man. And boy, did they ever talk. To kickstart the project Hange kept Schreiber awake for an entire week. Hange talked about Erwin, yelled, moaned, wept, groaned, screamed and gesticulated as memories came flooding back.
To Hange, Erwin was the greatest commander Paradis had ever seen. Also, a genuine friend and comrade-at-arms. “But Erwin’s one mistake,” Hange intoned loudly, “was naming me as his successor. Everything went downhill from there!”
“Please, Marshall, you’re hyperventilating again,” Hange’s aide-de-camp, Walter Lange, was given cause for concern. For an entire week the poor man huddled in a sleeping bag on the floor as Hange arrived at night after a full day’s work and talked and talked until sunrise. Schreiber was delighted with their company and did his best to keep up, writing as fast as he can as Hange found a million Erwin-related memories and moments in their brain. But after a week of painful reminiscing the emotional strain started to take a toll on Schreiber’s frail health.
“I’m sorry, Gustaf,” Hange apologized. They were exhausted themselves. Lange had to drink himself to a stupor because he couldn’t take it anymore; he had become Moblit 2.0.
“If you want the truth about Erwin, the key person you need to speak with is Levi,” Hange divulged.
“Do you think he’ll actually talk to me?” Schreiber was unsure. Levi frequented the library but he never stopped to chat. A curt nod of acknowledgement, the usual “Any books for me, Mr Librarian?” then “Thank you” when handed something, and off Levi went to his favorite gold-and-crimson armchair. No one dared disturb him. He was cold, aloof and distant. Schreiber keenly felt the brigadier’s latent distrust.
Schreiber soon learned the reading preferences of his favorite visitors, thus whenever a new shipment arrived he made sure to keep a few books on hold so that his favorites could get first dibs. Jean was into military history and naval warfare, Armin world culture and diplomacy, Levi spying and guerilla strategies, Mikasa world martial arts and anything that had the word ‘cookbook’ on it, Hange the latest in weapons development and of course, the academic journal Science. When one of his staff questioned the wisdom of temporarily withholding resources, of playing favorites, Schreiber had a ready answer.
“It’s because of this particular set of readers that this island is still afloat. I want us all to survive. Of course I play favorites.”
Yet when Hange mentioned Levi, the good scholar was deflated. How do you get a man such as he to talk? Maybe he could bribe him with exotic tea, wrangle a few facts out of him, a couple of funny anecdotes perhaps. But his confidence was zilch.
Hange had an idea. “Levi’s keen on me redesigning some spy gadgets from Noblain. I’ll do that for him in exchange for his talk,” they winked at Schreiber.
And that was how Schreiber found Levi reluctantly dragging himself into his office.
Levi was blunt. He sat with brows knitted, arms crossed. “I don’t think anything I have to say has a place in a biography, or a children’s book for that matter.”
Schreiber explained that in order to write a good book he needed to get a full view of the subject, the good and the bad, the public and private, the spoken and unspoken. What was to be published on paper would be in his discretion but will be under review and approval of Hange and Levi, Erwin’s best friends and the closest thing he had to family, as well as the queen herself, whose pet project this was.
He got nothing from Levi the first day. He got nothing from him for an entire year. But Gustaf Schreiber was a patient man. And he had found a weapon in the form of hidden literature.