فصل 08

کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 18

فصل 08

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CHAPTER EIGHT

The open ground between the Welsh front lines and the city walls of Oxford was nothing but mud … churned constantly by Welsh assaults,beaten and mixed by the rain that still fell, though it was more of an annoyance than anything else now. Jess laboured under his pack, which felt like the weight of an extra person clinging to his spine. The constant, squelching, dragging mud made them all clumsy – even Wolfe and Santi, though they managed it better than any of the students. Pity about their new Library coats, Jess thought. They were already wet, lank and miserably laden by muddy hems.

The sickly rotten smell of the battlefield overwhelmed him to the point that he no longer noticed it; he had much more to concern himself with now. On top of the Oxford walls – new walls, strong walls, built of solid granite and reinforced with iron bands – stood English troops, and they pointed their weapons straight at the steadily advancing Library party.

Wolfe had taken a telescoping pole from his pack and attached the Library banner to it – black, with the symbol worked in reflective gold paint, it seemed to glow in the dim, oppressive light.

The banner even had somekind of reinforcement to keep the flag straight and highly visible, despite the lack of wind.

The Library took no chances.

No one fired on them, but the massive metal gates didn’t open, either. The road that had once brought the city’s trade and travel had been destroyed, and fragments of it were buried in the mud, all too easy to stumble over; more than one of their number went down as they clambered through the rubble, but nobody seemed injured, and the students clustered at the gates behind Wolfe and Santi. Santi’s High Garda soldiers surrounded them in a solid black, heavily armed block.

Morgan looked small and cold to the bone as she stood there, staring up at the city that had been her home. Not a happy event for her, and she seemed very alone even in the middle of their group. Jess moved to stand next to her.

He didn’t touch her. He didn’t think she would welcome it, or his pity.

Santi pulled a parade ground voice from deep in his chest and shouted, ‘Open in the name of the Library!’ It echoed and rang from the stone and metal, and with divine timing, thunder rumbled overhead.

Nothing happened. Jess felt as if he were sinking slowly into the mud, and tried to pull his feet out, but it only made him more uncomfortable. The minutes crawled by. Black flies buzzed, and there was a worse stench to the mud here that pushed insistently at his empty stomach: death, blood, rotting flesh. Surely there were fallen men lost under that churn. Jess had a sickening feeling he might be standing on top of one. We could join them, he thought.

Under the mud. Forgotten.

Just like Warlow said.

He was understanding in an entirely new way what Wolfe had been trying to teach them … that the Library was not just the bloodless work of making vast stores of information available to the masses; it was defending that information against this.

Death. War. Destruction. It had all seemed so much easier in the safety of a classroom, smugly discussing the days when the Library had been vulnerable to this kind of chaos, when knowledge had vanished in flames and the cries of fanatics.

It had been unthinkable it could still happen in modern times.

Their party seemed so small, but that, too, was part of the message the Library was sending … that it didn’t need to dispatch an army.

Harm any of its people, and the army would surely follow,as Khalila’s recitation of the story of Austria proved. The leaders behind this massive wall must have been weighing those lessons carefully.

Wolfe and Santi waited with patience, and Jess tried to imitate that calm certainty.

It paid off at last as a voice called down, ‘Step back from the gates!’

Wolfe turned to them and nodded, and they all backed away to avoid the swing of the huge metal-clad doors as they moved open. They were on some kind of steam-driven mechanism, and behind the doors was a portcullis of steel mesh that slowly cranked upward as the Library party walked forward. As he came even with the gateposts, Jess realised there were soldiers standing on either side of them, arranged so as to avoid any potential crossfire. This was a killing zone.

The gates reversed course behind them and cranked shut with a heavy boom that Jess felt through his bones and boots … but all that faded away – the soldiers, the guns, the mud, the rain, the nerves – because crowded ahead, just beyond the next gate, were the people of Oxford.There were so many, and they were so shockingly thin.

Khalila, who was pressed at his side, whispered, ‘How long has this siege been going on?’ She sounded shaken, and so was he. The misery was written on their faces, on their shrunken bodies dressed in worn and dirty clothes. The children were the worst of it, and he had to look away, because children shouldn’t beso thin and ill. Even in the worst of London, it hadn’t been so bad as this.

‘Too long,’ Thomas answered. He was on the other side of Khalila, and his expression reflected all the anguish he must have been feeling. ‘Mein Gott, look at them. They’re dying.’ ‘No quarter,’ Jess said.

‘They’re all under a death sentence.’‘Easy for their king to say, safe in London,’ Glain said.

‘He’d be begging for surrender if this was happening in Buckingham Palace.’

‘Stop your chatter,’ Santi snapped. ‘We have a job to do. Stay together and stay quiet.’ He sounded tense, and coming from the always-calm captain, it had the impact of a closed fist.The gate cranked upward, and Santi led them into Oxford.

No one said a word. They moved in silence through the crowd. Hundreds of people pressed around them, staring at these well-fed, armed strangers with strangely empty expressions. It wasn’t just hunger, Jess thought. It was the absence of hope.

Wolfe stopped them when an armed crew blocked their path. The English soldiers, presumably, though in contrast to the neatly uniformed Welsh, these men had only remnants of their former red and black about them – a grimy pair of pants here, a tattered scarlet coat there. They looked as dirty, tired and near-starved as the civilians. The man in front was of medium height, with close-cropped brown hair and cheekbones that would have been prominent even if he’d been well fed, but now jutted out painfully sharp, as if they might soon cut the skin. A thin-lipped mouth and grey eyes the colour of the leaden skies, he looked every inch a warrior, and the very opposite of General Warlow … and yet this man was on the losing side of the war.‘Let us pass,’ Wolfe said.

‘As soon as we’re clear on the rules,’ the man said.

‘Scholar Wolfe. Yes, I know who you are. And you,

Captain Santi. My name is William Smith, and I’m in charge of the Oxford defence.’

‘And what is your rank?’ Santi asked.

That got him a humourless smile in return. ‘All the bastards with rank are buried.

Call me the major general of walking corpses.’

‘You said there were rules,’ Wolfe said. ‘Let’s get on with them.’

‘Simple enough. Straight to your Serapeum, get whatever you need, and get out. You have until nightfall.

After that, your neutrality doesn’t matter a damn.’ ‘By the accords, Libraryneutrality doesn’t have a time limit.’

‘It does today.’

Wolfe merely nodded, as if he’d expected it. ‘I suppose there isn’t much intimidation the Library can manage on the major general of walking corpses.’

‘Exactly,’ Smith said. ‘I’m giving you this day from the kindness of my cold, soon-to be-dead heart. Use it well,Wolfe. Or I’ll take you, your party, your precious books, and use you for every advantage I can.’

‘You’d damn your entire country,’ Santi said. ‘But I suppose you know that.’ ‘Do you think I care about that?’

It was simply said, but there was no question in Jess’s mind that the man meant every word. Wolfe didn’t try to negotiate. He just nodded, and when Smith gestured his men out of the way, Wolfe continued to lead the Library’s party forward.

Smith called after. ‘Need a guide?’

‘We know the way.’

After that, no one blocked their path, though there were still those eerily silent Oxford citizens watching; some were standing in long, unmoving lines to get meagre rations of food, medicines, clean water.

Some were lying beneath lean-to structures to keep the rain off, alone and unfriended.

The city stank of waste and sickness and unburied death, which was an awful contrast to the beauty of it – clean, ancient buildings sturdy under the weight of history. The Serapeum wasoff Catte Street, near the colleges, and as they neared it Jess was struck by its resemblance to a fortress.

Heavy, old iron gates blocked a large grey-stone courtyard, with the library building itself towering over it and casting it into cold shadow. Battles had been fought here. Blood spilt.

It looked old, and it was.

As they got closer, Jess was disquieted by the number ofOxford citizens who’d gathered at the gates: men, women, children of all ages.

It was a press of them, blocking the way, and on the other side of the bars stood a contingent of the local

Library Garda, armed and ready. There was muttering, and it grew louder as Wolfe’s party approached.

‘On your guard,’ Santi said to all of them. ‘This might be difficult.’ He was right. The crowd didn’t want to give way, and mutters quickly gave way to pleas. Jess swallowed hard when he saw a woman grab at one of the Library soldiers’ sleeves; she was moved away, firmly but gently, by the soldier behind him. The voices rose around them as they pushed forward, and grew in desperation.‘Please, Scholar, let us have the food! We know they have stores inside!’

‘We need shelter!’

‘Please, only take the children inside!’

‘Bastard! We know you’re hoarding water!’

‘Why do you get to leave?

What about us?’

The guards formed a wedge that drove through the crowd to the gates, then pushed open a corridor to let Wolfe and the students advance towards the closed barrier. On the other side, a robed librarian turned the lock to open it.

As it swung aside, the voices rose to shouts, and Jess looked around to see that the soldiers who’d guarded his back were now defending themselves. They were shoulder to shoulder, two deep on each side, and formed a tight, strong arc to hold the crowd at bay.

‘Inside!’ Santi ordered, and shoved Thomas after

Wolfe as the Scholar stepped inside the courtyard. ‘Go, go, go!’

Jess grabbed Morgan, and Glain grabbed him, and the rest of them hurried after.

Dario brought up the rear, pistol out and ready, but he didn’t need it. The lines held.

Santi called retreat, and it was made quickly and efficiently, with the lines compressing into a thinner and thinner arc until the last of them was inside the courtyard, and the gate could be secured behind them.

Jess stumbled to a fast halt as he almost ran into a guardian statue. A lion, this one. Massive. It was on all four feet, head down, red eyes glowing like lava. A rumbling alert came from it, and Jess quickly held up his Library bracelet for scan. The lion brushed him aside and advanced to stalk into the courtyard.

The crowd stormed the gates. Bodies slammed against the unyielding iron bars, and it was a mass of screaming faces and flailing limbs. There was no speaking with this crowd, no reasoning with it. They could only hope the gate could hold, and that the guardian lion, which now paced the inside of the fence and roared warnings, would be able to help Santi’s men hold the line.

‘Come inside, quickly,’ the librarian who’d greeted them said. She was a tall, thin woman of African descent,with close-cropped greying hair and a bleak look in eyes that had seen too much. ‘My apologies, Scholar Wolfe. I am—’

‘Senior Librarian Naomi Ebele,’ Wolfe said. ‘You’ve done very well under difficult conditions. You only need to hold on a little longer.’ She caught her breath, and from the sudden shimmer in her eyes the relief was overwhelming, but when she spoke her voice remained steady. ‘Help is most welcome, sir. You’ll see the extent of our problem inside.’ ‘What about the gates?

Will they hold?’ Jess asked.

The mob – and it was a mob now, mindless and violent – was trying to climb over.

Santi’s men were keeping them off.

‘They have so far,’ Ebele said. ‘This isn’t their first try getting in. They believe we’re hoarding supplies.’

‘Are you?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘We’ve barely enough to keep us alive another day or two.

What we do have is books.

You were told of the cache we found?’

‘Yes. Black market?’ ‘If so, it’s from ages ago.

It seems more likely that some early librarian stored a valuable donated collection here intending to ship it on, but something happened and the storehouse was forgotten until we opened it looking for more supplies. It came as quite a shock, believe me.

We’d already sent all but our core staff out of the city when the negotiations failed.’ ‘How many do you still have here?’‘Three, including me. I sent our resident Scholar away to London a week ago, over her objections. But she was too old and frail to stay.’ Ebele walked them up a set of steps to the oak door, which looked stout enough to withstand a determined attack. She opened it with another key and led them into a hallway that seemed drenched in shadows, but then it opened into a vast echo chamber of dark wood, high arches, and shelves. Like all Serapeums around the world, this one was filled with blanks, ready to be served from the Codex, but in addition to those, the long polished tables down the centre of the hall were piled with books. Originals.

So many. The room had a vividly familiar smell to Jess,a crisp, dusty aroma that woke memories of his father’s warehouses. Of old books cradled in his hands, or strapped against his chest.

The smell of history.

Even Wolfe took in a breath at the sight of what lay before them, because it was a massive number of written works, more than most of them would ever see in their lives. Jess, who’d touched more originals than they’d ever dream, was silenced by the sight, and felt a prickle not just of awe, but actual alarm.

‘As you see,’ Ebele said, ‘We have a problem.’ ‘Agreed,’ Wolfe said.

‘Your message was cut before you could report the actual numbers of what you’d found, but we did gather that it was large. This is … not large. It is enormous.’ ‘A rare prize,’ she agreed.

‘You see why I could not abandon my post, even under orders.’

No librarian could, not

when the Welsh army was poised to rain down fire and death on the city, and when everything in it had been named fair game. This wasn’t a prize, these thousands of books burdening the tables of the Bodleian Serapeum of Oxford.

This was a holy treasure.

‘We can’t.’ Khalila’s voice shook with emotion, and she took a breath to steady it. ‘We can’t possibly manage to send so many, even if we have enough tags!’ ‘Then we sort and save what we can,’ Wolfe said.

‘Form into teams of two and sort into three stacks: unique,rare, common. Go. We have little time.’

Khalila paired up with Dario, and they immediately went to work. Thomas had already chosen – unexpectedly – Portero. Jess looked for Morgan, and didn’t find her. He gestured Glain over and asked, but Glain just shrugged.

‘Don’t know. Come on, let’s get started.’‘I know most of the rare things,’ Jess said. ‘You organise and read me titles.’ What did Wolfe have Morgan doing? And where had Wolfe gone? He was nowhere in sight now, though the rest of them were clustered around the table, working as he’d instructed.

Glain sent him a silent look of gratitude, and opened the first book. ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to the Cultivation of Wheat, Including the Diseases to which it is Prone. Author Hywel Pryor.’

‘Common. And boring.’ ‘Unless you like to eat,’ Glain said. Touché. ‘On the Circumference of the Planets.

Author Ping Le. Translated from the Chinese.’

‘Rare. Careful with that one.’‘On Sphere Making.’ He stopped dead, staring at her, and he could feel the blood draining from his head down towards his feet. Glain glanced up at him, and gave him a hard smile. ‘We couldn’t be that lucky. The title is A Process of Iron, by Gwen Neame. A novel.’

‘Rare, and don’t do that again.’

‘Don’t joke? What should I do, weep? Will it help?’ ‘It might,’ he said, thinking of those desperate walking dead outside the gates. ‘We’re taking too long.

Just read the titles.’ Glain began a steady drone of them, and when Jess didn’t know them, he used the Codex. He spotted

Morgan, finally; she was off with Wolfe in a corner, arguing fiercely. He couldn’t hear anything, but he knew that look.

She wanted to find her father, he guessed. And

Wolfe wasn’t risking her out on the streets. Good, Jess thought. From what he’d seen out there, the chances were high that if she found her father at all, he’d already be dead.

‘Focus,’ Glain said, and snapped fingers in front of hisface. ‘You’re slowing down.

Stare at your girlfriend later.’ ‘She isn’t my girlfriend,’ Jess said.

And got back to work.

It took hours to work their way through the enormous stack; at the end, each team took their unique and rare book stacks and moved them to one of the end tables. It still formed a formidable mountain. As Wolfe examined each volume himself, and sorted it into two more stacks, he glanced up.

His dark gaze landed on Jess.

‘Check outside,’ he said.

‘Santi hasn’t been in to give a report. Not like him.’ Jess nodded and hurried

down the hallway. Glain preceded him, opened the locked door, and let him through. He glanced back a she stepped over the threshold, and said, ‘You’re locking me out, aren’t you?’

‘Just for safety,’ she said, and smiled. ‘Good luck.’ She shoved him on a step and slammed the wood at his back. He heard the locks grinding shut behind him, and took in a breath of icy, damp air as he took in the situation of the courtyard.

The weather had turned while he was in the timeless silence of the Bodleian building; overhead, the clouds were flat and low, and the rain had turned to spits of sleet. The ancient steps were coated and slick.

There was blood on the cobblestones inside the gates, in a wide, watery smear. New chains fastening the stout iron; the lock must have broken. Outside the gates lay bodies, at least ten of them – men, women, even the small, still form of a child. Jess stared at them, at the blood, and when he looked up, he saw Niccolo Santi.

The captain looked grim.

There was a thin thread of blood on his cheek that wasn’t his own, and cuts in the black cloth on the arm of his uniform. ‘What are you doing out here?’ he demanded. Jess took in the rest of the scene in a hasty glance – one set of soldiers standing guard at the bars, another sitting against the courtyard walls, huddled in coverings. One was very still beneath his blanket – asleep, badly injured, or dead.

‘Wolfe sent me to check.’ ‘Tell him we were lucky.

This old ironwork isn’t likely to keep them back next time,and neither will our guns; if they come in numbers, they’ll get into the courtyard this time.’

‘How many of your men—’

‘Just tell him the sand’s running fast,’ Santi said.

‘And leave someone stationed at the door to open it if we need to retreat.’

‘You think the mob will come back?’‘They’re convinced that the library is filled with sacks of food and fresh running water and fairy dust. They’ll come.’ Santi looked in the direction of the gate, held shut with new chains. ‘Soon, I think.’

Jess retreated back up the stairs. He banged on the door, and listened to the scrape of the locks and bars being removed. He tried to imagine standing out here under vicious attack, killing the sick, the weak, children.

Knowledge is all. The Library’s motto, and this was what it meant in the real world. It meant that nothing, nothing was more valuable.

Not even lives.

It seemed like mockery, looking at those desperate faces.

Jess shoved the door open the instant it was free, pushing Glain back. When she protested, he ignored it.

‘Keep it unlocked,’ he told her. ‘And stay here. Santi may need to retreat at any time.’

‘But—’

‘Stay here!’

He stalked down the hall.

The drag of his muddy

Library cape on his shoulders made him feel older. Harder.More breakable than he had been just a few days before.

He reported to Wolfe.

Wolfe had attention only for the books he was combing through, but he nodded.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘We’re ready to start tagging. I need you.’ ‘I put Glain on the door, sir.’

‘Good. She’s well placed.’ Finally, Wolfe looked up at him. Jess’s classmates were grouped together at the other end of the table with the Oxford Library staff, whispering; no one was obviously listening to him and Wolfe, yet he knew that all of them were paying attention. ‘How many tags can you handle?’

Jess’s first impulse was to honestly say, I don’t know, but instead, what came out was entirely different. ‘As many as you need.’ ‘Do ten, rest, eat, do ten more. Keep going until you can’t. Understand?’

‘Yes, sir.’ Wolfe handed him a supply of tags.

‘We’re supposed to enter them by hand in the Codex —’

‘Skip the tick boxes. Seif!

Santiago! Get over here. I’ll want you to do three tags, break for food and five minutes’ rest, then three more. When you start feeling sick, step out.’

Jess started on the stack in front of him. Ten, then rest.

Adrenaline carried him through tagging and sending the first set; he pushed it and kept going through another five. The books would be appearing in the Archive, into the hands of an Obscurist whose job it was to hand them off to Library staff for safekeeping. One by one by one, Jess kept sending.

He’d lost count when he felt weakness take hold, and staggered against the edge of the table. He grabbed it with both hands and held on until his head stopped spinning.

Thomas handed him a pressed ration bar of nuts and honey and fruits, and Jess ate it without any appetite, thenwashed it down with a mouthful of water. ‘Easy,’ Thomas said. ‘You make us look bad. Sit.’

Jess nodded; he suddenly realised his legs weren’t holding him up any more, and dropped into a chair. He watched as Khalila took her turn. She activated five in a row, staggered, and caught herself. Dario steadied her with an outstretched hand on her back. She sent him a shaky, grateful smile. Dario sent his own books and managed not to seem affected, though Jess saw he’d gone bone pale. Jess stepped in and relieved him.

‘Here,’ he said, and passed Dario a cup of water. ‘Don’t want you to get ahead of me.’ ‘Quality, not quantity,’ Dario shot back, as he collapsed in the chair Jess had left behind.

They both knew that wasn’t true. Not today.

It went on like that, though the players changed; Jess managed fifty tags more before he had to sit down for a long rest, head spinning, body too weak to stand.

Keeping rations down was difficult. Librarian Ebele and Wolfe managed a hundred together, but she collapsed completely and had to be carried to a hard bed on a table nearby. Her skin had gone the ashy colour of someone near death. Wolfe didn’t pause, though he did step back to eat and drink and sit, and watch the next wave – Ebele’s colleagues, with Morgan and Thomas – continue to steadily tag the pile of books back to the safety of the Alexandrian collection.

They’d managed almost all the stack when he heard the clamour echoing from the hallway. It rushed towards them, in the form of Santi, Glain, and the bloodied, hard breathing bulk of the soldiers.

Some of them were being carried, some dragged.

Hardly any of them were unmarked.

‘Lost the courtyard,’ Santi said to Wolfe. Over his words, Jess heard the angry roar of a crowd outside the heavy stone walls, and the thud of hands – or weapons – on the door through which Santi’s men had come.

‘They’ve broken the lion.

Leave the rest of this.’ ‘No,’ Wolfe said. ‘We’ll have to hand-carry them.’ ‘You’ve got five tags left.

Use them on the students, at least. Send them home.’ ‘We both know the trip could kill them. Tags aren’t designed for flesh and blood.’ ‘We’re past that. Send them.’ Santi turned towards the students, who’d clustered together again. Jess found himself standing with Dario and Glain, the others behind them. Fighters in front, he thought, and almost smiled.

They’d done it unconsciously.

‘I’ll stay,’ Jess said, and heard both Dario and Glain saying it at the same moment, in chorus. They all looked at each other, and in the next instant, the rest were saying it behind them. Thomas.

Morgan. Portero. Khalila. All of them.

‘Let me phrase it differently. Who volunteers to take a tag and retreat back to Alexandria?’ ‘Is it worse than the Translation Chamber?’

‘Infinitely worse,’ Santi said. ‘We use tags when there is absolutely no escape. I’ve survived it, though. You probably would.’

Portero gave a regretful sigh. ‘The books come first, sir. Isn’t that how it should be? Books before men?’ Wolfe almost smiled. ‘As you see. They’re not children.

They’re librarians.’ Santi didn’t seem all that surprised, but he did seem even more grim, if that was possible. ‘Your librarians look like death chewed, swallowed, and vomited them up,’ he said. ‘We have bigger problems. Our major general of the walking dead changed his mind: he’s not letting us walk out the front gates. He’s offered extra rations to anyone who brings us in to him, alive. He intends to use us as hostages.’

Wolfe nodded. He was silent a moment, and then suddenly looked at Jess. ‘We knew that might happen.’ ‘And the Welsh aren’t going to hold back,’ Santi said. ‘They’ll kill us along with the English, we both know it. We need an exit,Christopher, and I don’t have one now that you’ve used all the tags.’

‘I believe young Brightwell may be able to help with that.’

Jess involuntarily took a step back, only to run into the solid bulk of Thomas standing behind him, and caught himself in the next instant. Of course, Wolfe would know. Santi would have told him about the message, even if he didn’t understand what it meant.

He’d worry about the level of danger later. Nothing mattered now but finding a way out of the rat-trap they were in, so Jess said, ‘I may be able to get us out. It’ll cost, though.’

Wolfe didn’t seem at all surprised. ‘Where do we go?’ Beneath the sod, Brendan had written in his message.

‘My cousin Frederick should be at the Turf Tavern, sir. Off of Hell’s Passage. He’ll have a way.’

‘Nic?’

‘Map,’ Santi said, and one of his soldiers stepped up to open a round case that held the information. Santi spread the paper – not a blank, real paper, with the information meticulously drawn on it – on the table and anchored the corners with the tags that lay there. ‘We’re here,’ he said, and pressed a fingertip to the small image of a building in a warren of others. ‘The Turf Tavern is here. Not far, but narrow, especially through Hell’s Passage. Hell of a risk if this mob catches up.’ ‘Not if we give them something else to focus on.’ Naomi Ebele rose slowly from the table on which she rested, and stood up. One of her fellow librarians took her arm, and she gave him a grateful smile in return.

‘Scholar Wolfe, please send what you can, and take the rest. Help us move the rest back to the vault, and we’ll let them have the Serapeum.

They can search to their heart’s content for our stores of food. It will keep them busy enough.’ ‘They’ll destroy the place,’ Khalila said. Her voice was hushed, and Jess felt the same dawning, dull horror … this ancient place, with its wood beams hundreds of years old, the gold-leaf ceiling lovingly made, the beautiful high windows. ‘They’ll tear it to pieces when they don’t find what they want.’‘I know,’ Ebele said.

There were tears in her eyes as she looked around, and she put a hand gently on a smooth, age-darkened shelf.

‘And we will build it again.’ Santi said, to Jess, ‘Just who is this cousin of yours?’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ Wolfe said. ‘If he can get us out, anything else is moot.

Postulants, help Librarian Ebele take books to the cellar.We don’t have time to waste – no, not you, Brightwell.

You’re with me. We have five more tags left to use, then we take the rest and divide them up. Each one of you will take a few in your pack. Guard them with your lives.’

The other students went with the Oxford library staff, and Santi’s troops dispersed to scout the exits and routes,and suddenly Jess was standing almost alone with Christopher Wolfe in the middle of the doomed Bodelian Serapeum. Wolfe calmly clipped the last of the tags to five more books and handed them to Jess to activate, one by one.

‘How long have you known?’ Jess asked. His voice came ragged and harsh, between deep breaths, as he struggled for the energy to send the two volumes off to safety. ‘About my family?’ ‘Since the day you found that hidden compartment in Abdul Nejem’s house,’ Wolfe said. ‘You did a good job of dissembling, but someone unfamiliar with the smuggling trade would never have found it. I admit, finding out about your family’s business was much more difficult. I thought your father was merely a collector at first.’ For a moment, the older man’s expression was the usual harsh, empty mask, and then it softened as Jess wavered and almost dropped.

Wolfe grabbed him and eased him into a chair, then crouched next to him with his black robes pooling like spilt ink on the floor. ‘Listen to me. I am prepared to overlook your family and your past, and keep your secrets; I’m always ready to do that, for talent that will serve the Library. But just now, it’s your past, and your family, that will save us. So use it. Use them.’

‘Just like you’re using me?’ Jess tipped his head back to stop it from spinning.

‘Just like my father always did. Are you using Morgan,too?’ Wolfe was silent, but he put a warm hand on Jess’s head for a moment, then rose and walked away.

Maybe he had nothing he could say in response to the truth.

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