فصل 04

کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 10

فصل 04

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CHAPTER FOUR

Jess expected the day to be over when they left Abdul Nejem’s home; after all, as far as he could tell, they’d all passed the test. But instead,after a stop at Ptolemy House to allow the other three to exit, Wolfe ordered him back inside the carriage, and climbed in after him.

What did I do? Jess wondered, and felt new, sticky sweat crawl down the back of his neck. Did I give it away that I’d been there before? Does he know one scroll was missing?

And perhaps the biggest question of all: how had they known about Abdul Nejem?

Because he didn’t think it could have been luck that his father had urgently wanted him to steal a book, just in advance of a Library raid. His father must have known something was on the way.

‘You did well,’ Wolfe said. ‘But I warn you that what you did today was a mistake.’Jess froze. This is it, the end of it. He was being taken to a Library prison cell, and somehow, he’d betrayed not only himself, but his family, too. He imagined his father in chains, his mother, Brendan.

No. I’ll take the blame. I won’t implicate them. If his older brother Liam had found the courage to go to the chop without selling out his family, then Jess could live up to that example.

If Wolfe was waiting for him to confess, he’d wait a long time.

Wolfe finally continued.

‘It was my own fault. I failed to instruct you on the danger.

Most students have little tolerance for the drain, so they only attempt one, perhaps two at a time. You tagged and sent twenty. At once. That is impressive, and quite stupid. You might have sustained real damage from the drain … but you seem to have fully recovered.’

Jess drew in a sudden breath, because the weight that had been crushing him lifted. This wasn’t about smuggling. It was about what he’d done with the tags.

He wasn’t going to prison.

Not yet, anyway. ‘I didn’t realise it would be any different,’ Jess said. ‘It didn’t bother me in training.’ ‘No,’ Wolfe said. ‘And I was curious to see how you would approach the task today. I did not expect you to send them all at once, and I was frankly even more surprised that you handled it with so little trouble.’ ‘I’m – not an Obscurist, am I?’

‘Not at all. Merely capable of withstanding the drawing of energy by the Obscurist’s processes better than most.’ ‘Oh.’ That seemed oddly disappointing. Then again, a lifetime locked up in the Iron Tower didn’t seem attractive either.

‘It’s a curious talent you have, postulant. It could well be valuable.’ Wolfe seemed to be weighing something, as he looked into the middle-distance, and then Jess sensed a decision being made.

‘Given what you did today, I expect you will also find it easier than usual to use other Library tools. That is why I asked you to come with me. I want to test a theory.’ ‘So … it’s another test.’ ‘In a way.’ Wolfe’s lips curved in something that

wasn’t quite a smile. ‘And I warn you, it will most certainly hurt.’ When the carriage hissed to a stop, they were somewhere familiar … a low, small building that Jess vividly remembered near the harbour. Santi joined them as Jess stepped down from the carriage.

‘What are we doing here?’ Jess asked.

Wolfe walked ahead of him, down the stained narrow hallway. Lights flickered on dimly, triggered by his motion. Jess swallowed and wondered if it would be possible to run … but he knew, as Abdul Nejem had known, that there was nowhere safe he could go.

Wolfe held Jess’s fragile future in the palm of his hand, and it would take little effort to crush it.

The last time he’d been in this place, Wolfe had threatened to drop Greek Fire on their heads.

Santi gave him a little tap from behind. ‘Go on, boy,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t bite. I do, though. It’s a benefit of the job.’

The inside of the domed room looked exactly the same, and it still stank of that peculiar chemical reek. Jess couldn’t tell if the dark swirls on the walls were from new burns, or old, but when he looked up, he was relieved to see that nothing dangled from the top.

Santi was blocking the only exit, behind him. Wolfe stood in the centre of the room, holding a golden double loop of thin rope with a flat Library seal in the middle. ‘Do you know what these are?’Oh, Jess knew. He felt a sick twist in his stomach at the sight of them, and swallowed before he said, ‘Restraints for criminals. You didn’t use them on the couple back at the house, though.’ ‘I didn’t see the need,’ Wolfe said. ‘They weren’t capable of outrunning us. We use these for more dangerous sorts. However, they do take skill. Santi?’Jess’s breath turned solid in his lungs as Santi walked forward, took the restraints, and turned to him. This is it, he thought. I’m done.

Santi slipped the loose binders over his own wrists and held them out to Jess, who was too puzzled to move. He looked over at Wolfe.

‘Use your Library identification band,’ Wolfe said. ‘Touch it to the restraints.’

‘And do what?’

‘Let’s see what happens.’ What happened was that as soon as Jess touched his wristband to the restraints, they snapped together, binding Santi’s hands so tightly the soldier winced.

The seal on them shimmered in a strange, hot orange.

‘Sorry,’ Jess said. ‘Did that hurt?’ ‘Did it hurt you?’ Wolfe asked.

‘No.’

‘Did you feel it at all?’ ‘A little.’ It had been just a tingle of numbness, as if his hands had fallen asleep. Gone in seconds.

‘Interesting,’ Wolfe said, and tapped a finger on the cover of his Codex.

‘Not the word I’d use for it,’ Santi said. ‘This isn’t how I’d planned to spend my day, Christopher.’

Christopher? Wolfe had a first name, Jess remembered, but he couldn’t imagine anyone using it. Especially not so … casually.

‘I appreciate your help, Captain,’ Wolfe said. ‘Time for a run.’

‘One day, we’ll have to trade spots. You could do with a run.’ ‘Not today.’ Wolfe made a gentle shooing motion, and Santi turned and jogged down the hallway, out of sight.

‘Where is he going?’ Jess asked.

‘No idea. Now you’re going to find him,’ Wolfe said. ‘But I’m going to give him a head start. Seems only fair.’ He consulted his book.

‘Take out your Codex.’Jess pulled it from his pocket and held it closed in his hand until an annoyed look from the Scholar prompted him to open it to a blank page.

‘Touch your band to the page,’ Wolfe said. ‘Normally, you would do this immediately after securing the bindings.’

Jess pressed his wrist to the paper, and it quickly drew him a map … a street map, highly detailed, with one thick splash of ink in red on it. He didn’t know how it worked, but he assumed it was something like the Codex – mirrored in real time, only instead of showing a simple list of books available for duplication, it showed an item. And how to find it. ‘The restraints are showing where he is,’ Jess said. ‘Isn’t that right?’ Activating the map, and the restraints, had made him feel weak and unsteady.

Jess stared at the map, trying to focus on the crawling dot that must surely be Santi, on the run, and felt a sudden stab of pain behind his eyes. He shut his eyes a moment, and it went away. He opened them again and focused on the map, where the ink-splash steadily crawled on. The headache returned.

‘Exactly.’ Wolfe was studying him closely now.

‘How bad is it? The pain?’ ‘Not so bad,’ Jess lied. He looked away from the map, and the headache faded almost instantly. ‘It’s only when I look at it. Is that all?’ ‘No. I want you to find him,’ Wolfe said. ‘And you’d better be quick about it.

Santi’s very fast.’Jess took in a deep breath of the tainted air and walked down the hallway, out into the bright Alexandrian sun.

He risked a quick glance at the map. The dot was three streets away, and still moving towards the edge of the page.

He didn’t know what would happen when it got there – would it just vanish? Or would the map adjust to follow? He decided it wouldn’t be wise to find out, and set off at a run. The headache didn’t go away quite so quickly this time when he looked up from the map; it throbbed in time with his pulse, and sat like a thick, hot stone behind his eyes. It came with a twist of nausea deep inside, but for the first time in a long time, Jess felt on strangely familiar ground.

After all, he knew how to run. He was good at it, and as he ran through the streets of a hot foreign city, dodging between carriages and past startled, swearing pedestrians, he felt at home. His body was in its element, and the pump of blood and wind whipping his hair made him remember what it had been like back home, running alone and testing his wits against the London Garda and all comers.

Even the headache couldn’t spoil the thrill of it, though it sank claws deeper with each necessary glance at the map on his Codex. It was changing, he saw, moving with him. The dot of ink that was his fleeing prisoner didn’t have as much of a head start any more, and as Jess rounded one of Alexandria’s sharp, clean corners, he saw the enormous, ominous stretch of the Iron Tower looming ahead on his left, surrounded by tall fences, gates, and guards. His fugitive wasn’t making for that. He’d swerved right, towards university grounds.

The Alexandrian Serapeum’s gigantic pyramid rose up in clean angles beyond that, blurred by distance, and Jess slowed his run just a step or two to check the map.

Santi’s course seemed to be taking him towards the Serapeum.

Jess knew the university grounds by now; he’d walked them daily, to and from Wolfe’s classroom, and he knew the broken path that Santi would have to run between the buildings. I can cut the corner, Jess thought.

If I’m right. If he’s making forthe pyramid.

He checked the map and watched the progress, just to be certain. The headache suddenly pounded harder, and the flare of it blinded him with black flashes. He tore his gaze away from the map, but the pain didn’t subside this time. Not at all.

Jess slammed his Codex shut and shoved it in his pocket. Headache or not, all he had to do was run – run flat out, the old London way, for the pyramid. He’d either be spectacularly wrong, or absolutely right. It felt good, letting go, letting his legs warm and his stride lengthen, flashing past shops and

blurred faces, down a market lane full of exotic silks and spices, through a cloud of steam exhaling from a building’s pipes … and ahead, he saw a flash of black that was moving faster than everything around it.

He’d spotted Santi, and he knew Santi hadn’t spotted him. Right-handed people didn’t generally look to the left when they were trying to avoid pursuit; they looked forward and back and towards their dominant side, unless something drew their eye.He was going to catch him.

He did catch him, coming at a wide angle from just behind Santi’s left shoulder, and knocking the still-bound man off balance to roll several feet off the path of buildings and onto a shaded patch of rocky dirt. Santi let out a frustrated yell, which Jess only half-heard, because there was something wrong with his ears. And his eyes, because the black flashes that had been constantly crowding his vision were worse now, and the nausea had taken full hold. He couldn’t feel his feet, and the overwhelming, thudding agony of his headache took away the last of his strength.

Jess didn’t feel himself collapse, but when his vision cleared from black to a thin,grey, ghostly mist, he saw the world had tilted on its side, and his prisoner was free, looking down on him and scratching a message into a Codex with a stylus. Jess shut his eyes. He heard a buzz of sound, and felt something that might have been a hand on his shoulder, but all he really felt was the pain.

Words filtered through.

Lights. Someone was tellinghim to keep his eyes closed, and yes, they were right, the pain was just a shade less in the darkness. It was spreading out of his head, into his neck, shoulders, chest, arms, legs.

He was made of pain.

And then, finally, he felt a cool, sharp bite on his wrist, and the darkness took on weight, and crushed him down.He woke up in his bed at Ptolemy House, and the whole thing might have been a bad dream except for the weak trembles of his muscles, and the throbbing remains of the headache. He swallowed and tasted blood.

Someone was sitting in the dark with him, and he instinctively knew it wasn’t Dario Santiago. When he tried to sit up, a hand gently pressed him back down again, and a girl’s voice said, ‘Stay still.’

‘Khalila?’ It didn’t sound like Khalila, but he couldn’t imagine Glain being so kind to him, either.

‘Morgan,’ the voice said.

‘Close your eyes, I’ll turn the light up just a little. Tell me if it’s too much.’

It was, at first, but he held back his wince. After the first few heartbeats, it wasn’t so bad, and he could make out the features of the new girl. It seemed like years since he’d met her, but he supposed it had only been breakfast.

‘What happened to me?’ ‘You were brought in by Scholar Wolfe. He said you were not to get up. I was drafted, since I don’t officially have class until tomorrow. The rest are all downstairs.’ She must have read his feeling of abandonment, because she smiled a little. ‘Don’t blame your friends, they wanted to be here. Wolfe summoned them all to give them some kind of news. Do all his lessons end with someone unconscious?’

‘Wait until you hear about the Greek Fire,’ he said. It seemed like a long speech. ‘Is there water?’ She silently fetched a pitcher and glass from the small table, and poured. He drank in convulsive gulps and held it out for more. She refilled, but only halfway.

‘Drink slower,’ she said.

‘You’ll make yourself sick.’ ‘Yes, Mother.’

She laughed, and it sounded low and tired. He remembered how she’d looked at breakfast. A day hadn’t been enough time to recover, and now she was spending it tending to him.

‘Definitely not your mother, though I’ve been called worse – wait, what are you doing?’ ‘Sitting up.’

‘Wolfe said—’

‘I thought you weren’t my mother.’ She didn’t try to stop him as he struggled up into a half-reclining position.‘You should go and rest. I’m fine.’

‘I’ve been sleeping, on and off.’

‘In Dario’s bed? That’s punishment enough. I don’t think he’s changed the sheets since he got here. He’s used to having servants for that.’ ‘Believe me, dirty sheets are luxury compared to where I’ve been sleeping.’

She’d come out of a warzone, he remembered. His eyes had adjusted to the light, and as he sipped the rest of the water, he studied her more closely. Still tired, with bruised circles beneath her eyes. ‘I’m fine,’ he told her.

‘Go. I promise not to get out of bed until morning.’

Morgan frowned at him a moment, but her weariness was more of an argument than anything he could say,and she finally nodded. ‘You promise?’

‘My word on it.’

She got up, stretched, and left, shutting the door behind her, and before the latch clicked, he was already swinging his feet down to the floor. They were bare, and he hunted for his boots with one hand as he turned up the intensity of the lights.

Bringing them up slowly allowed him to cope with the still-ringing gong of his headache. That, and more water. He drained half the jug before he tried to stand.

It was, he decided, a limited success, and after holding himself up for a while, he walked slowly. The hallway beyond was empty.

He got to the stairs and rested, then descended.

There were voices coming from the common room, a confusing tangle of them … but they all died away when he appeared in the doorway.

Jess tried to look casual about it as he leant there, and hoped he didn’t appear to be on the edge of collapse.

‘You’re supposed to be flat on your back.’ Santiago, surprisingly, was the first one to say something. As if he realised that might smack of concern, he said, in a studiously disinterested tone, ‘Trust you to get special treatment, though.’

‘Sit down,’ Thomas said, and dragged a chair over for Jess to sink into. ‘You should be in bed. Wolfe said—’ ‘I’m fine,’ Jess lied. ‘What did I miss?’

‘There’s a lottery tomorrow,’ Khalila said. ‘We all have to draw tiles.’For a moment, he thought the headache had permanently damaged his brain, because that made no sense. He repeated it. ‘All of us? We all failed?’

‘Every damned one of us, apparently,’ Dario affirmed.

‘Including Khalila. I can only think that the rest of you were so miserably bad that our sweet desert flower suffered by association.’‘He didn’t explain why we failed?’

‘Not a word,’ Khalila said.

The mood in the room was dark and heavy, and someone had broken out a bottle of Scottish whisky that Jess suddenly wanted very badly.

‘I was there, Jess. We found the books – well, you found them. And we arrested the guilty. How did we fail?

What is he trying to teach us?’ ‘Wait,’ Jess said. ‘When is the lottery?’

‘Tomorrow morning,’

Thomas said. He was sitting, and his whole body spoke of how dejected he was, from the curve of his back to the low-hanging head. ‘It’s entirely unfair.’

‘No one said life was fair,’ Danton said; coming from France, Jess supposed he had a unique perspective on that.

‘He needs to reduce the class; he told us from the start that he’d only accept six in the end. I suppose this is how he goes about it. Unfairly.’ ‘He doesn’t have the right!’ Glain was, predictably, incensed.

‘He has every right,’ said Dario. ‘He’s our proctor.

They turned away tens of thousands when they accepted thirty of us. The Library has a surplus of people with promise. We’re ten a geneih.’

‘So why do you think he failed us all? He must have some reason!’ Dario shrugged. ‘I think he did it because he can. And resents us. A Research Scholar like him, slumming with us? Why? I can only guess it was a punishment for him to be put in charge of rank amateurs like us.’ That was an interesting thought, and it made a certain amount of sense. Research Scholars, like Wolfe, were constantly on the move out in the world, conducting research, experiments, doing the work of the Library.

Having him as nursemaid to students seemed … wasteful, and the Library wasn’t known for that.

‘I know why we failed,’ said a quiet voice. Slowly, the conversation slowed, then ceased, and they all looked around for who’d said it.

Near the fire, Izumi raised her head. She almost always spoke softly, even diffidently, but she was rarely wrong.

‘We failed because we didn’t ask.’

‘Ask what?’ Jess said.‘What would happen to the books we confiscated.’ ‘We know what happened to them. We sent them back to the Archives. We used the tags, just the way he taught us,’ Dario said. ‘It would be a stupid question.’

Izumi finally raised her head and looked at him directly. There was something unexpectedly fiery in her steady gaze. ‘Were the books you found unique?’ Dario shrugged. ‘Rare enough.’

‘But already in the Codex.’ Izumi looked at the rest of them, a quick sweep of her gaze. ‘Did anyone find a unique book?’

No one spoke. Jess ran it over in his mind; he’d found rare volumes, but nothing that wasn’t listed.

‘What does the Library do with rare volumes that aren’t unique?’ Izumi asked. ‘We sent them to the Archive, using the tags, but what does the Archive do with them once they arrive?’

‘Preserve them,’ Portero answered. ‘That’s their job.’ ‘Is it? Why should they?

They have the originals. They mirror them to blanks. What use do they have for another copy?’ She paused for a moment, and then plunged on. ‘I have heard they destroy them. In a furnace.’

‘That’s a lie!’

‘Is it? Why not just destroy it? One less copy for the smugglers to trade!’ ‘It’s not possible,’ Thomas said. ‘The Library, destroying books? It goes against everything they teach us!’ ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It does.

But so does a lot of what they do here.’ Izumi tapped the blank she’d been reading to clear it, and walked over to put it back on the shelf. Then she left.

‘She can’t be serious,’ Glain asked. ‘The Library can’t be destroying books in secret.’

‘But we didn’t ask. She’s right about that,’ Jess said.

‘We don’t know anything that happens once the books go to the Archive.’ The students erupted in a frenzy of debate, which turned to resentful speculation about just which of them would be leaving in the morning. Some were outspoken about not playing Wolfe’s game this time.

There were two sides forming: some who thought this was a ploy by Wolfe to see who would stand up for themselves, and some who didn’t want to risk his wrath.

Jess was just too disheartened to care. He didn’t even record it in his journal.

There didn’t seem to be a point.

The next morning, Wolfe wasn’t there. Neither was breakfast, which usually was laid out on the common room sideboard before the bells clanged dawn. When Jess came down to claim his portion, it was a portion of nothing.

Instead, there was a blank sitting on the empty sideboard, open to the first page, and Jess walked over to read what it said.

It simply said, Draw a tile.

The lottery jar was sitting next to the blank. Jess stared at it for a moment without moving until he heard footsteps behind him. Heavy ones. He knew who they belonged to even before Thomas said, softly, ‘Mein Gott, he meant it, didn’t he?’ ‘He meant it,’ Jess said.

He was seething inside for the unfairness of it … he’d gone along with Wolfe, done everything he asked, even chased Santi down with that damned map. He’d driven himself half-dead for the man. And this is what he got in return … a good chance at being dismissed for nothing.

Thomas joined him in staring at the words on the blank, and then at the jug, which had a scene on it of Horus and Ma’at. For the first time, seeing it this close, Jess realised that both the jug and tiles were old … very old.The smooth ivory pieces were worn and yellowed by the touch of thousands of sweaty, nervous hands.

Then Thomas sighed and reached out to take a tile.

Jess grabbed his arm to stop him. ‘Don’t.’

‘If I don’t take one, I will be finished anyway,’ Thomas said. ‘We should do as Wolfe says.’

Thomas fished around in the jug and drew out a single tile, which he clenched in his fist. He didn’t look at it.

When Jess mutely gestured to it, Thomas shook his head.

‘There is no point in looking,’ he said. ‘Either I will stay, or I will go, and it is beyond my control now. Come, Jess, choose and let’s sit down by the fire. It’s damp this morning.’

Because Thomas was with him, a calm and silent witness, Jess didn’t think there was any way out of it, and he didn’t want to seem afraid, though he was, down to his bones. His future rode on this single, stupid,meaningless chance.

He didn’t look. He just plunged his hand into the jar, fumbled blindly, and yanked free a tile. He shoved it into his pocket, next to his Codex,because if he’d held on to it he wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation to stare at the number on it, as if it was some mysterious fortuneteller in the market.

Morgan was the next one into the room, with Izumi; the two girls seemed to have struck up a friendship, though a quiet one. Morgan looked better rested, Jess thought, and she’d changed from her stifling English clothing into a loose linen dress in a pale Mediterranean blue. It suited her, he thought. There was colour in her cheeks now, and he watched her stop in the doorway with Izumi, taking in the room. Morgan’s eyes met his, and she nodded a little, without smiling. He nodded back.

‘Is it normal to have tiles for breakfast?’ she asked.‘Every Thursday,’ Thomas said, all too cheerfully.

‘Crunchy. Good for the digestion.’

Izumi rolled her eyes, walked over, and chose a tile.

‘I wish they’d at least brought the coffee,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I can face this without coffee.’

Morgan was staring at the jug doubtfully, and Jess could tell that she was wondering whether or not she should pull a number. It was, after all, her first official day as a student; if she was unlucky, she wouldn’t even have a full day of it before dismissal.

‘You shouldn’t have to,’ Jess said, and Morgan turned to look at him. She gave him a strange, fleeting smile, and then reached into the jug and pulled a tile.

‘I’m in the class,’ she said.‘Scholar Wolfe said everyone draws a number. Therefore I draw a number. I’m one of you.’

Jess was almost sure he wouldn’t have made that choice; he’d have argued for the fact that he shouldn’t be blamed when he hadn’t even been present for the failures.

He wasn’t certain whether he was impressed by her courage, or confused.He certainly wasn’t bored.

The rest drifted in, one by one, and each had a different reaction. For most it was anger, as if they’d expected Wolfe to have been joking, which was, to Jess’s mind, as unlikely as a snowstorm.

Glain complained bitterly before she picked her tile, and Dario seethed and promised to use his family’s influence to ruin Wolfe if he ended up dismissed. Some cried. Some tried to seem as if they didn’t care, but Jess knew they did.

They’d all fought to be here.

They’d all fought to stay.

It felt deeply unfair to every one of them.

About half of them refused to draw tiles at all.

Hallem first. Some who’d drawn, put them back in the jar.

‘You’d better take them,’Khalila said, as she drew her own. She was the last in the door; Jess had counted heads, and they were all present now. ‘Once he gets here …’ And all too suddenly, he arrived. Wolfe had appeared in the doorway, all black robes and judgment. The very sight of his impassive face made Jess feel angry.

‘No doubt you’re all cursing me for the unfairness of this,’ Wolfe said. ‘Or at least the lack of breakfast.

Food will be delivered once we finish the unpleasantness at hand.’

‘We’re not going to draw lots when we did nothing to deserve it.’ Hallem stepped forward out of the half of the room that hadn’t taken tiles.

Hallem was a tall, raw-boned boy, with a mean streak that they’d all learnt to avoid, butthis seemed out of character for him, publicly confronting Wolfe. At least, until Jess spotted the sweat on his face and dampening the collar of his shirt, and the wide, eerie pupils of his eyes.

He’d taken something this morning to give himself false courage, and it had swallowed his good sense.

‘Step back, postulant,’ Wolfe said. Hallem didn’t. ‘Tell us what we did wrong. You owe us that.’

‘I owe you nothing. Step back,’ Wolfe said. It was calm enough, but freighted with real, quiet menace.

Hallem took another step forward. Jess exchanged a quick look with Dario, who seemed as surprised as anyone else – and, curiously, Dario wasn’t standing with the rebels. Neither was his other henchman, Portero.

‘The Library doesn’t need sheep. It needs people who think for themselves. People who can stand up to a challenge.’ Hallem bunched a shaking fist, and for a moment, Jess thought he’d lose control and hit the Scholar, who stared at him so calmly. ‘You think you’re some pagan god! You think you can lord it over our lives and ruin us for nothing but your whims! No more!’

‘Hallem,’ Jess said.

‘Easy.’

‘Easy?’ Hallem turned on him, and his whole body was a bundle of clenched muscles, racked with rage. ‘Easy? Do you know what I’ve got to go home to, scrubber? Do you know what my father will do to me?’‘If he locks you in a room to sweat off whatever you’ve taken, it would probably be a good start,’ Thomas said. He stepped forward and stared down at Hallem. Placid and kind as he was, Thomas could still be intimidating when he wished. ‘Fair or not, Scholar Wolfe is our proctor. What do you think you’ll accomplish by this?’

‘He can’t fail us all!’‘I think he can,’ Thomas said. ‘Worse, I think the Archivist would agree. Stop and think what you’re risking.

All of you. Think.’

Wolfe shifted his attention to the middle distance, as if Hallem no longer mattered at all. ‘Tiles,’ Wolfe said.

‘Everyone should have drawn one. Take them out.’

Hallem crossed his arms.

‘I didn’t draw one. None ofus on this side of the room did. We’re standing up to you.’

‘Then I’ll draw for you.’ Wolfe reached into the jar and held up a tile. ‘Three, Postulant Hallem,’ he said. ‘I hope for your sake it’s a lucky number. Last chance.

Take your tiles.’

Behind Hallem, his group of rebels – the majority of the remaining class, Jess realised– stood unified behind him.

He knew and liked most of them. I’m on the wrong side of this, he thought. Jess had the smooth ivory tile in his hand, and kept turning it over and over, feeling the lines incised on the surface. It would feel good to take a stand. Do something powerful for a change.

He wanted to throw it

back in the pot.Captain Santi had joined Wolfe, leaning casually against the door frame as he peeled an apple with a sharp knife. As Jess considered his choices, he realised that Santi was looking directly at him, and though he said nothing, made no significant motions, something in him stopped Jess cold.

‘Does anyone else wish to join Postulant Hallem’sprotest? He does have a point.

I might be looking for those willing to think for themselves,’ Wolfe said. ‘Or, of course, I might have another thought altogether.’ No one moved. He withdrew two dice from his pocket and tossed them on the table. Jess watched as they rolled, tumbled, clinked off the pottery of the jug, and finally came to a stop – too far away for him to see the numbers. Santi took a bite of his apple and moved to take a look.

‘Two and four,’ he said as he chewed. ‘Check your tiles.’

Next to Jess, Thomas let out a long, slow sigh, and opened his hand.

On it lay a tile with the number four.

‘No,’ Jess said. ‘No!’Thomas? Thomas couldn’t go home. It wasn’t even remotely fair.

Khalila let out a choked cry, and Jess spun to look at her. Her trembling palm held number two. Wolfe couldn’t dismiss Khalila; she was unbelievably good at this. She was meant to be here.

Jess closed his eyes and reached for his own tile. He ran his fingers over the engraved surface, as if he could read it blind, and then pulled it free and looked.

Four.

He was finished. A slow, oily sickness rolled through him, and he felt suddenly very tired. The anger was gone now. All that was left was an overwhelming feeling of loss. I wanted this, he realised. I liked this. I liked these people.And now it was all over.

He’d go home in disgrace, if his father let him come home at all, and he would never see this place again, walk these streets again, feel this friendship again.

Morgan was holding her own tile in her palm, staring at it. The colour had faded again from her cheeks. Like Khalila, like Thomas and himself, she held one of the fatal numbers. At least she didn’t have time to get used to all this, Jess thought, though the unfairness of it ached. At least she hasn’t worked so hard and lost so much.

Some people were sobbing. Some were gasping in relief. The rebels were muttering, clearly unsure what their next move should be.All except Hallem, who looked triumphant. ‘You’re finished, Wolfe. If you dismiss those of us who didn’t draw, and those who hold the wrong numbers, you’ll be down to only three students. So this lottery can’t possibly count.’ He looked elated now, and he was right.

The maths of it was on his side.

Hallem had won. Wolfe couldn’t possibly drop the class all the way down to three. The Archivist wouldn’t allow it. Wolfe said, ‘Solidly reasoned, Mr Hallem. But I still expect all who refused to draw a tile to be at Misr Station within the hour.

Leave your trunks. We will have them shipped home to you. I want you gone.’

‘You can’t!’ Hallem said.‘You just said—’ ‘Your mistake, former postulant,’ Wolfe said, ‘is assuming that I was ever going to dismiss anyone. I said you would all draw tiles this morning; I never said it meant anyone would be dismissed. It wouldn’t have mattered what number you drew, as long as you drew a tile. I knew some of you would let your outrage override your good sense, because yesterday, for the first time, every one of you was a complete success.’ He shook his head. ‘A pity you didn’t trust me. But then, I haven’t given you any reason, have I?’

Silence fell heavy in the room. Everyone seemed stunned – those who’d held on to their tiles and thought they’d survived, those who thought they’d drawn losing numbers. Those who’d refused to play at all.

None of them had seen it coming.

There were nine of them left, Jess realised. Nine who hadn’t joined the rebellion.

However improbably, he’d survived another round.

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