فصل 14

کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 30

فصل 14

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Arriving in Alexandria was a messy affair. The High Garda force crossed the border in a long convoy, speeding along empty roads, but as they reached the city’s precincts the progress slowed, and the last hundred kilometres took hours more than Jess had expected. By the time the carrier finally hissed to a stop on a huge field of evenly paved stones beyond the High Garda barracks, night was already falling on the city, and the day’s warmth was chilling fast.

Jess hopped down,groaning from stiffened muscles, and turned to offer Khalila a hand. She didn’t need it, but she accepted with a dimpled smile. It didn’t move him. The girl Jess was interested in wasn’t in this carriage.

He looked up and down the rows, and Glain caught his shoulder as he started to move off. ‘Careful,’ she said.

‘I know.’‘I mean it.’ He shook free and walked to the front of the vehicle.

The other carriers were parked neatly side by side, with well-practised precision.

The troops were disembarking and forming into lines, but he and his fellow students weren’t expected to be so orderly … at least, he hadn’t yet seen Wolfe appear to order it. So he dodged between forming ranks of soldiers and tried to keep himself hidden from sight as he moved from carrier to carrier, checking identification codes … and there, ahead, was the one that he knew held Morgan.

The door was unlocked as he came to a halt, and three armed guards emerged. A beat later, Morgan appeared in the door.It didn’t look like her, except for the silky fall of chestnut-brown hair. She was a pale shadow, drawn and very, very weary. One of the guards – Yeva, Jess realised – offered her a hand, and Morgan accepted it. As her foot touched the stone flagging, she looked up.

She saw him.

He didn’t know what he expected from her, or himself; he hadn’t thought beyond the simple, visceral need to be there to see her.

He hadn’t quite imagined what it would feel like to be seen by her in turn.

The girl he’d kissed in the dim sanctity of his tent was gone, and the one who stood there watching him was a stranger.

The small guard – Rijuta – saw him, and crossed to him with all the crackling energy he’d seen in her before. No smiles now. Nothing but business. ‘Go back,’ she said.

‘She doesn’t want to see you.

You will only make it harder for her.’

That was probably true.

Jess nodded. He cast one more look at Morgan – the last look he would ever have, he thought – but she wouldn’t meet his eyes at all.He turned to go.

A gleaming black carriage was steaming towards them, fast. No ordinary carriage.

Definitely not High Garda. It had ornate brightwork, and Jess had a strange vision of the carriage he’d climbed into when he was ten years old, and a man ate a book in front of him.

This was the conveyance of someone important.The carriage rolled to a smooth halt, hissed a white cloud, and a sharply uniformed footman came around to open the passenger door.

The Artifex Magnus stepped down, and after him, a woman with a gleaming gold collar around her throat.

It was intricately, expensively engraved with symbols that flowed together in a surprisingly elegant design.

It couldn’t be anyone but the Obscurist Magnus.

Jess heard an intake of breath from the High Garda around him, and spines straightened. But she never leaves the Iron Tower.

Obviously wrong. Here she was, and walking towards them, surrounded within a single stride by a walking armoured shell of six guards.She was a tall, bronze skinned woman with sharp features and back-swept dark hair that fell nearly to her waist, liberally streaked with silver. She was old, at least fifty, but still very striking.

She wasn’t coming towards him, after all. She was walking towards

Morgan. Jess was merely in the way, and at a commanding glower from the Artifex, he moved. Not far, though. And not willingly.

‘Stay still,’ said a voice at his shoulder. Jess looked back to see Wolfe had joined him.

He’d donned a flawlessly clean Scholar’s robe. His dark hair was down around his shoulders, and his expression was flat and empty as he tracked the progress of the Obscurist. ‘Stay absolutely still. They’ll kill you if you move without permission.

Don’t meet the Obscurist’s eyes directly.’

He had the feeling Wolfe wasn’t glad to find him here, but he couldn’t help that.

He’d done what he had to do.

The Obscurist Magnus stopped a few steps from Morgan, and bowed just the slightest degree. ‘I am pleased to find you well, Miss Hault,’ she said. ‘I trust your journey here has been smooth.’

It was absurd, how socially correct it was, after all the blood and death and anguish. Jess wondered how Morgan managed not to fling it in the Obscurist’s face, but then again, Morgan had better survival instincts. ‘Very pleasant,’ she said. Her chin rose just a little. ‘Please don’t expect me to thank you.’‘Thank us for saving you from a lifetime of running and hiding and unending fear? No, I don’t expect that yet. But someday, when you see more clearly.’ The uniformed footman that had ushered them from the carriage now stepped forward with an ornate golden box, ornamented with the old, traditional inlay of the goddess Nut, wings spread,ankhs of eternal life in both hands. He opened the box and presented it with a formal bow to the Obscurist.

On a cushion of black velvet inside lay a silvery engraved collar, like the one that the Obscurist Magnus wore. She took it in both hands, and a soft orange glow formed where she touched it.

Formulae, made visible and real. The talent of the Obscurists. Morgan’s talent.

The collar separated at an invisible seam.

No. Jess could read that clearly in Morgan’s eyes, in the shudder that ran through her body. But she didn’t try to run from it now.

There was nowhere to go.

No one who could help.

The Obscurist Magnus stepped forward and spread the metal around the girl’s throat. It gleamed, rare and beautiful, and as she made a graceful gesture with one hand, the symbols hovering around it whirled, spun, and snapped inward.

The collar shut with a tiny, singing sound, and Jess saw Morgan lurch as if physically stung by it. She bit her lip on a cry, and tears welled in her eyes. She raised her hands to touch the thing, and Jess realised no one had removed her shackles.

The Obscurist realised it at the same moment, and glared at the guards. ‘Take those off,’ she ordered. ‘There’s no need to be cruel.’

Yeva came forward and unlocked the irons. Beneath them, Morgan’s wrists were red and abraded. She slowly lowered her hands to her sides and with a visible effort blinked away the tears gathered in her eyes and took a slow, calm breath.

‘Good,’ the Obscurist said.

‘The worst is over now.

You’ll be well cared for.

Your work will be for the betterment of the Library, and all of mankind. It’s a great honour.’

‘I’m a slave,’ Morgan said.

In answer, the Obscurist touched a fingertip to her own collar. It had the feel of a ritual motion, somehow. ‘We are all slaves to our duty. Is that not so, Scholar Wolfe?’ The Obscurist suddenly turned to face him, and Jess, and her dark eyes seemed as dead as a corpse’s. ‘You, of all people, should know how deep our duty goes.’

‘To the bone,’ Wolfe said softly. He didn’t move for a moment, but the tension hissed between the two of them. Something dark there, Jess thought. Dangerous.

‘With your permission, my students would like to say farewell.’

Jess realised then that there were others assembled around the two of them now.

Dario. Khalila. Thomas.

Glain. He’d never seen them look so still, or so unexpectedly grim. They’d changed. So had he, he realised. Wolfe seemed to have changed, but Jess was starting to realise that he’d just seen him wrong all along.

‘Perhaps we owe them that.’ She crossed her arms and stepped back. The gigantic open ground where the troops had now formed into precisely uniform lines by their carriages had gone quiet now … so quiet that Jess could hear the hum from the glows that surrounded the stone field.

Glain was the first to step forward, and she offered Morgan an outstretched hand.

Morgan took it, and they shook. ‘Pob lwc, Morgan Hault. It was good to know you.’

‘And you,’ Morgan said. ‘Thank you, Glain.’

Khalila simply hugged her, clung silently for a moment, and then stepped away with her head lowered.

Dario kissed Morgan’s hand with all his usual charm.

Thomas stepped forward and, after an awkward, uncomfortable pause, reached into his pocket and drew out a small mechanical bird. The Obscurist’s guards tensed, but she raised a hand to calm them as Thomas wound the clockwork and placed it on Morgan’s palm. The tiny thing hopped, whirred, chirped, and sang, and

Morgan cradled it with tears glittering in her eyes until the spring uncoiled, and it went silent.

Thomas dropped his voice to a near whisper. ‘I made it without a cage.’

She pulled him close andkissed his cheek.

And then it was just Jess.

He came within two steps of her, then closed the distance to one.

He put his arms around

her. She felt stiff against him for a moment, then relaxed, and to his relief, he felt her embrace him in return – gently at first, and then as if she never wanted to let him go.Her lips were very close to his ear, and he felt a shiver when her breath brushed over his skin. Then she said, ‘I’ll never forgive you.’

His throat dried up, and he swallowed. Tasted dust. So all he managed to say, in the end, was ‘Please find a way.’ He meant that in all its possible interpretations. Find a way to forgive. Find a way to live. Find a way to be free.Find a way back to me.

The collar around her neck gave off warmth like a living thing. He avoided touching it as he moved his hands up, brushed her silky hair back from her face, and tilted her head back.

Their lips met. Just the once. It was sweet and brief and gentle, and then someone had taken his arm and was pulling him back. He knew by the black shadow’s shape at the corner of his eye that it was Wolfe.

‘Stop,’ Wolfe said in his ear, and shook him, hard.

‘You make it worse.’ Wolfe was right, because he’d shaken Morgan’s hard won composure, and tears broke free to run down her cheeks before she quickly blotted them away with the sleeve of her tunic.The Obscurist studied him, Morgan, Wolfe, and the rest for a few seconds, and then said, ‘Artifex. I expect you’ll attend to … this.’ She nodded to her guards. ‘We’re finished here. Help our new Obscurist to the carriage.’ The sound of High Garda captains dismissing their soldiers echoed over the stones, a rising chorus of commands. The Obscurist entered the carriage. Then Morgan, followed by the guards.

The carriage steamed away with her in near silence, and Jess let out a breath he didn’t know he’d held as it receded in the distance. The Iron Tower was just a dark shadow out there, but the Alexandrian Serapeum stood out brilliantly, washed by colourful lights on all sides.He blinked when Khalila took his arm, and realised that the High Garda troops were dispersing around them for the comfort of barracks, or homes. Santi had joined Wolfe.

And the Artifex stood watching them all. ‘Quite a spectacle,’ he said.

‘Touching. I’m moved by your collective loyalty to a girl you hardly even know.’‘Funny how quickly you get to know someone when everyone else is trying to kill you,’ Dario said. It was edged, and insolent, and not like Dario to be so careless in his politics. But he was angry.

They all were.

The Artifex knew it, and he smiled widely and coldly at them all. ‘Wolfe. You lost the Archivist’s train. He’s very … peeved.’‘He has another,’ Wolfe said. ‘And he got what he wanted, didn’t he? I mean the books, of course. All those rare, valuable volumes, saved for the Codex.’

‘Battlefield operations really are your truest calling.

Dangerous, though. So easy to be lost on a mission like that.’ The smile wasn’t reflected in the Artifex’s eyes in the slightest. ‘I’ll expect your reports on the students tonight.’

The old man walked away without awaiting an answer from Wolfe, who didn’t seem inclined to give one, either.

‘Bastard,’ Santi said, conversationally, who was standing behind Wolfe now.

He’d waited until the Archivist was well out of range to say it. ‘Come on, all of you. Drinks, and then back to Ptolemy House for a good night’s rest.’

‘You think we can rest?’ Thomas sighed. ‘How can we rest if we don’t know what’s coming?’

‘I’ll relieve you of that burden,’ Wolfe said. He almost sounded normal, but it was just off enough that Jess heard the discord. ‘I’ll expect you all at dawn in the

Reading Room at the Serapeum. Your scrolls will be ready.’

‘That’s damn well tomorrow,’ Santi said. ‘And tonight, I’m alive and off duty, and I intend to drink myself into some very bad judgment. Chris?’

Wolfe’s gaze met his, and held. ‘I wouldn’t want you to do that alone.’

‘No,’ Santi said, and matched his slow, wicked smile. ‘I don’t expect you would.’

They found a spot inside the very large, very complicated High Garda compound, which was a short walk from the stone court where they’d parked the convoy carriers. It was an eye-opening experience.

Jess had never quite imagined so many vices being served under one roof.

Drink, of course, that was expected. But a significant portion was devoted to the smoking of hookahs and other sorts of tobaccos and weeds, and the smell of it was thick and oddly enticing. Still another section held raised beds and chairs, and artists who tattooed intricate symbols on the bare arms, chests, and other body parts of men and women who seemed to enjoy the pain, or at least endure it in stoic silence.

‘We should do that,’ Dario said, and nodded towards the tattooists. ‘One for each of us.’

‘It’s forbidden,’ Khalila said. ‘Unless it’s henna.’ ‘And I wouldn’t want to see a single thing mar your perfect skin, flower,’ Dario said. ‘But maybe the rest of us—’

‘There is not enough wine in the world to make me get matching tattoos with you, Dario,’ Glain said, and followed Wolfe towards a table in the area of the bar.

It went on from there.

Thomas was the first to disappear; Jess hadn’t even noticed his departure, just looked up to find Thomas’s seat empty and others still pouring fresh glasses. That led him to finally break free of the celebration, and head home.

Stumbling back into his room at Ptolemy House was like falling through time, to a different life. A different Jess Brightwell, even though, in real terms, he hadn’t been gone that long. He turned up the glows and blinked at things that seemed familiar and strange together, as if they’d gone ever so slightly out of alignment with each other. Or he had.

The room smelt dusty. Not a surprise. He checked the window and saw that despite the seals, the fine reddish dust of Alexandria had piled up in a creamy pillow along the ledge. Must have been a sandstorm during their absence. He silently shook the bedding clear, kicked off his boots, and fell flat on his back on the yielding mattress.

When he closed his eyes, he could have been anywhere.

Back on the train, in another bed. With—

Don’t, idiot. He opened his eyes again. The room was spinning a little. He’d had at least one glass too many before he’d allowed Dario to win that game.

He’d just started to relax when he heard faint, mysterious hammering sounds from somewhere below. Thomas. Thomas and his bloody automata. Not that he didn’t admire them, but not now. Not when all he wanted was some sleep.

The rhythmic, distant tapping was going to drive him mad.Jess launched himself out of bed and jammed his boots back on; they felt damp and unwelcome, but he couldn’t venture downstairs with bare feet. Alexandria wasn’t the desert, but enough desert creatures crawled their way into it to make it unwise.

Scorpions, spiders, snakes … even slightly drunk, he didn’t feel like tempting fate.

Besides, there’d likely be metal scattered all over the floor, if Thomas was working. Sure enough, as he stepped off the stairs and into the low-beamed room that had once been a storehouse, he stepped on something hard that bit into his boot. A jagged piece of cut metal.

There were a variety of sizes of the things, scattered across the smooth floor. He kicked it free, and spotted Thomas’s shadow moving behind a drawn curtain. ‘Stop hammering,’ he said. ‘You’re giving me a headache.’ ‘Jess?’ Thomas pulled the faded green curtain aside and beckoned to him. ‘I’m almost finished.’

‘With what?’

‘What I told you about. The device.’

‘Oh, the secret one,’ Jess said. He had the beginnings of a headache, and was more tired than he’d expected to be. ‘Not now, Thomas.’ ‘You can sleep any time.

Come. I want to show it to the Scholar tomorrow.’ ‘Thomas—’

His friend didn’t give him much of a chance to refuse, and with that big hand around his arm, dragging him forward, there wasn’t much option besides a real fight that Jess didn’t have the energy to pursue. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘I’ll look.’

The thing standing in front of him was no automaton. No wind-up toy, not even as fine as the little bird that Thomas had given Morgan.

No, this was large, complex, and disturbingly industrial. Not pretty at all.

‘You saw the diagram,’Thomas said. He sounded absolutely on fire with excitement, and as Jess tried to take it in, Thomas pushed him aside and started pointing things out. ‘This is the bed, where you place the individual metal letters that form lines, you see? You see how they lock together, with blank spaces between for words? And you slide each line down, from bottom to top, to form a page in reverse.

This—’ He tapped a large bottle full of dark liquid that he’d engineered from something that had started life as Medica equipment.

‘This is the ink. It took me weeks to find the right formula, something that holds on the page, dries without smearing … here, let me show you.’

Jess stood back andwatched as Thomas fixed a large white paper to the top of the machine, and flicked a control. Ink sprayed in a long, even line along the letters on the bottom, and then the whole top of the machine, with the paper, came crashing down. For an instant, Jess thought the whole thing had collapsed, but then the top snapped back up, with the white page still affixed.Thomas turned the machine off, reached in, and pulled the sheet of paper out.

He silently handed it to Jess.

It was a neatly lettered page full of the text of the Argonautica. A book written by Apollonius Rhodius more than two thousand years past.

‘But—’ Jess blinked and struggled to order his mind.

Too much to drink. Not enough sleep. ‘Why would you do this? It’s a Codex volume. Anyone can read it.’ ‘That’s not the point,’ Thomas said. ‘You can press any page you like. You can build a book of pressed pages, and you can keep it.

Privately! No need for hand copying or smuggled books!’ Jess handed the sheet back. The sharp, metallic smell of the ink was unpleasant, but it was more than that. He saw the outlines of something huge in his mind, and he didn’t like the shape of it, not at all. He tried to cover it with a light tone.

‘So, you want to take the food out of my family’s mouths?

I’d hoped you thought more of me than that.’

‘Think of what the Library could do with this,’ Thomas said. He’d hardly even noticed Jess’s comment, so caught up was he with his own visions. ‘Supplement the Codex so that a citizen could order their own editions to keep in their homes.

Duplicates of all the unique and rare volumes, limitless duplicates! And no risking fines or prison for owning them. Profits would go to the Library, for selling the pressed volumes. The Library started out preserving originals, and they kept the tradition, but there’s no need for it now. We can press duplicates. These are just … reproductions, that’s all.

Cheap. Easy to make!’

‘Dangerous,’ Jess said.

His brain was still struggling to take all the implications in, but he could feel the fear soaking in. ‘Thomas, it takes the place of blanks. It undercuts the entire system.’Thomas brushed that right aside. ‘The system needs to change, we all said so. This makes it better. More able to adapt, and aren’t they concerned about the lack of trained Obscurists? And it will satisfy the Burners – what do they want? Books they can own. The Library not watching what they read.

Freedom. This is freedom, in this ink. This page.’ He paused and said, ‘It would set Morgan free.’

He was right. Thomas was absolutely right about that, and that was what was so damned frightening. Jess didn’t even have the words for what it meant, and he just looked at Thomas, shaking his head. He knew he looked as if he didn’t understand, but he did. That was the whole problem.‘You just said, out loud, that this thing is a gift to the Burners, Thomas. To heretics! Think about that!’ ‘No, no, that’s not what I meant, I only meant that it will silence them, it will keep them from—’

‘That isn’t what the Curators will see,’ Jess said.‘

They’ll only see the threat.’ ‘But—’ Thomas looked lost now, and so disappointed that Jess felt guilty. But not enough to change his mind, not by half. ‘But surely if it belongs strictly to the

Library, it can be a great asset to them. Don’t you think so?’ ‘I think it’s bloody brilliant. I think you’re a genius. But something like this, something so simple, and so huge – that can’t be controlled. All it will take is a spark, and everything’s on fire.’ Jess looked at the page in his hand. The ink was dry now, and what he saw in it was beautiful. Thomas was right, it would change everything, for ever, in the same way the idea and promise of the Library had altered the entire world, gathering together and protecting the knowledge of mankind against wars and persecution and every kind of shallow, mindless violence.

It made him weak at the knees, the blinding simplicity of it. The possibilities.

And it made him afraid.

‘Who have you shown this to?’ he asked. Thomas blinked. ‘Anyone else in the class?’

‘No. I like to have things finished before I show them.

You’re the first.’

‘And the diagrams?’‘I drew them in my personal journal.’

Oh God.

His horror must have shown, because Thomas went very still now, very sober indeed. ‘You think this is dangerous.’

‘I can’t be sure,’ Jess admitted. ‘But yes. Very dangerous.’ There was only one person he felt they could trust. ‘I’m going to go ask Wolfe.’ Jess handed the page back to Thomas, and his friend sat down on a chair near his press, holding the paper in both hands. His whole body seemed loose now. Beaten.

‘I thought …’ Thomas took in a slow breath, and let it out. His shoulders sagged even more. ‘I really thought that it might bring Morgan back to you.’How very like Thomas it was, for that to be his goal.

Jess wanted to shake him, and embrace him, and it made his heart ache because it was the kindest thing anyone – even his family – had ever done for him.

‘Thomas, you shouldn’t have done this, especially not for me. Let me talk to Wolfe,’ he said. ‘Don’t say anything.

Can you lock this up? Hideit?’ ‘I – yes. You’ll have to help.’

It was brutally heavy, but Thomas had built it on wheels, and there was a heavy old door at the end of the room that opened into a narrow, abandoned pantry where food had once been stored. A cold room. With the two of them pushing, they managed to fit it through the narrow door and roll it in. It just barely fitted. There was a hasp on the outside, but no lock. Thomas hunted around in the shelves and found an old, rusted one that still worked. It helped add to the illusion that the room was long-abandoned, at least.

When it was done, the two of them were covered with splashes and smears of ink, and dripping with sweat. Jess had been tired before, but now he was dizzy on top of it as fear and work burnt away the alcohol. He felt sick and filled with a nervous energy that he knew wouldn’t go away soon.

Thomas still had the pressed page of the Argonautica in his pocket. Jess pointed to it.

‘Burn that, then go to bed,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back before morning.’ ‘Do you want me to go with you?’

‘No,’ Jess said. ‘We’re going to be given placements tomorrow. One of us ought to get some sleep.’

‘You’re a good man,’ Thomas said, and slapped him on the shoulder hard enough to leave a mark. ‘A good friend. Thank you.’ ‘Don’t thank me yet.Wolfe will tell you to destroy that thing, right down to the bolts.’

‘Or he might take it to the Artifex, and the world will change for the better. You’re too cynical sometimes.’ Maybe that was true.

Maybe growing up in the Brightwell business had left him with scarred eyes that couldn’t see brightness, and left him afraid of the constantly looming shadows.

Better cynical and alive than optimistic and dead, Jess thought. It was something his father would have said, if his father had thought of it. And now I’m turning into my father. What a fantastic day this has been.

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