فصل 01کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 4
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The first clue Jess had that his hiding place had been discovered came in the form of a hard, open-handed slap to the back of his head. He was engrossed in reading, and he’d failed to hear any telltale creak of boards behind him.
His first instinct was, of course, to save the book, and he protectively curled over the delicate pages even as he slid out of his chair and freed his right hand to draw a knife … but it wasn’t necessary.
‘Brother,’ he said. He didn’t take his hand off the weapon. Brendan was laughing, but it was a bitter sound. ‘I knew I’d find you here,’ he said.
‘You need some new hiding holes, Jess. No telling when Da will sniff you out of this one. What are you buried in this time?’ They no longer looked quite so identical, now that they were older. Brendan wore his hair in a shaggy mess, which half-concealed another scar he’d got during a run, but they’d grown at the same pace, so their eyes were on a level. Jess glared right back.
‘Inventio Fortunata. The account of a monk from Oxford who sailed to the Arctic and back hundreds of years ago. And Da won’t find this place unless you tell him about it.’
‘Sounds boring.’ Brendan raised one eyebrow. It was a trick all his own, one Jess hadn’t been able to master, so Brendan used it all the time, just to be irritating. ‘So make it worth my while not to sell you out.’ Brendan was already as ruthless a dealmaker as their father, and that was no compliment. Jess dug in his pockets and came up with a sovereign, which Brendan took with evident satisfaction. ‘Agreed.’ He walked the coin back and forth in an expert ripple over his knuckles.
‘Damn you, Scraps. I was reading.’ Jess only called his brother Scraps when he was really annoyed, because it was a bit of a cruel name: Brendan was the younger by a few seconds, and had been born dangerously small. A leftover, an afterthought.Scraps.
If Brendan minded the use of that once-loathed nickname, he hid it well. He just shrugged. ‘Like Da always says, we deal the stuff, we shouldn’t use it. Waste of time, what you get up to.’
‘As opposed to what you do? Drinking and gambling?’ Brendan tossed a wet copy of the London Times on the floor between them. Jess carefully put down Inventio Fortunate to take up the flimsy news-sheet. He wiped the beads of water from the page. The top story had an artist’s illustration of a face he recognised – older, but he’d never forget the bastard’s leering grin. Or the blackened teeth, chewing up priceless words written by a genius thousands of years before. Brendan said, ‘Remember him? Six years late, but someone finally got your old ink-licker. Mysterious circumstances, according to the official story.’
‘What’s the real story?’ ‘Someone slipped a knife between his ribs as he was coming out of his club, so not as mysterious as all that.
They’re hushing it up. They’ll blame it on the Burners, eventually, if they admit it at all. Don’t need a reason to blame Burners.’
Jess looked up at his brother and almost asked, Did you do it?, but in truth, he really didn’t want to know the answer. ‘You came all this way to show me?’
‘Thought it might cheer your day. I know it alwaysbothered you, him not getting his due.’
The paper was the morning edition, and it must have just turned evening, because as Jess handed it back, the newspaper erased itself, and filled line by line with new words. The ink licker stayed front-page news, which probably would have pleased the vile, old creature.
Brendan rolled the sheet up and slipped it in his pocket. He was making quite a puddle on the floor, and Jess tossed him a dirty towel he kept for wiping his own boots. Brendan sneered and tossed it back. ‘Well?’ he asked. ‘You coming home?’ ‘In a while.’
‘Da wants a word.’
Of course he did. Their father didn’t like Jess’s disappearances, especially since he’d hoped to train him up to inherit the family
business. Problem was, Jess had no real love for it. He knew the smuggling trade, but Brendan was more eager, and a better choice to take on Callum Brightwell’s mantle.
Hiding himself away gave
Jess freedom, and it also gave Scraps a chance that younger sons didn’t usually get.
Not that he’d ever admit,to Brendan or to anyone, that he was doing it as much for his brother as himself.
‘Stuff him. I’ll be home when I want to be home.’ Jess sank down in the chair again.
It was a dusty old thing, discarded from some rich banker’s house, and he’d dragged it half a mile to this half-collapsed manor off Warren Street. Too much of a wreck for buyers, and too flash an area for squatters. It was a good place to hide out, with no one to bother him.
Especially sour, then, that Brendan had found him, because, despite the sovereign, Jess would need to find himself a new reading room. He didn’t trust his brother not to drop hints … for his own good, of course.
That meant dragging the chair with him. Again.Brendan hadn’t moved.
He was still dripping freely on the old boards. His eyes were steady and fixed now, and there was no humour in him. ‘Da said now, Jess. Shift it.’
There was no arguing when Brendan took that particular tone; it would come to a fight, no holds barred, and Jess didn’t particularly want to lose. He always did lose, because deep in his guts, he didn’t want to hurt his brother.
Brendan never seemed to have the same limits.
Jess carefully wrapped the fragile book in waterproof layers, then put it into a smuggling harness. He stripped off his loose shirt and fastened the buckles himself with the ease of long acquaintance, only half thinking about it, then put on the shirt and a vest carefully fitted to conceal the secrets beneath. No longer the ragamuffin cutter he’d once been: his shirt was linen now, and the vest well sewn with silk embroideries. He added a thick leather coat, something to keep the rain off, and tossed a second coat at his brother, who fielded it without a word of thanks.Then the two of them, sixteen years old and mirror images, yet worlds apart, set off together across the city.
Brendan peeled off as soon as they arrived at the family town house; he ran upstairs, past a startled housemaid who shouted at him about muddying the carpets. Jess tidied himself in the foyer, handed his wet coat to the parlour maid, and made sure his boots were clean before he stepped off onto the polished wood floor.
His mother was coming out of the formal parlour, though the visiting hours were long past. She gave him a quick head-to-toe assessment. He must have been dressed to her satisfaction, because she glided over and delivered adry kiss on his cheek. She was a neat, pretty woman approaching middle age, with streaks of silver at her temples barely visible in her ash-blond hair. She smelt like light lavender and wood smoke. The dark-blue dress she wore today suited her.
‘I wish you wouldn’t vex your father so much,’ she told him, and put her hand lightly on his arm. ‘He’s in one of his moods again. Do try to be civil, for my sake.’
‘I will,’ he said, which was an empty promise, but then so was her show of concern. He and his mother weren’t close and never had been, really. In this, as in so much else in his life, Jess was alone.
He left her standing there, already engrossed in adjusting a fresh arrangement of daisies and roses, and walked down the hall to his father’s study. He knocked politely on the closed door, and heard a grunt that meant permission to enter. Inside, the study was all dark wood, warmed by thefire blazing in the hearth.
Prefilled books with the seal of the Library on the spine lined the shelves, color-coded by subject; his father favoured biographies and histories, and the maroon and blue leather bindings dominated. He’d purchased a dispensation to have a permanent collection in his home, so most of the books would never expire, never fade or go blank again.
There was not a single original hand-copied work in sight. Callum Brightwell gave no hint here that he was anything but a successful importer of goods. He modelled the Far East today, in the form of the red/orange Chinese silk waistcoat he was wearing beneath his jacket.
‘Father,’ Jess said, and waited for his da to look up and notice him.
It took a few long seconds of Callum’s pen moving across the surface of hispersonal journal before he said, ‘Sit, Jess. I’d have a word with you.’
‘So Brendan told me.’ Callum laid down his pen and tented his fingers. His desk was a richly carved mahogany thing, with fantastical faces and giant clawed feet that reminded Jess, always, of the Library lions. Jess took a chair well back from it. His father frowned.
He probably thought it was disrespect. Jess would never want to tell him it was bad memories.
‘You need to stop this running about,’ he said. ‘The weather’s not fit for loitering about, and besides, I had work for you.’
‘Sorry,’ Jess said.
‘Any idea where my copy of Inventio Fortunata has gotoff to? I had a client ask for it.’
‘No,’ Jess lied, though the slight weight of the book beneath his shirt and vest seemed to grow heavier as he did. His father didn’t usually care about an individual book, and Jess was always careful to take the ones that weren’t on consignment. ‘Do you want me to have a look around for it? Probably misfiled.’ ‘Never mind, I’ll sell him something else.’ His father pushed his chair back and stood up to pace around the desk. Jess resisted the urge to stand, too. It would seem too wary. He didn’t sense danger, but his da was a master at sudden violence. Staying alert was better than signaling weakness. ‘It’s time for you to start paying your own way,my boy. You’re of an age.’ As if he hadn’t built up enough credit risking his life his entire childhood. Jess noticed that each step brought his father closer to him, in a roundabout but purposeful way.
‘Not going to ask what
I’m about, are you? Well played. You’re like your brother in that way: both thinkers. Means you’re sharp,and that’s good. Need a sharp mind out in the cold, cruel world.’
Jess was ready, but even so, his father was faster; he lunged forward, hands gripping the arms of Jess’s chair, and loomed over him.
For all his sixteen years, all his height and strength, Jess suddenly felt like a gawky ten-year-old again, bracing for a blow.He willed himself to take it without flinching, but the blow never came. His father just stared at him, close and too personal, and Jess had to steel himself to hold the gaze.
‘You don’t want the business, that’s clear enough,’ his father said. ‘But then you’re not suited to running it, either. You’re more like some Scholar. You have ink in your blood, boy, and no help for it. Books will never be just a business to you.’ ‘I’ve never failed to do what you asked,’ Jess said.
‘And I never asked anything of you that I didn’t think you could do. If I told you to throw that book you’re smuggling under your shirt on the fire, you’d fail me in that, sure enough.’Jess’s hands clenched hard, and he had to work not to shout his answer. ‘I’m not a bloody Burner.’ He somehow kept it to a calm statement.
‘That’s my point.
Sometimes, in our business, destroying a book to keep from being found out is expedience, not some daft political statement. But you couldn’t do it. Not even to save your own skin.’ His father shook his head and pushed away. The sudden freedom made Jess feel oddly weak as his da sank back into his desk chair. ‘I need to make some use of you. Can’t have you sponging off of us like some useless royal for the rest of your life. I spent my coin buying you the best tutors while your brother was earning an honest wage, and I admit, you’ve done us proud at your studies. But it’s time to look to your security.’ It was strange, how the idea of his father’s approval made him go hot and cold at the same time. Jess didn’t know how to take it, and he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. So he said nothing.
‘Did you hear me?’
Callum Brightwell’s voice was unexpectedly soft now, and Jess saw something new in the man’s face. He didn’t know what it was, but it made him sit back in his chair. ‘I’m talking about your future, Jess.’
Jess swallowed a sudden surge of unease. ‘What sort of future, if not in the business with you?’
‘I’ve bought you a placement in the Library, provided you make the training.’‘Do me a favour!’ His scoffing didn’t change his father’s expression, not even with a flicker of annoyance.
‘You can’t be serious. A Brightwell. In the Library.’ ‘I’m serious, boy. Having a son in Library service could do the clan immense benefit.
You go on a few smuggling raids, set a few of those priceless volumes aside, and you’ll make us fortunes. You can send us advance word of raids, High Garda strategies, that sort of thing. And you’d have all the books you could ever lay your eyes on, besides.’
‘You can’t be serious,’ Jess said. ‘You want me to be your spy?’
‘I want you to be our asset – and advocate, maybe, in the dire event the Brightwells should need one. Library rules the world, son. Best to have a seat at that table.
Look, you’ve more spine and cunning than is comfortable for a father. You could do well at many things, but you could do better for your brother inside the Library.
Maybe save his life one day.’ Of course, his father would try to play on his
heartstrings. ‘I’d never pass the entry test.’‘Why do you think I’ve been paying for those tutors, boy? You’d have to take care to answer only with what any young man your age could learn from the Codex, though.
You’ve got all manner of unlicensed knowledge stuffed in your head. Flaunt it, and they’ll do worse to you than send you home disgraced.’ His father really was serious, and Jess’s anger faded with that knowledge; he’d never even considered working in Library service.
The idea terrified him on one level; he’d never forgotten the trauma of those Library automata, crushing innocents under their paws. But the Library still held everything he’d ever wanted, too. All the knowledge in the world, right at his fingertips.
When he didn’t answer,though, his father sighed, and his voice took on an edge of impatience. ‘Call it a business deal, boy; it gets you what you crave, and it lends us advantage. Give it an honest go. Fair warning: should you go and give it up, or fail, you’ll get nothing else from this family from this day on.
Not a penny.’
‘And what if I stay here?’ ‘Then I still can’t be feeding and clothing a useless lout who’s got no loyalty and no usefulness, now, can I?
You’ll work for us, or be on the streets that much sooner.’ His father looked hard and unforgiving, and there wasn’t any doubt that he meant what he said. Library test, training, and maybe service, or out on his own at the age of sixteen, scraping a living any way he could on the streets. Jess had seen how that served other young men. He didn’t want it.
‘You’re a low kind of man,’ Jess said. ‘But I’ve always known that, Da.’ Callum smiled. His eyes were like cold, dry pebbles.
‘Is that agreement I hear?’ ‘Did you really give me a choice?’
His father came forward and dug in his fingers hard enough into Jess’s shoulder to leave bruises. ‘No, son,’ he said. ‘That’s why I’m good at my business. See you become just as good at yours.’ Buying a placement to
Library training was expensive. Most families couldn’t afford to dream of something like that; it was a privilege for the filthy rich and the noble. The Brightwells were rich enough, but even so, it was a staggering sum to come up with.
Jess couldn’t help the thought that his future had been purchased by Aristotle’s ancient text, chewed up in that dark carriage when he was ten – another thing he didn’t dare put in his personal journal, though he did fill pages with careful, tightly inked script about what it feltlike, being put under such pressure to succeed. About how much he both loved and resented the opportunity.
His father paid the fee, and then it was up to Jess.
The first step, and in many ways the hardest, was to report to the London Serapeum for the entry test.
He’d avoided the place since the day with the lions, and didn’t look forward tocoming there again. To Jess’s relief, he was driven by steam carriage to the public entrance on the west side. There were still a few of the statues, but they were positioned up on pedestals, so he wouldn’t have to come eye to eye with them.
He felt safer until he noticed the automaton of
Queen Anne, staring down with blank eyes on those trudging up the steps. She held the royal orb in her left hand, and in her right, a golden sceptre pointed down at the heads of those who passed below her pedestal.
She looked eerily human.
He had the disquieting feeling that, like the lions, she stood in silent, merciless judgment, and for a giddy moment he imagined her eyes flaring blood-red, and that sceptreslamming down onto his head. Unfit for service.
But she didn’t move as he hurried past with the rest of the Library’s aspiring postulants.
The test was given in the Public Reading Room’s choir stall, and a Scholar robed in black with a silver band on her wrist handed out thin sheets to each of them as they sat down. There were, Jess estimated, about fifty sitting for the test. Most looked terrified, though whether they feared failure or success was open to debate. Failure, most like. They were all richly dressed, and no doubt their futures were riding on their performance. Today’s wealthy second son is tomorrow’s penniless lout, his father had always said.
The test page on Jess’s desk began to fill with text. It was in old Library script, designed to be attractive and ornate, and reading it was half the battle … but he’d seen and deciphered text far more difficult for fun. The opening questions, while designed to test the limits of a postulant’s knowledge, were laughably easy.
He took too much comfort in that, because when the next section came it was much harder, and before long, he began to worry and sweat in earnest. The Alchemical and Mechanical sections tested him to the limits, and he wasn’t so certain he did as well on the Medica portion as he’d intended. So much for thinking he would glide through without challenge. Jess hesitated for a long time before signing his name at the end, which inked his final answers. The sheet went blank, and the elegant writing that next appeared told him that results would follow soon, and he was free to depart the Serapeum.
When he left, Queen Anne was still judging those who passed, and he tried not to look directly at her as he took the steps two at a time. The day was warm and sunny,pigeons fluttering up in front of the courtyard, and he looked for the Brightwell carriage, which should have been parked nearby. It had moved down the block, and he jogged towards it. He was nervous, he realised. Actually nervous about how he’d done on the test. He cared. It was a new sensation, and one he didn’t much care for.
‘Sir?’ Jess’s driver looked anxious from his perch, clearly wanting to be gone; he was one of his father’s musclemen, and had spent most of his criminal career staying well clear of the Library. Jess didn’t blame him. He got into the back, and as he sat down, his Codex – the leather-bound book that mirrored a list of the Core Collection straight from the Great Library in Alexandria –hummed. Someone had sent him a note. He cracked the cover to see it spell itself out in ornate Library script, one rounded letter at a time. He could even feel the faint vibration of pen-scratch from the Library clerk who was transcribing the message.
We are pleased to inform you that JESS BRIGHTWELL is hereby accepted for the high honour of service to the Great Library. You are directed to report tomorrow to St Pancras Station in London at ten o’clock in the morning for transportation to
Alexandria. Please refer to the list of approved items you may bring with you into service.It was signed with the Library seal, which swelled up in raised red beneath the inked letters. Jess ran his fingers over it. It felt slick like wax, but warm as blood, and he felt a tingle to it, like something alive.
His name stood out, too,
in bold black. JESS BRIGHTWELL.
He swallowed hard, closed the book, and tried to control his suddenly racing pulse as the carriage clattered for home.
His mother, much affected (or feeling that she ought to be), presented him with a magnificent set of engraved styluses, and his father gifted him with a brand-new leather-bound Codex, a Scholar’s edition with plenty of extra pages for notes, and handsomely embossed with the Library symbol in gold.
His brother gave him nothing, but then, Jess hadn’t expected anything.
Dinner that night was unusually calm and festive.
After the half-measure of brandy his mother allowed, Jess found himself sitting alone on the back garden steps. It was a clear, cool night, unusual for London,and he stared up at the swelling white moon. The stars would be different, where he was going. But the moon would be the same.
He never expected that the prospect of leaving home would make him feel sad.
He didn’t hear Brendan come out, but it didn’t surprise him to hear the scrape of his brother’s boots on the stone behind him.‘You’re not coming back.’ It wasn’t what Jess had expected, and he turned to look at Brendan, who slouched with his arms crossed in the shadows.
Couldn’t read his expression.
‘You’re clever, Jess, but Da’s wrong about one thing: you don’t just have ink in your blood. It’s in your bones. Your skeleton’s black with it. You go there, to them,and we’ll lose you for ever.’ Brendan shifted a little, but didn’t look at him. ‘So don’t go.’
‘I thought you wanted me gone.’
Brendan’s shoulders rose and fell. He pushed off and drifted away into the darkness. Off doing God knew what. I’m sorry, Scraps, he thought. But he wasn’t, not really. Staying here wasn’t his future, any more than the Library would be Brendan’s.
This would be his last night at home.
Jess went inside, wrote in his journal, and spent the rest of the evening reading Inventio Fortunata.
Which rather proved his brother’s point, he supposed.
The next day, his father accompanied Jess to StPancras, and waved off servants to personally carry his case to the train … all without a single word, or change of expression. As Jess accepted the bag from him, his father finally said, ‘Make us proud, son, or by God I’ll wallop you until you do.’ But there was a faint wet shine in his eyes, and that made Jess feel uncomfortable. His father wasn’t weak, and was never vulnerable.
So what he saw couldn’t be tears.
His father gave him a hard, quick nod and strode away through the swirl of passengers and pigeons. The humid belch of steam engines blew towards the vaulted ceiling of the station and intertwined in ornate ironworks. Familiar and strange at once. For a moment, Jess just stood on his own, testing himself.
Trying to see how he felt caught between the old world and the new one that would come.
Still twenty minutes to the Alexandrian train, and he wondered whether or not to get a warm drink from one of the vendors in the stalls around the tracks, but as he was considering tea, he heard a commotion begin somewhere behind him.
It was a man raising his voice to a strident yell, and there was something in it that made him turn and listen.
‘—say to you that you are deceived! That words are nothing more than false idols at which you worship! The Great Library may have once been a boon, but what is it today? What does it give us?It suppresses! It stifles! You, sir, do you own a book? No, sir, not a blank, filled only with what they want you to read … a real book, an original work, in the hand of the writer? Do you dare, madam? The Library owns our memories, yet you cannot own your own books! Why?
Why do they fear it? Why do they fear to allow you the choice?’Jess spotted the speaker, who’d climbed on a stone bench and was now lecturing those passing by as he held up a journal. It wasn’t a blank from the Serapeum, stamped with the Library’s emblem.
What the man brandished was far finer, with a hand-tooled leather cover and his name on it in gilt. His personal journal, in which he would write daily. Jess had one quite like it. After all, the Library provided them free on the birth of a child, and encouraged every citizen of the world to write their thoughts and memories from the earliest age possible.
Everyone kept a record of the days and hours of their lives to be archived in the Library upon their deaths. The Library was a kind of memorial, in that way. It was one reason the people loved it so, for the fact it lent them a kind of immortality.
This man waved his personal journal like a torch, and there was a fever-light in his face that made Jess feel uneasy. He knew the rhetoric.
The Garda would be on the way soon.
People gave the lecturer a wide berth, scared off by his passion and his wild eyes.Jess looked around. Sure enough, a knot of red-coated London Garda was heading towards the spot. The Burner saw them coming, too, and Jess saw his face go pale and set under that untidy mop of hair. He raised his voice even more. ‘A man cannot be reduced to paper, to lines and letters! He cannot be consigned to a shelf! A life is worth more than a book! Vitahominis plus libro valet!’ That last rose to a ringing shout of victory. The man reached under his coat and took out a bottle of poison green liquid, thumbed off the cap, and poured a single drop on the cover of the personal journal he held. Then he threw the book down to the stone floor, and in a second it ignited with a shocking burst of flame that burnt emerald at the edges and bloomed in a towering column straight up into the air. Those closest stumbled back with alarmed gasps and cries of surprise.
‘Greek Fire!’ someone screamed, and then there was a scramble, a full-on rush of people for the exits. It impeded the progress of the London Garda, who were heading against the tide.
‘The Library wants you tolive blind!’ the Burner shouted. ‘I die to show you the light! Don’t trust them!
Jess should have run, he supposed; he was buffeted on all sides by those with more sense, but he lingered to watch the man with frozen dread and – yes – fascination.
The book, burning on the stones, held a ghastly echo for him of helpless fury and horror, as if the pages themselves were screaming for rescue. It was an original work, an only copy, written in ink on paper. It was the man’s thoughts and dreams, and it was … dying. It wasn’t On Sphere Making, but Jess had to fight the impulse to rush to save it, regardless.
‘Out of the way!’ a Garda cried, and pushed him almost off his feet, towards the exit.‘Get clear! Don’t you know Greek Fire when you see it, you fool?’
He did, and he also realised – all too late – that the Burner didn’t just have the drop that he’d used on the book for his demonstration.
The man had a full flasksized bottle of the stuff, and he was holding it high. It glittered in the dim light from the windows like a murkyemerald.
Jess took a step back, and stumbled on his train case. He fell over it, still watching the Burner. I should get out of here, he thought, but it felt as if his brain had gone to sleep, lulled by the mesmerising rush of the fire. He wanted to leave, but his body wouldn’t respond.
‘Cork that bottle, son,’ one of the Garda said as heapproached the Burner. He was older, and he sounded authoritative and oddly kind.
‘There’s no need for this.
You’ve made your point, and if you want to destroy your own words, well, that’s your burden and no one else’s, sure enough. Cork that and put it down. No harm done.
You’ll only have a fine, I promise you.’
‘Liar,’ the man said, andfor the first time, Jess realised that he was, in fact, only a little older than Jess himself.
Twenty years old, at most. He looked serious, and desperate, and afraid, but there was something in his eyes, something wild. ‘You’re a tool of the Library, and I will not be silenced by you! Vita hominis plus libro valet!’ It was the Burner’s motto: A life is worth more than a book.
They were also his last words.
The young man upended the bottle of Greek Fire over the front of his clothes and then poured the rest on his head, and the men who’d been advancing on him backed up, then turned and ran.
Jess saw the chemicals glow, spark, ignite, and consume the Burner in green fire that blew up towards the vaulted ceiling in an awful explosion of light. The sound was like nothing Jess had ever heard before – an indrawn breath of sucking air, and the crackle and fizz, and then the screams.
Oh, God, the terrible screams.
One of the Garda grabbed Jess and bowled him over the edge of the platform to crash hard down onto the gravel bed of the tracks, only a few feet from the iron skirt of a locomotive. The man’s weight crushed him down on a rail, and he struggled to breathe. From the corner of his eye he saw the firestorm billowing over their heads, a torrent of green and yellow and red.
The screaming stopped,and the horrible banner of flame drew back in, though the fire still raged.
The Garda who’d pulled him over the edge kept him down when he tried to stand up. ‘No,’ he said, panting. His face was pale under his black helmet. ‘Just stay down, the air’s toxic up there until it burns completely out.’
‘Dead,’ the man said, andheld Jess’s shoulder tightly.
‘And nothing we can do for him. The stupid boy, he didn’t need to—’ His voice was unsteady, and then it failed him altogether, and for all that Jess had grown up as enemies with the Garda, in that moment they were united in horror. ‘Damned Burners.
No reasoning with ’em.
Getting worse every year.’ The man blinked back tearsand looked away.
Jess sat back against the rough stone wall and stared at the flickering glow of the fire above them until, at last, it died.
The Garda questioned him – not that they suspected him of anything, but he’d stayed while others fled, and he was of an age when young men might turn to such causes. He answered truthfully and showed them his Codex, which contained his travel papers to Alexandria, and his official acceptance letter. He worried about missing the train, but nothing was running, not until the Garda were satisfied the danger was gone.
It took several hours, and he supposed they’d sent word to his family, but no one came. He remembered his da being told that his older brother Liam had been taken while running books, and the grief and resignation on his father’s face. His father hadn’t stood up to claim Liam. He’d not be visiting the Garda to retrieve Jess, either, should the worst come to pass.
Jess’s nerves were as tight as wires, but the Garda finally let him return to the tracks, where scrubbing had removed all trace of the Burner’s death, except for discolorations. The book, Jess thought, as he stood and looked down at the smaller stain on the floor. This is where the book died. It was the same ugly black scar as where the Burner had ignited himself on the bench.
Books and men left thesame traces where they burnt.
The idea that the young man had taken his personal journal with him into the flames left a sour taste in the back of Jess’s throat; it wasn’t just that he’d given up his life, it was that he’d given up any hope of people understanding his purpose.
Maybe nobody would have ever read it; maybe his reasons would have been found utterly mundane and useless. But by burning it, he’d erased himself as completely as anyone could.
To a modern man, growing up with the comfort of knowing the Library would keep his memories intact, it seemed … inconceivable.
Jess realised that he was getting strange looks as he stood there, and picked up his train case to move to his platform.
They’d delayed the schedules, and the station was once again full to bursting.
Funny how normal it all was again. Trains chuffed their pale mist into the air, and men, women and children strolled or bustled, absorbed in their own business. The pigeons had returned too, to peck at crumbs falling from hastily eaten pies and sandwiches. The only difference, as far as Jess could tell, was that there were more Garda scattered around the station, looking out for more Burners come to imitate their newest martyr.
Brutal as it was, it seemed to Jess that the man’s death had been nothing but a rock dropped in a fast-moving stream: a brief splash, then no trace left. He didn’t know whether that was appalling, or comforting.
He moved onto the platform and joined the long queue for boarding the long, sleekly silver train. At the gate, the elderly uniformed conductor said, ‘Best make yourself comfortable, my lad.
Long journey ahead. Under to France, through to Spain, across to Morocco, then on to the city. Be sure to keep your papers handy to show at the last Alexandrian border. Sure you have everything?’
Jess thanked him, and looked for his spot. He wasn’t surprised his father had bought him a cheap fare; the fancier travellers had plush seats and tea trolleys, but the car he settled in was well used, and smelt of mould and stale food and feet. Crowded, too; more and more bodiesjammed on, taking space to pile their bags and cases. Jess rested his feet on his own luggage. He hadn’t grown up trusting the good intentions of strangers.
He wrote in his journal about the Burner, about the trip and his fellow passengers, then put away his pen and slept and ate as the miles clacked by and stops ticked off. Travellers disembarked, and fewer got on than off, which was a relief. The make-up of those around him changed slowly as they left England through the underground tunnel to the Library territory of France; there was nervous talk of danger all the way to the coast, and many breathed a sigh of relief when they made it to the safety of the tunnel without incident; the Welsh army had been pushing in, closer and closer. No one took safe passage for granted, though so far the trains had been spared any threat.
By the time they pulled close to the Spanish border a full day later, most of those on board seemed to fall into two types: new postulants like him, young and mostly nervous, huddled in small groups, or self-assured Library employees, easily picked out even in civilian dress by the bands they wore on their wrists in copper, silver and – a rare sighting – one in gold. Jess wondered what it would feel like, knowing you had a position that would last a lifetime.
Would it free you, or make you feel trapped? Not that I’ll ever know, he thought. The Library only offered gold to a select few in a generation.
The rest of the trip was long, but uneventful; some storms along the way, but a smooth enough ride all the way to the tip of Spain, where the entire remaining company disembarked, blinking in the fierce sun before boarding a large ferry for the trip across the water.
When they boarded the Alexandrian train in Morocco, a few new passengers entered. One of them was hard to miss. A blond, blue-eyed boy of about Jess’s own age who looked big enough to bend iron … which made it odd how he moved so carefully past others, and apologised for every bump. Too considerate by half.
Jess met his gaze for a second and nodded, and that was a mistake. The giant headed straight for him and said, ‘May I sit here?’ His English was good, but accented with German.
‘Plenty of seats, mate. Sit where you like.’
He thought that might be a sign to the boy to move on, but instead, Jess was presented with a meaty hand to be shaken, and the other boy said, ‘Thomas Schreiber.’‘Jess Brightwell.’ They shook, and the boy wedged his big frame into the seat beside Jess and let out a lingering sigh of relief.
‘Finally, room to breathe.’ Jess didn’t much agree with that, as Thomas had just taken up most of his. ‘Come a long way?’
‘Berlin. You know
‘Not personally,’ Jess said.‘Nice place?’ ‘Very nice. And you From?’
‘In England? But that is a long way also!’
‘It is, yeah. Guess you’re off to Library training too?’ ‘I am. I hope for a placement in engineering. My grandfather was a silver band for many years.’
‘Engineering … that falls under Artifex. Heard that was a hard one. Does having a silver band relative make you some kind of legacy, then?’ When he received a blank
look from Thomas, Jess tried again. ‘Legacy means you didn’t have to sit for the entry tests. Kids of gold bands get to go straight into training.
Wasn’t sure about silver.’ ‘Would be nice, yes? No, no, nothing like that. I had to take the examination.’ ‘Yeah? How’d you do?’ Thomas shrugged. ‘All right.’
‘I got seven hundred and fifty. Highest score in London.’ He realised, as he said it, that it sounded like boasting. Well, all right. He was proud of it.
Thomas raised his pale eyebrows and nodded. ‘Very good.’ There was something in the carefully polite way he said it that made Jess glower at him.
‘What was yours?’
Thomas looked reluctant to say it, but Jess’s stare finally dragged it out of him.
‘Nine hundred twenty-five.’ ‘What?’
‘Students from Berlin have always done well on the examination.’ Thomas made it sound both proud and apologetic at the same time.
‘Done well? Mate, I’m sure none of the Scholars in London could have scored that. Must be the highest score of the year!’
‘No,’ Thomas said. ‘That would be hers.’ He looked around the train and nodded towards a young woman sitting near the back. Jess belatedly recognised her.
She’d boarded earlier, with a flurry of relatives who’d clustered around her and departed only when the conductor had given them a warning.
She was as small as Thomas was large, and from the little Jess could see of her, she seemed darker skinned, with a closely pinned black cloth covering her hair. Hard to see anything, really, because she was engrossed in a book.
‘That one,’ Thomas said.
‘She was the first in the history of the examination to have a perfect score, they say.
Not the first girl. The first anyone.’ He sounded impressed, and respectful. As Jess stared back, the girl lowered her book and returned their gazes with forthright brown-eyed intensity. Thomas,embarrassed at being caught out, quickly turned face forward again.
Jess, on the other hand, kept looking. She was pretty, not beautiful, but there was something about her that he found interesting. She cocked one eyebrow higher than the other, just like his brother’s favourite trick, and he tried to mirror it back. Still couldn’t.
So he settled for standingup and climbing past the mountain range of Thomas’s knees.
‘Where are you going?’ Thomas whispered.
‘To say hello,’ Jess said.
‘Smartest girl in the world?
‘I wouldn’t …’
Jess was already walking back towards the girl, who was still watching him with that challenging dark stare,when a man moved over to take a seat next to her. He was a rounded fellow, older, expensively dressed in traditional Arab robes.
Jess stopped and bowed politely to the girl. She nodded back. ‘Wanted to introduce myself,’ he said.
‘Jess Brightwell. That’s my mate Thomas Schreiber, the big shy one back there.’ ‘Khalila Seif,’ she said.‘May I present my uncle Nasir? He is accompanying me to the Alexandrian border.’
The uncle gave Jess a warm smile, rose, and gave him a bow in return. It was all very civil, but he wasn’t leaving the girl’s side, that much was obvious.
Jess turned back to Khalila. ‘Highest score on the test,’ he said. ‘You’d be guaranteed a place, I suppose.’
‘Nothing in life is guaranteed. I may not be able to handle the work, after all.
Some people prove fragile.’ ‘Fragile,’ Jess repeated.
‘Yeah, you don’t strike me that way.’
‘You are also a student, sir?’ her uncle asked.
‘Nowhere near as bright as your niece, sir, but yes.’‘And from where?’ ‘England, sir.’
‘Ah. Are you not at war …?’
‘Not the part of the country I’m from,’ Jess said.
The man was too well mannered to say it, but he clearly thought England was a hotbed of trouble. ‘Well, I’ll let you read, then, Miss Seif.
‘Thank you for your courtesy, Mr Brightwell,’ she said. ‘I wish you a smooth journey as well.’ Very formal, but the smile less so.
Not warm, exactly. But not afraid.
And definitely not fragile.
Jess climbed back over Thomas to his seat and said, ‘Well, that’s one placement spoken for; she’ll end up a Curator one day, if not the damned Archivist. My future’s looking dimmer all the time.’ He didn’t mean it.
He liked challenges, and this … this was turning out to be one of the best challenges he’d faced in his life. It was boring, always being smarter.
Already, he felt he’d have to work for it here.
You’re never coming back.
Brendan’s words suddenly returned to him. They were prophetic, because already his family seemed like a fading dream. He felt good here.
He felt right.
As the conductors outside the train windows cried last boarding, a raw-boned young woman ran hell-bent for their car. Not a graceful sort of movement, but those long legs ate up the platform’s length, and she leapt for the still-open door in the last second before the conductor slammed it shut and the train’s whistle blew. She leant against the panelling, flushed and sweating, and overbalanced and fell onto Jess and Thomas’s laps as the train lurched into motion.
No lightweight, this girl.
And sharp elbows. Jess winced and rubbed his chest as she fought her way back to her feet and glared at him and Thomas as though they were guilty of an assault on her person.
‘Welcome,’ Thomas said.
‘Thomas Schreiber. Berlin.’ He offered her a hand. She clawed disordered, curling brown hair back from her face, and her glare turned to an outright frown, but she shook. Grudgingly. ‘And you are … ?’
‘Glain Wathen. Merthyr Tydfil.’ She shut up fast asher eyes fell on Jess.
‘Jess Brightwell. London.’ She gave him a sour look, then pushed off and found a seat near the back.
‘She doesn’t like you,’ Thomas said. ‘Does she know you?’
‘No need,’ Jess replied.
He could feel Glain’s stare boring into the back of his head. ‘By the sound of her, she’s Welsh. She’s probably making a plan to stick a knife in my kidney before we get to the border.’ When Thomas just continued to look confused, he said, ‘I’m English. Blood feuds. Makes people irrational.’
‘Ah,’ Thomas said, but he didn’t seem particularly illuminated. Not up on his current wars, Jess thought. Or didn’t seem to understand that the Southern Conflict had been going on for more than fifty years, with bloody losses on both the Welsh and English sides. Of late, the Welsh had been handily winning the day.
Glain looked like one of those unpleasant firebrands who couldn’t just leave it at the border. Jess didn’t mind, really. At least that was one fellow student he wouldn’t mind cutting out in competition for a spot.
The miles clacked on, towards their uncertain future.
The Alexandrian border crossing meant that anyone without commissions into
Library territory had to disembark, which meant the departure of Khalila’s uncle.
He clearly didn’t like leaving his girl to the unwashedmasses – and to be fair, they were all fairly unwashed, at the moment, on this train – but he went with good grace.
Jess nodded a polite goodbye, then turned and winked at Khalila. She ignored him. She’d fallen into a hushed, intense conversation with the Welsh girl, Glain, though whatever they had in common he couldn’t imagine. Glain was as plain as Khalila was pretty, and her manners seemed rude where the Arab girl had grace and charm to spare. No accounting for taste, he supposed. He and Thomas played cards, and drew in a few more players as the hours clicked by; even one of the Library’s silver bands sat in, and though his English was dodgy and spiced with
Chinese accents, he was aright madman for a bet, and Jess lost half his cash before he bowed out and slept.
When he woke up,
Thomas had won back most of the money, had a contented, cherubic look on his face, and they were pulling into Alexandria, in Egypt.
Jess wasn’t the only one gawking out the windows; most of those in the car were doing it, even adults with their bands of service on their wrists. Because this city … it was worth seeing.
They were arriving at Misr Station, all gleaming white marble and buff-coloured stones; it was blinding in the noonday glare. The station itself rose three graceful stories of fluted columns, with ancient Egyptian statues of the old gods reaching to the same height. When the carriage stopped, they were facing hawk-faced Horus’s massive feet, and Jess craned his head to look up. The beaked head blocked out the sun, and the gold leaf and blue enamel gleamed brighter than anything Jess had ever seen.
‘Amazing,’ Thomas breathed. ‘Do you think it’s an automaton? At that size?’Jess shuddered. ‘Perish the thought.’
Thomas scrambled up, grabbed his bag (twice the size of Jess’s, but then, he was twice Jess’s size) and rushed for the train car door.
He was onto the platform before Jess could pull his own case from beneath his seat, but he caught up with the German quickly, and against his will, his steps slowed and stopped. The two of them stood together, just drinking it in. The sun felt different here: relentlessly hot, but strangely welcoming just the same.
Humid ocean air blew in and ruffled Jess’s hair, drying the sweat that was already beading on his face. And the silent, majestic rows of gods stretched on in a cleanly ordered march that seemed to go on for miles, each one of them different. They’ve all got stories, Jess thought. I need to know them. Best of all, he could know them. He could learn anything here.
It felt like limitless possibilities.
Khalila had joined them, he realised, and was gaping just as openly. Even Glain seemed stunned as she climbed down off the train steps and landed in this new,alien, intimidating land.
It seemed so clean.
Soon enough, they’d drawn a real cluster around them, as new postulants disembarked. Maybe it was just because Thomas was so tall and made a good centre pole, but when Jess looked around there must have been thirty of them together, and they were all milling about, uncertain of their next steps… until a man strode out from the shadow of Horus’s feet towards them.
He drew everyone’s attention: black Scholar’s robes that billowed around a plain black day suit. A gleaming gold band on his wrist, chased with elegant hieroglyphs and the Library seal. Dark shoulder-length hair swept back in a mane from a fiercely intelligent face. Narrow, dark eyes, and nut-brown skin. The students fell silent as he approached, and pulled closer together.
Gazelles facing a lion, Jess thought.
The Scholar looked them over with unforgiving assessment. The silence stretched until Jess thought it might shatter poor old
Horus’s legs, and then the man said, ‘My name is Scholar Christopher Wolfe, and I take it you are incoming postulants. Let me be clear; most of you might as well turn around and board the train now for home. I have six slots to fill, if I decide to fill them at all, which at first glance is unlikely. Does anyone want to book a return now and save themselves the time and pain?’
No one stirred, though several made twitchy moves, as though they were considering it. Not Jess. Nor Thomas, nor Khalila, nor
Glain. Rock solid. For now, Jess thought.
This had just got very interesting
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