فصل 07

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فصل 07

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Guillaume’s death left Jess feeling oddly empty inside.

He watched as the Medica staff wrapped his friend’s body in clean white sheets and tied them with careful, traditional knots. From there, they’d convey his body to a sarcophagus, which would be taken to the place of embalming, if Guillaume’s religion allowed it. Likely it did, Jess thought, since the boy had probably been a Catholic.

He thought of the practical order of these things to avoid thinking about more painful things – things that Thomas couldn’t stop asking, like, ‘Do you think he suffered?’ or ‘Do you think he knew he was dying?’ Jess didn’t see how he could possibly know those answers, and didn’t see how the truth, even if they learnt it, could be any comfort at all.

It didn’t help matters that Khalila suddenly broke down in tears. Even Glain seemed emotional. Jess was a little surprised by that. But the real question, Jess thought, is why I feel so little, and they feel so much. Maybe it was his upbringing. Maybe it was all the death he’d seen, in the smuggling trade.

Or maybe he was just trying to keep it all locked in a small, dark box until he could face what he felt. It was the same bargain he’d made when he’d been nine, and his brother Liam had gone to the gallows. He’d focus on the things that needed doing, for as long as he could.

Dario didn’t weep, either.

He and Jess had that in common. As Guillaume’s body was carried out of the Translation Chamber, Dario leant his shoulders against the wall next to Jess and said, ‘If any of us had to die, it might be best it was him. Burner ancestors from a rebel country. They’d never have let him stay.’

It was a concise, cold, brutally truthful statement, and he said it low enough that only Jess heard. Jess nodded.

‘Given all that, it must have been incredibly hard for him to win a place here in the first place. Have some respect.’ ‘I do,’ Dario said. ‘I alsohave clear eyes. He had secrets. So do you.’

They were, Jess thought, more alike than either of them wanted to admit. He’d never realised that about himself before; he’d always thought of himself as a good person, at his core. But sitting next to Dario, hearing familiar tones and words out of a different mouth, he was forced to reconsider.‘I do have secrets. I secretly think you’re a bastard,’ he said to Dario, though without much heat.

‘Shove off. I’m thinking.’ ‘Well, that would take all your concentration,’ Dario agreed, and moved off to put his arm around Khalila. Jess watched as her body relaxed into his, and he realised he wasn’t surprised that the two of them were drawingtogether. Not after what he’d seen in the Translation

Chamber. She’d trusted the boy. Why she would was a mystery to him, but there was no doubt that some barrier had fallen between them.

Jess’s gaze went to Morgan. They’d all recovered more or less quickly, though Jess was cursed with a hitching pain in his ribs and what felt like a wrenched knee – not bad enough to hobble him, just enough to make him hurt a bit. He’d walk it off, though. He’d had worse.

But it kept him from catching up to Morgan.

As he grabbed his pack and swung the weight onto his shoulders, Thomas joined him. The German already had his pack strapped securely, but he still had a hurt, lost look in his face. ‘We’re just going to leave Guillaume?’ he asked. ‘Just like that? No … service?’

‘We’re heading into a war zone, Thomas. Can’t stop for services.’

‘Still, it seems—’

‘Come on.’

Jess knew he sounded impatient, but he couldn’t control that; Thomas’s grief rubbed like sandpaper, and made him want to lash out.

Thomas gave him a sad eyed look, but followed as Jess made his way towards the door. Morgan was following close behind Wolfe. Khalila was still escorted by Dario, though as they emerged from the

Translation Chamber into a wide brick hallway, she broke away from him and took a quicker pace, chin raised.Independent once more.

Wolfe led their party – only seven, now – into the Aylesbury reading room.

Like the Alexandrian version, it was filled with shelves and tables, though Aylesbury needed a large, roaring furnace, where Alexandria rarely felt the cold so deeply.

Jess hadn’t thought about it until now, but the familiar English damp and chill was starting to close around him.

He’d worn light clothing for the merciless heat he’d grown accustomed to, and now he was starting to feel the lack of wool.

This room had a different smell, too. Paper and ink, yes, and dust, but a faint trace of mildew, too. And the sharp oak scent of the fireplace, whose warmth didn’t penetrate far into the space.Old ashes. Old sweat.

This place hadn’t been built as a Library building; it must have been converted from a church, at some point, and still had the feeling of one. The shelves in the room looked oddly spaced, bolted in to replace sacred statues or shrines. The Library hadn’t built new here, just repurposed.

‘Everyone fit to travel?’Wolfe asked them, when they were assembled around him.

One by one, they nodded.

‘Open your packs. In them, you’ll find two things I want you to wear. One is a bronze temporary bracelet; it conveys on you the rights of a full librarian for the duration of this trip. The second item is a Library coat. You will all put them on and wear them unless I tell you to remove them. I want no claims from the English or Welsh that they mistook us for combatants.’

Jess muscled his pack off again and dug inside and yes, near the top was a metal clasp bracelet – bronze – embossed with the Library symbol.

Unlike regular Library bracelets, it could be removed; the symbols that librarians wore had to be cutaway at the termination of their contracts.

The bronze was the lowest of the levels. At the end of a bronze contract, a Library employee would either move up, stay on, or move out. It isn’t a real one, he told himself. Just temporary.

He removed his postulant version and fastened the new one, and felt a chill when he looked down at his wrist. I’m one of them now. He’d wanted it, and still did, but that didn’t change the unease of a lifetime of running from that symbol, and fearing it.

From knowing that the Library would relentlessly continue to pursue smugglers, and would cheerfully hang him, his father, his brother, even his mother.

When he donned the dull gold of the overcoat, he felt even more distanced from his past. The material weighed very little, though he was grateful for another layer to hold in the heat.

He looked like one of them now. Completely.

When they’d all properly fitted themselves out, Wolfe looked them over, made some adjustments here and there, and nodded. ‘You’re ready,’ he said. ‘Do what I tell you.Obey the soldiers when they give you an order, and you’ll come through.’

That sounded suspiciously like concern, and that, more than anything else, made Jess start to worry about what was coming next.

Outside in the large, walled forecourt of the Serapeum, stood a full squad of Library High Garda … about eighty of them. Menand women alike, laughing, talking, sitting, standing, playing cards and dice and other games he didn’t immediately recognise. A relaxed atmosphere, except that they all wore the formal black of the High Garda, and had heavy arms ready at hand. Santi was with them, talking to one of the others and reviewing a map laid out between them.Santi rose from his crouch and folded up his map. As the captain rose, an instant change came over the company around him. Bodies straightened and stepped into neat ranks. It happened fast, and economically, from chaos to order in less time than it took Jess to recognise what was happening. Santi didn’t so much as glance at his troops, but he bowed slightly to Wolfe and said, ‘In your service, Scholar Wolfe.’ ‘Grateful for it, Captain Santi,’ Wolfe said. ‘What conditions?’

‘Bad ones. Rain and flooding, but we’ve got the carriages to take us as far as the Welsh lines. From there, we’ll have to play by the rules we’re given.’

‘Which are?’

‘They’ll let us take one vehicle into Oxford. Even with all of my soldiers on foot, it’ll be a tight squeeze to get all your students inside with even a small number of books, but I don’t see an alternative. They didn’t even have to allow us the one vehicle, technically. Asking for another is useless.’ ‘Not ideal.’

‘Not even close. But it never is, is it?’ Santi’s white,even teeth showed in a sudden grin, and Wolfe’s lips actually turned up at the corners. ‘I hope your children know which end of a gun to hold.’

‘They’ve been taught the basics.’

‘We’re going beyond the basics. Costigan! Issue our new friends with their arms, please.’

One of Santi’s men broke from the neat lines and grabbed a box, which he carried forward and opened.

He gestured at Jess, who was closest, and as Jess stepped towards him, Costigan thrust a cloth belt, holster and weapon at him. ‘Fully loaded,’ he said. ‘You’re good for ten non-lethal shots, then switch the canister.

Extras on the belt are charged. Try not to shoot your friends.’ That was it. When Jess tried to buckle the belt on where he was, Costigan impatiently shoved him away to make room for the next person stepping forward. Jess retreated into the shadow of a portico to finish strapping on the weapon; his fingers were cold and didn’t seem to work as swiftly as he wanted. He hoped to look smooth and confident, but he thought he probably looked scared.

Thomas fell in beside him and buckled on his own belt.

He pulled out the weapon and looked it over with the avid interest of someone who truly itched to deconstruct it. ‘I’ve never seen one this small before,’ he said. The weapon didn’t much look like the sleek, deadly projectile weapons that the regular High Garda carried; these were far bulkier and squared, and had visible tubing around the top.

‘It fires charged darts. I’ve seen them used; they can drop a man for almost an hour.’ Thomas turned it over. ‘How do you think they solve the overheating problem?

Someone must have, if they could fit the coil here, you see?’

‘It’s colder here,’ Jesssaid. ‘Maybe it’s a coldweather weapon.’ Thomas gave him a longsuffering look. ‘That’s nonsense.’

‘I know.’

‘It’s a perfectly good question!’

‘It’s an engineering question.’ Jess put a hand on his own sidearm, but didn’t draw it. It felt warm. That was probably just an illusion.‘As long as they work, I don’t care. Though I’d rather have the ones that do real damage.’ ‘That’s because you’re insane,’ Thomas said. ‘I’m happy I don’t have one.’ ‘Well, you’re a terrible shot.’ Jess realised the two of them were chattering at each other to pretend they weren’t resisting the urge to run. All this had seemed better in concept.Costigan had finished dispensing the weapons, and disappeared back into the straight, perfect lines of the soldiers. Santi nodded to Wolfe, who turned towards the students.

‘Follow me,’ he said, and took them past the motionless, expressionless soldiers to a waiting steam carriage, one clearly painted with the Library’s symbol. It hissed a steady white stream into the air from the exhaust pipe, and unlike most public or private carriages Jess had ever seen, it had no brightwork at all on it … just plain, dull paint, the bright metallic symbol standing bolder than ever.

When the door swung open for them, there was nothing inside it except a bare, metal floor, and two seats up front for the driver and his escort gunner.

‘Where do we sit?’

Portero, the first one in, asked Wolfe.

‘On the floor,’ Wolfe said, as patiently as if it wasn’t painfully obvious. ‘It’s a tight fit. Get comfortable. You won’t have this much luxury on the way out.’

Tight fit was right. Jess, who, last in, had hardlyenough space to sit without making a home on the illplaced feet of those around him. Poor Thomas was

squashed in the corner, which couldn’t have been half so comfortable. At least Jess had the door at his back to lean against. Could have been worse. Was, for those in the middle.

Morgan and Khalila had managed to find places at the back, against a wall. Jess nodded to Morgan, but she didn’t seem to notice.

Khalila did, and gave him a brave smile. Which made Dario, intercepting it, scowl.

‘Welcome to the war,’ their driver said, with frightening good cheer.

‘Water’s in the canteens on the side. Drink up. We’ll be on the road a while. If you get sick, try to spew on eachother, not on me.’ ‘How long is the ride?’ Glain asked from the back.

‘Four hours, more or less.

Patience. We’ll get you where you’re going.’

‘Might even get you there in one piece, if you’re lucky,’ his gunner said, and did something to the large gun he held that made it give a sharp, metallic click.

The driver nodded to someone outside the carriage.

‘We’re rolling.’

‘Rolling,’ the gunner confirmed, and the carriage moved forward with a sudden jerk. It picked up speed, rattling over old cobbles, and Jess gritted his teeth against the juddering motion.

As Wolfe had already promised, it was to be a hard trip.By the time they reached the forward positions of the

Welsh army, the pace of the Library carriages had slowed to a crawl, lurching over rough and broken roads, through mud, over debris that Jess was glad he didn’t have to look at through the front windows. Someone in the back had asked what the smell was, and the gunner had answered, woodenly and accurately, ‘War.’ It was a foul mix of things that worked on the brain in terrible ways, and Jess was fairly certain that what they were smelling had to be the bodies of unburied dead.

When they finally ground to a halt, Jess felt as sore as if he’d been run through the same number of hours of Wolfe’s brutal training, and he knew everyone felt the same.

‘Everybody out,’ the gunner said, and slid open the door at Jess’s back. Jess had to catch himself from tumbling to the mud. His legs had gone to sleep, and he endured the sharp-prick pain of blood reviving dulled, sleeping nerves. While he leant against the muddy surface of the carriage and helped the others out, he realised that they were all being watched.

The Welsh were camped here in wide tents – hard, dangerous-looking men and women sitting on camp stools, cleaning weapons.

Some were talking together, but they all had their wary, assessing eyes on the newcomers.

The Welsh wore dark green, dappled with brown,but the colours were camouflaged further by the ever-present mud. The only colourful spot on them were the red Welsh dragons embroidered on their shoulders. Jess returned their stares for a second before helping the others down from the carriage. When they were all assembled in a tight, anxious cluster, Wolfe arrived, with Captain Santi.Santi, like his men, was dressed in black, with the Library’s symbol prominently displayed in gold on the front and back. He was also armed to the teeth, and moved more confidently than Jess had ever seen him. This was Captain Santi’s natural home, the battlefield, and his dark eyes missed nothing – not the tension of the Welsh troops, the muttering, the hands gripping weapons a shade too tightly.

‘With me,’ Wolfe said to his flock, and they all scrambled after him and Santi as they strode through the muddy field towards the centre of the encampment.

When Jess looked back, he saw that the other Library troops had fallen into a guard formation around the vehicles. They’d also picked up a squad of High Garda men and women behind them.

‘Do we need so much protection? We’re armed, after all,’ Thomas said. He sounded a touch anxious, though he was fighting to press it down. Jess sent him a glance. The young German’s face was tense, but still.

‘So are the Welsh,’ Jess said. ‘And they’ve fired at real targets.’Thomas wasn’t the only one feeling unsettled; every one of them seemed to be, even Dario, though the Spaniard covered it by returning challenging looks from Welsh troops with glares of his own. Khalila kept her head down, but that might have only been because of the treacherous footing.

Morgan pulled closer to

Jess, close enough that their arms brushed as they walked.

He sent her a sidelong glance.

‘Are you all right?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Why would I be?’

He hadn’t thought about what it would feel like, coming home to this … to the war, the destruction, the ruin of everything she knew. The fact that she was bearing it with dry eyes and steady hands seemed remarkable to him.

Glain, on the other hand, looked pallid in the cold, damp air, with hectic spots of red high in her cheeks. It occurred to Jess for the first time that she was walking through her own country’s men and women, and yet seen as an intruder. Could have even been her kin standing there, watching her, he supposed. It must have been as much of a shock to her as what Morgan was feeling.

No one menaced them on the march to the tent. A light rain started to fall, which was miserable in the cold; the Library’s coat was waterproofed, at least, and Jess pulled up the hood to shield his face as the rain pattered harder, and then, without warning, cut loose in a silver flood from above. It only made the muddy footing worse, but Wolfe and Santi kept a quick pace, and the rest of them stumbled along as best they could in their wake.

An immaculately turned out Welsh soldier met them at the entrance and directed them to wipe their boots on the stiff mat before coming in; they all dutifully followed that instruction, not that Jess imagined it would help very much. The mud seemed determined to get everywhere.

Inside, the floor was a thick, stiff material, and within the canvas walls it was mysteriously warm.

Jess hadn’t realised how chilled he’d become until the heat began to chip it away. Wolfe motioned his students back against the walls, out of the way. Jess pulled his hood back and stood silently as Wolfe and Santi greeted the Welsh commander, who waited on a square of carpeting in the centre of the room next to a large camp table. Plans and maps were still on it, but rolled away from prying eyes.

The Welshman was shorter than Jess would have expected, and not prepossessing; he wouldn’t have glanced twice at him on any street in the world. The man’s hair had receded to a thin fringe at the back of his skull, and though the life of a soldier wasn’t one of ease, he still had a comfortable paunch on him. He greeted Wolfe and Santi with courtesy and handshakes, and offered them hot coffee, which Jess deeply envied.

‘Scholar Wolfe, your reputation precedes you. By my information, this is your … tenth war zone?’ the commander said, which was a surprise to Jess, and likely to the rest of them. ‘Given all that experience, do you really think it’s wise to bring your little chickens into the fox’s den?’

He meant the students, Jess thought. The commander sounded amused, and just a little grim.

‘Our little chickens have sharp beaks,’ Wolfe said.

‘I’m informed that you have put more conditions on our safe passage. I hope you understand what trouble you’re borrowing, General Warlow. It has a very high interest rate.’

‘Are we dealing exclusively in metaphors, or may I speak plainly?’‘Please.’ ‘My troops will not help you,’ Warlow said. It was clear to Jess now why he was in charge, because there was a sharpness to the man that felt dangerous even at this distance. ‘They will not hinder you, but they will not help. I am not rescinding safe passage, I am simply telling you that once you leave this tent, you are on your own,and I can’t answer for your safety.’

That, Jess knew, wasn’t the accepted code of conduct in war zones; the armies of both sides had always accepted Library neutrality and given protection to their parties. Or, at least, that was what they’d all been taught to believe. Yet neither Santi nor Wolfe seemed at all surprised at this turn of events.‘You know that should anything happen, Wales and England will share the blame,’ Wolfe said. ‘Are you prepared to face those consequences?’

‘I’m up to my neck in a bloody war. I’m prepared to accept every consequence.’ Warlow sent a hard, telling look towards the gathered students. ‘I’d think you’re the one who has something moreto lose, Scholar. For shame, bringing children into this hellhole.’

‘It’s a hellhole of your making,’ Santi said. It was the first thing he’d said, and Warlow’s stare locked on him like a gun on a target. ‘You’re the one declaring no quarter for the city. Are you also threatening a Scholar and his students now?’

‘Am I?’ Warlow and Santi were engaged in a full-on staring match. Warlow’s lips curved into a cold smile.

‘With one single command, I could make you, your Scholar, his students, and all of your troops and vehicles just … vanish. Just like that.

No bodies. No wreckage. No trace. Strange things happen, in war. That’s not a threat.

It’s a simple fact.’

Wolfe and Santi had no reaction. None. Jess glanced at Thomas, then at Dario.

Dario had moved his hand to his sidearm beneath the cover of the cloak, which seemed like a damn fine idea. Jess’s palm was sweating, and now the warmth in this tent seemed overpowering.

Smothering.

General Warlow let the silence stretch. And stretch.

The sharp pound of rain oncanvas grew louder and louder, and Jess found that he, too, had his right hand on the handle of his gun, and his left on the hilt of a knife.

There were guards just outside the tent, but Warlow hadn’t bothered to keep a single one in here, despite being heavily outnumbered.

It spoke volumes about his confidence.

Wolfe finally smiled. It seemed, to Jess, an easy, calm smile, and he sat back in his chair, entirely comfortable.

‘It’s good we understand each other,’ he said. ‘Every single fallen Scholar in history has his or her name on a wall in the Great Library. Names that each of these students remember. You may ask them. They will flawlessly recite each name, each war, each instance.’ He raised his voice, just a bit. ‘Postulant Seif. Relevant example, please.’

Khalila straightened her shoulders and stepped forward, and Jess felt an intense surge of pride in her, in that moment. Her chin was up, her gaze steady on Wolfe.

‘Yes, Scholar. Scholar Padma Dahwan was selected to close the Serapeum in the city of Milan during the war with Austria. She and her entire party were taken prisoner by the Austrian army and executed. The Serapeum was destroyed.’

‘And the Library’s response?’ Khalila said, softly, ‘Austria no longer exists.’ ‘And approximately how large was Austria then, in comparison with the area Wales now claims?’‘It was approximately thirty-three thousand square kilometres in size. Wales is now approximately eleven thousand square kilometres.’ This time, as the silence stretched, it seemed heavier on Warlow’s head.

‘I wish you to understand that this is also not a threat,’ Wolfe said. ‘Only a history lesson. Thank you, Postulant Seif. You may step back.’Warlow cocked his head.

Not intimidated, Jess thought; just made more cautious.

‘I regret that your vehicles can’t proceed any farther. My men will escort you to the gates on foot,’ Warlow said.

‘I can’t answer for the actions of the English army, of course, once you get inside the city. They’re violent and starving. And they are, by nature, a savage people.’Jess could feel Glain looking in his direction, and Morgan’s – possibly in sympathy, possibly in agreement with her countryman’s opinions. He also knew that Wolfe would be observing him, and he kept himself expressionless and still. If there was a little extra colour in his face, well, he couldn’t help that.

‘I’m sure the English have interesting views on the Welsh as well,’ Wolfe said.

He drained his cup of coffee in two gulps and set it aside, then rose. Santi had left his untouched, and that, Jess realised, was also a strategy; Wolfe had demonstrated he trusted Warlow, or at least, that he had a reckless disregard for his own safety.

Santi had simultaneously sent the message that he didn’t trust the general a bit, and stood ready to avenge

Wolfe’s death should there be poison in the cup.

Jess was suddenly quite glad he hadn’t been offered any refreshments. Should have thought about poison, first thing. Well, it wouldn’t be far from his mind from now on.

So much going on in this tent. He probably hadn’t even understood the half of it, and for the first time since being inducted into the Library’s programme, he began to realise how much he had to learn about how different the world was from the theory of it.

Wolfe and Santi led them out of the tent and into the rain. Neither man bothered with hoods, and after a hesitation, Jess left his down,too. The rain was already passing away again into a disinterested patter, though the clouds remained overhead, iron-grey and oppressive.

‘What now?’ Jess asked Wolfe as they moved back towards the vehicles.

‘Now we walk,’ Santi said.

‘But I thought we were going to remain in the vehicles until we loaded the books …’

‘It’s war. Plans change,’ Santi said. ‘It’ll be your job to get the books out now. Each of you can control tags to transfer volumes back to the Archive. Between you, what we have should be enough.’ ‘Sir? Some of us can’t manage more than a few at a time.’

Santi’s look turned sharp.‘Then they’ll get better with practice. Enough talking, Brightwell. Walk.

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