فصل 16کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 34
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When Jess was escorted out of the Serapeum, the world was warming to a clear dawn; the eastern horizon was layered with soft yellow and warm orange, while the western sky still showed indigo. The Serapeum pyramid’s top three tiers of stone were bathed in a blazing glow, and the golden capstone shone like the as yet-unseen sun.
It was beautiful, and eternal, and Jess averted his eyes at the sight of it. His head pounded from a mix of tension and weariness, and he felt desperately sick. The guards didn’t bind him this time. They escorted him through the courtyard, past rows of guardian statues thick as an army’s column, and out into an area shaded beneath spreading olive trees that were heavy with fruit.
His friends were there. All but Thomas.
Glain saw him first, and spoke to the others; Dario was embracing Khalila, but he let go when he saw Jess, and they all came at a run to meet him. It should have made things better to be with friends, but he was only starting to realise that he had no friends now. Only people he could ruin and betray.
Thomas is dead.
‘What happened?’ Dario asked him. ‘Brightwell? Jess?
Come on, English, talk.’‘Let go, Dario.’ Khalila was, as always, more perceptive. And she saw the shocked distance in Jess, even if she didn’t know what it was. ‘He’s not well, can’t you see that?’
‘Too much to drink, like the rest of us,’ Dario dismissed it, but he did let go of Jess’s shirt, and stepped back. ‘Did you find Thomas?’ Jess shook his head. He couldn’t find his voice, not yet.
‘Well then, come on.
With some enemies, it’s safer to let them destroy themselves. The Artifex, for all his massive power, was afraid of Wolfe. Why would that be possible?
It hit him as all the small, seemingly random pieces fit together in a blinding flash.Wolfe, born to Obscurist parents in the Iron Tower.
Family connections that Monsieur Danton had mentioned. And it had been right in front of him, when Wolfe and the Obscurist Magnus had stood together on the High Garda parade ground.
Christopher Wolfe even looked like his mother.
And his mother was the Obscurist Magnus.
‘Jess?’ Glain put her hand on his shoulder. It wasn’t a gentle gesture, as it would have been from Khalila – more of a fellow-soldier tap that simply lingered.
‘Thomas. Do you know where he is?’
‘He’s dead,’ Jess said. He watched her eyes dilate in shock, and her expression go flat and lifeless. ‘Come on.Wolfe’s waiting.’ He shook off Glain’s hand and walked after the others, through dawn’s soft light, towards the Scholar Steps.
The sphinxes were restless today, red eyes glowing, heads turning as the four of them climbed the endless stairs. Thomas would have joked about it. He’d have offered to carry at least two of them on his back, and he’d have been strong enough to do it, at least part of the way.
His absence felt like … a severed limb. An emptiness so large that Jess couldn’t yet understand the shape of it.
He counted steps silently, just to keep his mind from chasing the image of Thomas’s last moments … of the Artifex, watching the cold, clinical execution of his friend. If the climb was tiring, he didn’t feel it. His body operated like a machine, like one of Thomas’s wonderful automata, and when he finally reached the landing at the top of the Serapeum, he realised that he had left the other three far behind, still toiling through the last third of the climb. His clothing – still what he’d thrown on when going down into the cellar to see Thomas’s marvellous press – was soaked through with sweat and clinging to him unpleasantly; his throat ached from gasping. He
needed water before the sharp, stabbing aches in his calf muscles turned to crippling spasms.
Instead of resting, he went through the doors and down the hall to where he knew Wolfe would be waiting.
Pain was good. Pain helped.
There was no one else in the Reading Room but Wolfe, who was pacing the end of it in his Scholar’s black robe, head down, hands behind his back. Wolfe raised his chin and looked at Jess as he came forward, all the way to the long reading table at the front.
Jess sat down on the bench and said, ‘Where’s Santi?’
‘Home. They know where to find him any time they want, and of course the
Artifex made sure that I know the litany of terrible things that could happen to a High Garda captain, regardless of his rank or commendations.’ Wolfe studied Jess for a beat before he said, ‘The Artifex told you about Thomas’s death.’ Jess said nothing, but he looked away.
‘He was a brilliant young man. I’d have saved him if I could.’ Nothing to say to that.
He could feel Wolfe’s attention fixed on him, but held his silence. ‘Are you all right?’
‘I’m fine.’ He looked up at Wolfe and said, ‘You can’t give me an appointment to the Library. Keep me as far away from you as you can.
Send me away.’
Wolfe might have asked him why, but by then, Dario was at the door, with Khalila and Glain close behind. They were all still breathing hard from the climb. No time to explain without extra ears listening, and Jess could no longer trust anyone.
The Artifex could have been lying to him, but he couldn’t take that risk.
Wolfe’s expression had changed again. The mask was back in place as the other three took seats at the table with Jess.
‘I had planned to present five scrolls today,’ he said.
‘But one will be left ungiven.
I am sorry to hear of Thomas Schreiber’s passing.’ ‘How?’ Khalila’s face was tear-stained, and her eyes had welled up again. ‘How could this happen?’ Dario took her hand in his and silently held it. He was sprawled in his usual posture, but his head was down, hiding his expression.
‘I am told he did not suffer,’ Wolfe said. ‘It casts a wide shadow over what we must do today, but it can’t be helped. I believe he would want us to continue.’ His dark gaze raked over them, one at a time. Lingering. ‘Today, you become servants of the Library.’
He walked away to a side table, on which sat a sleek, black box with the symbol of the Library gleaming in gold on top. It unlocked with a faint click at a pass of his hand, and he took out a tight wrapped scroll, sealed with wax, and a black box that was a miniature of the larger one.
Glain came to her feet and to military attention, chin high. She accepted the box and scroll, and bowed. ‘I didn’t want it this way,’ she said.
‘Perhaps given that the scroll identifies you as appointed to the rank of Training Sergeant in the High Garda, you should become used to the hard business of losing those you value.’ He paused for a moment, and added, ‘Your future was never in doubt. Nor your worth to the Library. Your contract offers you five initial years of service. All you need do is sign the scroll and put on your bracelet. Your Codex will update with instructions on where to report for duty.’‘Sir,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’ It wasn’t a formality.
She really meant it. Her voice was just barely holding steady. ‘It is my honour to serve.’
She sat down.
‘Postulant Santiago.’ Dario wasn’t as militarily correct about it, but he stood.
Wolfe retrieved another scroll and box, and handed them over. No bow from Dario, but then Jess hadn’t expected one. ‘You are an ambitious young man. If I have any advice for your future, it is to curb that ambition before it poisons you. I debated this.
You have flaws. But your performance in Oxford, and beyond, convinced me that you can learn to be a better man. Therefore, the scroll contains an offer for a three year contract as a Scholar,with a territory and speciality to be assigned by the Artifex Magnus. Sign and put on the bracelet if you accept.’ Dario’s mouth opened and closed, and Jess could see that he was biting back an acidic comment on the fact that Glain’s contract was longer than his own. He nodded stiffly, murmured his thanks, and sank down.
It was Khalila’s turn.‘Postulant Seif, I am certain that no one would dispute that you have earned this many times over. The offer in this scroll is one that I have only seen a handful of times, and it comes directly from the
Archivist. You are offered a lifetime appointment as a Research Scholar, which makes you a gold band, with all the attendant rank and privileges. And I can say that there is no one I would think better qualified to bring credit to the name of the Library.’ He held out her scroll and bracelet box, and she took them in trembling hands. Her tears hadn’t ceased.
Dario touched her gently on the back, steadying her, and she took in a deep, trembling breath to say, ‘I thank Allah for this chance to bring honour to my family.And I thank you, Scholar.
May I ask … what was Thomas’s offer?’
‘The same,’ Wolfe said.
‘And for much the same reasons.’
Khalila turned to Dario and hugged him hard.
‘Postulant Brightwell,’ Wolfe said. He retrieved another scroll and box as Jess got to his feet. No, Jess tried to tell him with a silent,urgent stare. No, don’t give me an appointment, didn’t you understand? ‘You are many things the Library needs – brave, intelligent, ruthless – and quite a few things that it does not need.
Your family history is against you. Your recent behaviour has called into question your loyalty—’
‘You can’t!’‘Jess isn’t—’ It was a chorus of three overlapping voices, all protesting: Glain, Khalila, Dario. All on their feet, arguing with Wolfe. For him.
That surprised Jess. It touched him, too.
Wolfe cut them off with a sharp, intimidating look. ‘Let me finish! I have since determined that perhaps this appointment will teach you some lessons that dismissing you from the Library would not. You still have promise. I believe you will find your way.’ He held the scroll and box out to Jess. They felt heavy on his palms. Almost warm. ‘This contains a contract for an appointment to the High Garda at the entry rank of private, for the period of one year. Should you accept, sign the document and don the copper bracelet.’ This wasn’t something that Wolfe had done on the spur of the moment. It wasn’t done because of the events of the night before; Wolfe wouldn’t have had time to draft and seal a new commission, nor to have it approved.
The lowest possible rank, in the one place he didn’t want to be. He had no talent for the High Garda, and no desire for it either. But it would keep him away from Wolfe, and keep him from begging his brother – oh, the irony – for scraps.
Jess put the scroll and box down on the table and said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ ‘Think hard,’ Wolfe said.
‘Your family won’t welcome you back. We both know that you’re of no use to them.’Bastard, Jess thought.
Even though he’d told Wolfe to keep him at a distance, this was a deliberate kick in the arse, and they all knew it.
Glain had gone red in the face, and only her famous military discipline kept her still. Dario looked tense and angry. Khalila just seemed … shocked, as if she couldn’t imagine Wolfe saying such a thing.‘Sir,’ she said. ‘Sir, Jess doesn’t deserve—’
‘Dismissed,’ Wolfe said, and spun towards the black box. He slammed it shut, tucked it under his arm, and strode past them, out through the Reading Room, with his black robe billowing like smoke behind him.
There were pens on the table. Four of them, engraved with the Library’s symbol.Jess could feel the others looking at him, clearly unsure what to say to him.
He sat down and broke the seal on his contract. It flared with a little crackle of light.
He picked up the pen and signed his name in steady, flowing script at the bottom.
There were Obscurist symbols and a blood drop at the bottom; the contract was mirrored. It would be inscribed somewhere on the Codex, making him a member of the Library, with all the attendant pay, duties, and privileges.
What a bitter irony that was.
‘Jess,’ Khalila said. ‘Jess —’
‘It’s done,’ he said. ‘I’m glad for you, Khalila. Glad for all of you.’
He took off his temporary Library bracelet that had been issued on the trip to Oxford.
His skin felt oddly naked without it.
He took the copper bracelet from the box, slipped it on, and clipped it shut. The symbol flared, and he heard a tiny shiver of sound from it as it activated.
One year of service, as a soldier.
Now all he had to do was find a way to survive.
Ptolemy House was no longer their home, and as Jess checked his Codex, he found instructions to pack his things and report to the High Garda base. He assumed the others had likewise got instructions, because when he began assembling his small amount of baggage, he could hear the noise of packing from other rooms.
It was the last moment they’d all be together, he thought. Bitter-sweet.
His personal journal was still sitting where he’d left it, on the table beside his bed.
He stared at the worn cover, the well-thumbed pages, and for the first time in his life, he wished he had a flask of Greek Fire. He wanted to burn the thing into ashes and a dark stain on the floor.
Nothing he’d poured into it was private. Nothing ever had been, from his earliest clumsy scribbles to the last words he’d written. I have to keep writing in it, he thought.
Wolfe would tell him it was important to keep up appearances. Funny. His father would have said the same thing.
As he picked it up, a folded, loose sheet of paper slipped out of the cover. He grabbed it as it fell and unfolded it.
The note was from
Jess felt a heavy, sickening lurch in the pit of his stomach. He recognised Thomas’s neat, square writing – not a spare loop or line.Jess, if you’re reading this, then the worst has happened. I know it will not happen, because you are always a pessimist and I am not, but some of your pessimism must have rubbed off because here I am leaving this for you. (Also, forgive me for opening your journal. I promise that I did not read it.) Do not blame yourself. I could see that in your face when you left, that somehow you thought this was all your fault, but this time it was mine, only mine.
In any case, I have left you something behind the Old Witch.
Three seven three. Keep it safe. And destroy this, of course, but you would have already thought of that, because you are clever.
He could hear Thomas’s voice, somehow, in the tone of the message, and for the first time, he felt tears sting at his eyes. Tears of anger at Thomas for being so stupid as to put his diagrams down in his journal for the Library to see. Tears of pain for what was gone.
He read it twice more, then ripped it methodically up into thin strips, put the strips into a copper bowl on the desk, and set them on fire with a match. Once the message was ashes, he crushed the ashes and threw them down the toilet.
Then he stepped out into the hallway. No one there, though he heard low voices from farther down – Khalila and Dario, it seemed. He took the stairs quickly and quietly up to the dusty second floor, with all its closed and locked doors.
And its rows of dusty paintings.
He tapped the glow up just enough to make out the age dimmed features of the portraits, and the third one on the right was the one here membered Thomas pointing out. She did look like an old witch, this long-dead Scholar; wild, white hair, forbidding bone structure, a thin and unpleasant sort of mouth. One of the Magnuses, possibly Medica. He lifted her portrait from the wall and set it aside and counted bricks. Three across, seven down, three across. He presumed that was the code, moving left to right,and when his fingers touched the last brick he felt it shift slightly under his fingers.
Getting it out required the help of the knife at his belt, but it finally slid free with a soft grating sound.
Behind it, rolled tight, was a scroll. Parchment, by the feel of it. Jess pulled it free and unrolled it.
Diagrams. Plans of the press. Thomas hadn’t been as innocent as all that.
Jess let the document snap shut, jammed the paper inside his jacket, and replaced the brick. Then the portrait.
He was halfway down the stairs when Dario passed by on the first floor, and gave him an odd look. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Checking my old room,’ he said. ‘Just in case I left anything there.’‘Did you?’ ‘Dust.’ Jess slapped some from his clothes, raising a small cloud, and Dario
stepped back to avoid it. ‘Are you packed?’
‘Ready to go,’ Dario said.
‘My quarters will be at the Lighthouse.’
‘The same, thankfully.’ Jess met his gaze squarely.
‘She’s too good for you, you know.’ ‘I’m well aware of it.’ Dario’s smile was rueful, and a little sad. ‘Maybe Wolfe’s right. Maybe I’ll learn to be better and deserve her someday. I’m sorry about—’ Jess cut him off with a shrug. ‘It’s still an appointment. And he’s right.
I can’t go home.’
Dario held out his hand, and Jess took it. The handshake was a little too firm. ‘I will see you again,’ Dario said. ‘You can’t get rid of me that easily, English.
You owe me another game or two of Go.’
‘You really must be addicted to losing, Scholar.’ They parted. Jess went into his room and closed the door. He needed a good place to hide the plans, and after some debate he took one of the original volumes he’d kept – illegal, of course, but most definitely safe from the Library’s eyes, which couldn’t be said for his Codex or journal. He used his knife to carefully cut a slit in the side of the thick leather cover, and pressed the paper into a thin square. That he skipped into the makeshift pouch. A little glue, and it was hidden. Invisible. He put it into his bag at the bottom. I need a hiding place. But not here, at Ptolemy House, where another crop of postulants would be making an appearance soon enough.
He was closing up his bag when there was a knock on his door. He opened it to see that the others were outside.
Khalila silently hugged him, and he let out a breath and held on for a moment. No goodbyes.
‘We’re going to the same place,’ Glain said to him.
‘Walk, or share a carriage?’ ‘Carriage,’ he said. ‘I have the feeling we’ll have plenty of exercise in the days to come.’
She grinned and said, ‘I’m to be your Training Sergeant after I finish my apprentice orientation. So you can count on it.’‘My luck keeps rolling true.’ But in truth, Jess was a little relieved. Glain would be close. He’d find a way to meet Dario and Khalila. They could all still hold on to their friendship, somehow.
‘Do you think there will be a memorial?’ Khalila asked. ‘For Thomas, I mean?’ ‘Not that we’ll get to attend,’ Glain said. ‘We have duties now.’ She extended her hand to Dario and Khalila, and shook. ‘Hyd nes y byddwn yn cyfarfod eto. Until we meet again.’
‘O hasta que te vea primero,’ Dario said. ‘Unless I see you first.’
As farewells went, it was a good one.
Dario and Khalila took a carriage together to the Lighthouse, that ancient, still functioning structure that spoke of the grace, beauty and determination of this ancient place. The beacon still shone from the top of it, guiding sailors safely home.
Jess and Glain took the next conveyance. As they sat together, Jess’s Codex buzzed. He opened it.
On an empty page, an invisible hand wrote, I miss you.
The message was gone a second later, as if he’d imagined it. Then it was replaced by more letters being drawn, in a hand he knew. Morgan was writing this as he was seeing it. How?
How was it possible? Worse, who else could see it? The connection is open now.
You can reply.
He took his stylus and scribbled as quickly as he could. Glain had given him a glance, but now she was staring out the window, absorbed in her own thoughts.
Even so, he wrote too quickly to be neat about it. Is this secure?
Yes, she wrote back. No one else can see it. I’ve worked out how to do it.
There won’t be a record.
Are you all right?
He didn’t think he was, but he didn’t want to say it. I miss you. Thomas is dead.
I know, she wrote. Seeing her writing appear was eerily like being with her, face to face. I’m sorry. There was a short pause, and he was worried she was gone, but then more letters appeared.
Help me make it change, Jess.
He stared at those letter shard, hard enough that his head began to ache.
She had written, in those deceptively brief words, exactly what he believed.
What Thomas had believed.
What Wolfe had believed, and been destroyed for daring to try.
The message slowly disappeared, and nothing else followed. She was gone.
He closed the book.She was right. Everything had to change. But he knew, as the carriage steamed towards the gates of the High Garda compound, that Thomas would be only the first of the cost they were going to pay for that progress.
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