فصل 10کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 22
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The Welsh encampment was mostly empty, but there were still enough troops around to take them into custody as one by one the Library party stumbled in. At least that meant being taken inside a tent and out of the sleet; it felt like luxury, and as Jess sank down on the tarpaulin covered ground he began to realise just how cold he really was. His fingers were almost blue, and his shivering was constant. His clothes were soaked through and crackling with ice.
Morgan was pushed into place beside him. One of the Welsh soldiers came around with cups steaming with hot coffee, and Jess gulped it down so fast he hardly even felt the burn on his tongue. It helped steady him, and by the second cup he began to be more aware of those around him … like Morgan, who was still shivering. ‘Can we get a blanket?’ Jess asked the man who’d delivered the coffee.
‘She’s half-frozen.’‘So are you, by the looks,’ the man said. ‘Blankets on the way.’ His brisk, impartial kindness suddenly struck Jess hard, and all out of proportion. He gulped down more coffee to hide his gratitude.
Morgan was trembling so much the coffee sputtered in the cup as she tried to raise it to her lips. Jess reached over to steady it. That was a mistake. She flinched from his touch, and slopped the hot liquid over both of them.
‘Sorry,’ Jess said. ‘I was only trying to help.’
‘I can manage,’ she said, and tried again. This time she gulped down a mouthful with only a little lost over the sides. ‘Thank you.’
‘For what?’ He hadn’t, he thought, been any kind of a hero, or even particularlybrave. He’d just desperately wanted out.
She looked away and hunched her shoulders, and somehow, in that gesture, he remembered her falling against him in that courtyard, as she’d realised just how alone she was. ‘For not dying, I suppose.’
He didn’t know how to answer that, so he didn’t.
The Welsh soldier wasback with an armload of blankets, and as Jess reached out for his, he winced from a sudden, lancing pain. Strange.
He hadn’t felt anything until that moment. He could see wounds on the others: a slashing cut on Dario’s arm, an injured left wrist for Glain, and Khalila had a bullet hole in her arm, but she’d been lucky; it had missed bone and done only minor muscle damage.
Jess felt a strange twinge in his side. He twisted to look down, and went suddenly, weirdly faint. There was a hole. He hadn’t even felt it, but from the looks of the wound, someone had tried to skewer him with a knife. It hurt.
There was blood. It was spreading fast.
‘Jess!’ He hadn’t realised that he’d fallen until Morgan’s hands were slapping his cheeks. ‘Jess, wake up – someone! He’s bleeding!’
‘I’m fine,’ Jess mumbled.
He was aware that he wasn’t, really. His head felt oddly stuffed, and he just wanted to rest. Close his eyes. As he grew warmer, the blood flowed faster, and took the pain away with it.He was flat on his back now, with no sense of transition, and there were faces leaning towards him.
They looked strange. Thomas looked very strange, all out of proportion, and Jess wanted to laugh but he couldn’t quite manage it. Wolfe was next to him, too, and barking orders that made no sense, something about a surgeon.
Someone needed a surgeon.He blinked, and it was night. The lights were low, the heater still casting warmth. He was tucked onto a camp bed, wrapped in a thick pile of blankets, and when he clumsily tried to move, pain paralysed him. He managed to lift up the covers with his left hand. He was almost bare beneath it, and a glaring white bandage wrapped tightly from his waist and up onto his ribs.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Right. I remember.’
His head fell back against the pillow, and he heard someone stir nearby. It was Thomas, who sat up and leant forward. ‘Stay still,’ his friend said. ‘Someone stabbed you. The only thing that kept you alive was the cold, Wolfe said.’
‘I know,’ Jess said. He felt oddly disconnected, still.
‘Someone gave me medicine.’
‘Dario is jealous. He only got bandages. You have narcotics.’
‘It doesn’t feel like winning,’ Jess said. ‘Is everyone else all right?’ ‘You’re our worst.’ Thomas’s face shut down.
‘The worst who lived. You saw Portero?’‘I remember.’ Jess thought he’d never forget it. Any of it.
Not Portero’s killing, not the run for the gate, not the child in his arms that he’d had to give up. ‘You heard anything about my cousin?’
‘Nothing. They’re still fighting inside the city. Not many have managed to make it. Dario thinks the Welsh will declare victory soon and spare the survivors; they have made their point to the English king. They could have killed everyone.’ Glain wasn’t far away, and now she sat up, too. ‘Not like English hands aren’t bloody,’ she said. ‘This started with the slaughter of the Welsh during the Glyndŵr uprising.
Men, women, children … cut down by the tens of thousands.’
‘So killing each other is—’ ‘Stop,’ Jess said wearily.
‘It doesn’t matter why, or who, or how long it’s been going on. We’re the Library. Left our countries behind, remember? Neutral. Where’s Wolfe?’
‘Off with the Welsh general.’
‘I’m here.’ He turned his head, and saw Morgan, on abed a few down. ‘You frightened us. What were you thinking, not telling anyone you’d been stabbed?’ ‘I didn’t know I had been,’ he said. ‘It didn’t hurt at the time.’
She shook her head and stared up at the dark, fluttering fabric of the tent above their heads. He couldn’t see much of her expression. What he could looked angry.
‘I told her to rest,’ Thomas said. ‘She hit me when I told her to leave you alone.’ ‘I just wanted to see how he was doing. You were in my way,’ she said. ‘And you’re too big to go around.’ ‘She has a point,’ Jess said. He wanted to laugh, but he knew it would be too painful. The impulse faded quickly. ‘So we survived.’Thomas patted Jess on the shoulder, too hard. ‘Go back to sleep, English. Wolfe said we can rest a while before we leave. He wants to be sure you can make the trip safely first.’
Oh God, Jess hadn’t thought so far ahead, but yes, there was a long, uncomfortable drive ahead across bad roads to
Aylesbury, and then he’d have to face the trauma of Translation again … and how they were expected to do that wounded, and remembering what had happened to Izumi and Guillaume, he didn’t know.
‘What about the books?’ he asked. ‘Did we get them out?’
Now Khalila sat up, too.
She winced a little as she did, but waved Dario’s helping hand away. ‘Most survived. Dario might have bled on the ones in his pack.’
‘It wasn’t my blood.’ ‘I will grant you the possibility and state instead that Dario’s books were bloodstained.’
‘That’s better. I wouldn’t want you to think I was so careless. Not like this one, getting his liver sliced for no good reason.’ Dario’s voice wasn’t nearly as harsh as his words, and Jess raised his head a little to look at him. In the low lights, it was hard to tell the other boy’s expression, but Jess saw the slight inclination of Dario’s head. From him, it was as good as a bow. ‘Remember, losing one pint of blood’s an accident. Losing two is carelessness.’
Jess extended his righthand. It hurt, but he managed to hold it up, and after a moment, Dario got to his feet and walked over to grasp it.
‘We’re still not friends,’ Jess said. ‘Thank God.’
‘Imagine my relief.’ Dario went back to his bunk – limped to it, actually. He wasn’t in the best shape of his life, either. None of them were.
Thomas must have been thinking on the same lines, as he watched Dario’s painful steps. ‘What will they tell our families about this?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Khalila said, and pulled the blankets closer. ‘My father will never let me go on, after this.’ ‘Wolfe won’t tell him anything. It’s not in the Library’s interest to be honest,’ Jess said.
‘Being stabbed has made you cynical,’ she said. ‘And you used to be such an optimist.’
‘Bite your tongue,’ Jess said. He was fighting to keep his eyes open, and he badly wanted to drift off again, away from the pain.
In a moment, despite the angry, burning ache in his side, the drugs dropped him gently as a feather down into the dark.It was two more boring days of lying still, with one of the Welsh surgeons poking and prodding him three or four times a day, though not very sympathetically. He requested an interim personal journal, which the Medica station had at hand; for the first time, he genuinely missed having his old journal, the familiar feel and smell of it, the thickness of its pages. This new one felt flimsy and unsatisfying, but he wrote it all down anyway, all the insanity and anguish of Oxford.
Words didn’t cover it, he felt, but he did his best.
The others, one by one, were allowed to roam free; not Jess. The news came to him through bulletins delivered by various friends – Thomas, most often, but also Khalila, Dario, Morgan, even Glain. (And he wasn’t sure when he’d begun to think of Glain as a friend, but perhaps it had been the moment that they’d lost Portero, and he’d realised that all their petty grievances meant so little.) Oxford had been devastated, according to Thomas; the death toll was staggering. The Welsh had declared a general truce and allowed the survivors to stream out of the ruins to flee as refugees for a full day after the escape of Wolfe’s party and the initial attack, but after that, there’d been no mercy given.
No way to know if Morgan’s father was among the survivors.
Thomas spared him the details of what the city looked like now, and Jess was glad not to know. He didn’t want to think about it, any of it.
When he shut his eyes, he saw the woman shoving her baby into his arms. None of it made sense to him, and trying to make it fit together inside made him feel worse.
He asked after Frederick, but there was no news of his cousin, either. The death inside the city meant that if he hadn’t managed to escape,there was almost no chance his body would be identified; the Welsh were bound to shovel the corpses into mass graves and be done with it.
No, he’d only get news of Frederick if that flash criminal had managed to escape.
Morgan stuck close to the tent, though she was allowed to roam freely; he wondered if Wolfe had given her orders to watch him. Except for trips out to collect food and to the privies, she sat on her camp bed and read – from an original book, one that she must have kept out of the cache they’d rescued. Jess was restless and frustrated, and she turned her pages at a pace that Jess could only envy while he scribbled down more detail in the journal. It still felt stiff and awkward in his hands, and he didn’t like the pen they’d given him. It dragged too slowly on the paper.
It all combined to make him irritable. ‘You don’t have to stay here,’ he said. ‘I promise not to run away if you take your eyes off me.’ ‘Do you?’ She turned a page. ‘I’m not sure I believe you. You’re not someone who understands his limits. I personally saw you tag so many books you almost fell unconscious.’
‘I’m much better.’ ‘That’s exactly the issue. You think you are. It makes you foolish.’
‘So Wolfe assigned you?’ ‘I didn’t say that.’ She calmly turned another page.
‘Would you like something?’ ‘I’d like to get up and at least go outside. See something different.’ ‘My home, still burning?
The corpses of my neighbours? Is that different enough for you?’ She pulled her knees up closer to her chest. ‘Just shut up.’ God, that was clever of me, Jess thought. He didn’t know how to a pologise for being so clumsy, so unthinking. ‘What are you reading?’ he asked instead.Morgan said nothing for a moment, then passed over the book. It was Inventio Fortunata, written long ago by an Oxford monk. He’d held another hand copy of this book once. He’d read it the last night he’d slept in his family’s home.
‘I’m not going back to Alexandria,’ she said. ‘Wolfe says the Obscurist Magnus knows, and she’s issued orders for my immediate return. I have to run. Maybe to London, I can lose myself there.’
‘Ask for my father, Callum Brightwell,’ Jess said.
‘Tell him I said to help you.’ ‘He won’t—’
‘Betray you? Not to the Library.’ Jess handed the book back, and their fingers brushed. It wasn’t much of a touch, but it meant something that she didn’t pull away quickly.
It meant something that she tried to smile through the brightness of her tears.
Wolfe stepped into the tent then, and whatever she might have said was lost. His dark eyes darted from Jess, to Morgan, and back to rest on Jess. ‘We’ll be leaving in the morning,’ he said. ‘The Welsh have abided by the covenants, but they’re not happy about it, and they want us gone. You’re not well enough, but we need to move before their patience is completely gone. We will head for London.’ Wolfe’s gaze passed from Jess over to Morgan. ‘They’re sending the Express for us.’
The Alexandrian Express was a special train, one that used technology only the Library possessed; it was fast as lightning, and ran on special rails that only the Express could use. It was reserved, Jess had thought, for only the most senior officials of the Library on diplomatic missions, or for the personal use of the
Archivist; he’d never seen it himself, and he didn’t know anyone who had.
It wouldn’t stop from thetime it left London until it arrived in Alexandria.
Morgan would have no chance to escape from it.
‘You could let me go on the way to London,’ Morgan said.
‘No,’ Wolfe said. ‘I can’t risk it. I’m sorry.’ ‘Why were you even helping her in the first place?’ Jess asked. ‘If you’re just going to turn your back now?’ ‘I told you, Brightwell. I keep secrets. But not at the risk of my own life. Not any more.’
Jess sat up and swung his legs off the bed. He felt weak and hot, but much better now that the effects of the painkilling morphine had passed. The wound didn’t ache too badly, but when he tensed his stomach muscles to stand, it escalated quickly. He managed, though his legs didn’t seem any too steady.
‘And where do you imagine you’re going?’ Wolfe asked him.
‘I’m tired of using a pot.
I’m going to the privy.’ ‘The Welsh accommodations are about what you’d expect for a battlefield. I don’t know that you’ll find it an improvement.’ Wolfe watched him, but didn’t offer him any support. Jess leant against a tent pole for a moment, then grabbed a clean, plain shirt that someone had left for him and pulled it on. That hurt, too, and required another pause for breath. A long one.
‘You’ll never make it on your own,’ Morgan said. She stood up. ‘I’ll go.’‘To the privies and back,’ Wolfe said. ‘Any deviations and the alarm sounds. And you know what happens then.’
‘You find me,’ she said. ‘I know.’
Jess listened to that with total incomprehension, and couldn’t form the question before Wolfe stalked away, out of the tent. He turned his gaze on Morgan.She shrugged. ‘I tried to run,’ she said. ‘While you were drugged. I got outside the camp before I was caught by the Welsh, and if Thomas hadn’t come to help … it might not have gone well for me. It caused an incident.’ ‘An incident?’
‘The Welsh general demanded that Wolfe hand me over for punishment, or give up Library neutrality.Wolfe compromised.’ She held up her wrist, and instead of the temporary Library bracelet, she was wearing something Jess recognised: two loops of gold wire, with the Library symbol on a seal in the middle. They were normally used as restraints across two wrists, but Wolfe had used it just on the one for her.
It looked like jewellery, but it wasn’t. It was a tracking device. The same kind Jess had used to follow Santi in Alexandria.
‘He knows where I go now,’ she said. ‘And if I try to leave. For my safety.’ Morgan came to Jess’s side and took his left arm in a firm grip. ‘Lean on me,’ she said.
‘And watch your footing. It’s still a mess out there.’ It was. The rain had stopped, but the skies remained heavy and grey as iron. The Welsh had put down boards in the thick mud, but even those slipped uneasily around, and were hardly broad enough for him and Morgan to walk together.
Jess concentrated on the difficult job of placing his feet, one step at a time, and his whole body shook with effort by the time he’d reached the privy tent.
He pulled loose from her.
Her bracelet was making a ringing sound now, low but continuous. A warning. She was approaching the edge of her allowed distance. ‘I can go alone,’ he said, and promptly stumbled when he tried.
She sighed and grabbed him as he lurched to one side, righted him, and shook her head. ‘Are all Londoners this stubborn?’
‘I’m the soul of reason.
‘I’d feel right at home there.’ She pulled back the flap, and made a retching sound at the smell. ‘It’s as lovely as last time.’
‘I really can do this myself,’ he told her. ‘Go on.’ ‘And if you fall into the privy, it’ll be my fault,’ she said. ‘At least let me help you onto the seat.’
‘No.’ He stared at her until she shrugged and dropped his arm. ‘Go on. Outside.’ She left the tent, and he immediately wondered if he really could do this alone; he felt better, but the walk had taken it out of him. Grit it up, he told himself. He could hear his father’s voice echoing in it. Do for yourself,don’t let anybody do it for you. Only way to stay strong.
So he managed.
Somehow. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, or the most painless, but just controlling his own body, after feeling mortally helpless, was good for his soul. He made it to the flap of the tent, and expected to find Morgan waiting outside.
She wasn’t there.The camp was a busy place, with uniformed Welsh soldiers criss-crossing between tents and armoured carriers grinding past through the mud, but she couldn’t have blended in that well.
Morgan was wearing Library gold shirt and pants, and thick black boots. She’d stand out against the Welsh colours.
Not my responsibility to watch out for her, he told himself. And besides, she has on a tracker. If she makes another run for it, they’ll find her without my help.
Convincing arguments, but he sighed and limped off in search of her anyway.
She hadn’t gone far, and he spotted her as he came around the corner of the privy tent; she was standing still and looking off in the distance.‘This is as far as I can go,’ she told him.
‘What are you doing?’ She didn’t answer. He followed her gaze, and the first thing that struck him was the sullen, smoking glow of what had been the city of Oxford. The walls were broken, tumbled ruins; tongues of flames still licked the sky. No screaming now.
Just the stillness ofdestruction.
The next thing that caught his attention were the Welsh troops massed outside the walls. They were loading something into carriers. He didn’t say anything, and neither did Morgan. They watched as the carriage chuffed and clanked across the mud, and passed them.
It was filled with the dead.
Not Welsh dead; none of the bodies wore those uniforms.
These were dead civilians, headed for a shared grave.
‘I don’t know where my father is,’ Morgan said quietly. ‘If he’s dead, I’ll never be sure.’
She turned and walked back towards the tent. Jess followed. She didn’t slow for him, and he panted and sweated as he caught up.
When he slipped and would have gone down in the mud, Morgan took his arm and steadied him. He didn’t speak. Neither did she, all the way back to the tent.
‘You didn’t say you were sorry,’ she said.
Jess looked up, and found her gaze full on him; the shock of those eyes, so intently focused, was like a lightning strike. She could out-stare Wolfe, if she tried.‘What?’ ‘Most people would have, you know. Said they were sorry about my home. My father. You didn’t. Why not?’ He shrugged a little. It hurt. ‘What’s the point? Does my being sorry for you make you feel better?’
‘No,’ she said, and blinked away tears. ‘Nothing makes me feel better. But thank you for being honest about not caring.’ ‘I never said I didn’t care.’ He left her to think about that, went inside, and collapsed back on his bed with sweaty relief.
Morgan said nothing else to him that day. She remained quiet while his classmates helped him to the Welsh mess tent, where he ate his first solid meal – tasteless, even if an improvement over the weak broth he’d been enduring. But it felt good to be sitting at a table with his fellows again. They were quiet, and he could tell that the time for idle jokes was past, at least for now. They were all healing, still.
Khalila and Dario held hands.
Wolfe sat with Santi at another table, and the two were in deep conversation.
Serious conversation, it seemed.
Jess felt oddly divorced from it all, even as he was in the middle of it. Delayed shock, he supposed. Slow recovery. He found himself looking more at Morgan than anyone else – Morgan, who wasn’t really one of them any more. Morgan, who’d either slip away before London, or be dragged to the Iron Tower once they got to Alexandria.
Wolfe wasn’t protecting her now.
I can get Brendan to hide her. Put her on a ship, away from here. Maybe to America.
Jess wondered what price his brother would charge him for that, and decided that it didn’t matter.
Wolfe suddenly nodded at something Santi said, andstood up. He walked over to their table. The students’ laughter and conversation died a quick, strangled death.
‘I wanted to tell you that you’ve done well. All of you.’ Wolfe hesitated, then fixed his gaze on Jess as he continued. ‘I also want to make something clear. You all saw a harsh illustration of why it can be difficult to do this job. We can’t take anyone from the city – child, family member, no one. The moment we stopped being neutral, we would have been dead. We had no choice but to leave the child Brightwell took.’
‘So you did it for the best reasons,’ Jess said. ‘Is that it?’
‘I did it to save us,’ Wolfe replied. ‘And to preserve the tradition of neutrality of theLibrary.’ ‘Neutrality? They tried to kill us in Oxford!’
‘Desperate people do desperate things. You cannot be one of them. You must be better.’
‘You wanted me to leave her in the mud to drown,’ Jess said. ‘I don’t call that better.
The fact you changed your mind doesn’t make me forget it.’Wolfe held his stare for a long moment, then turned and walked back to join Santi.
The others all looked at Jess, with varying degrees of alarm. Khalila leant forward.
‘There are six of us left now,’ he said. ‘Six. Wolfe’s giving six placements. He’s not going to fail me now. And if he does,
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