فصل 13کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 28
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Jess walked a while before he fell in the ditch on a bed of surprisingly soft fallen leaves.
He stayed where he was for a while, until the rain started to fall. It was a soft, gentle mist, but he knew it would freeze him icy as the night’s chill took hold, so he grimly wrestled himself up to his knees, and walked until he ran into the line of High Garda searching for him.
Once they spotted him, they reached him at a run.
Somehow, he’d been expecting something else to happen to snatch it all away.The High Garda men handed him off to Medica staff. He was flat on his back in a camp bed with his shirt off and a surgeon poking his stomach when Wolfe threw back the flap on the tent.
‘Sterile area,’ the surgeon barked, and Wolfe stopped a few feet away. ‘Talk from there.’
He cast her a look, but
didn’t argue. ‘What happened?’ ‘Burners,’ Jess said. ‘Took me off for a talk. One of them was Guillaume Danton’s father. He wanted to know why his son was dead.’ Wolfe’s expression hardly even flickered. ‘What did you tell him?’
‘I told him what I saw.’ ‘And what did he tell you?’
‘Someone told him whereto find us.’ ‘Enough talking,’ his doctor said. ‘Scholar, the wound in his side was aggravated by the force of the explosion. His stitches tore.’ ‘Will he live?’
‘Oh, yes. A few days’ rest should put him in good order.’
‘I’m fine. Tell—’ Morgan, he almost said. ‘Tell the others that I’m all right.’ He didn’t want to mention Morgan. Maybe she’d already slipped off in the darkness, found a way to her freedom.
He told himself, again, that he wanted that for her.
‘Your fellow postulants have been informed. It was all we could do to keep
Schreiber from tearing around the woods after you when you disappeared.’
‘Wolfe,’ the surgeon said.‘Go lie down. I haven’t cleared you to get up, and you know it. You’ve seen the boy.
He’s breathing and his lungs are almost clear. Now leave.’ Wolfe gave her another piercing look that had absolutely no effect, and left.
He tried – and almost succeeded, Jess thought – in making it look that it was his own idea. ‘He’s hurt?’ Jess asked, once he was gone.‘Of course he’s hurt,’ his doctor said. ‘He and Santi both have concussion and internal bruising. Can’t keep them down, the fools. The others are all fine. Minor cuts and bruises. Miraculous, considering the shrapnel tossed about.’
‘There was a girl. Morgan.
She’s all right?’
‘Mmm. Breathed in a lot of fumes from the fire, but she’s recovering. No worse off than you.’
‘What about the Burners?’ ‘What about them?’
‘Did any of them survive?’
‘Not the ones we found. They’re in pieces.’
She called over a waiting assistant, and they inserted needles and fluids, and his constant pain began to recede like a wave pulling out to sea.The doctor bustled off to see other patients, he supposed, and he floated for a while before Wolfe came back into the tent.
‘You’re supposed to be lying down,’ Jess said. ‘She said so.’
‘You had something else to tell me.’
Jess stirred uncomfortably.
He felt sweaty, and the drugs were beginning to be less of a soft cushion. ‘Danton said they didn’t blow up the train,’ he said.
‘Did he?’ Wolfe seemed utterly still. ‘I don’t believe we should take the word of Burners for that.’
‘But if he’s telling the truth, someone else did.’ Jess swallowed a sudden taste of bile. ‘He said someone told him where we’d be. The explosion was white. Not green. It wasn’t Greek Fire.’ Wolfe considered that, but if he came to a conclusion, he didn’t share it. ‘The doctor says you’ll be well enough to travel in a few days. We’re fortified and heavily guarded here. There’s no risk in waiting. Rest.’
He headed for the tent flap, but Jess didn’t let him leave without asking the question that had been on his mind since Danton had planted the seed of it out there in the dark forest.
‘Scholar? Did someone in the Library just try to kill us?’ ‘I hope not,’ Wolfe said.
‘Because if they have, they’ll try again. There’s no fighting them. I’ve tried.’
That seemed to beg a lot of questions, Jess thought, but Wolfe was gone before he could even begin to think how to ask them.
The next morning brought him a new visitor, as Jess was plotting how best to stage an escape from being fussed over by the surgeon. He’d just decided to ask Thomas to stage a collapse and draw her off when Morgan stepped into the tent.
He stared at her, because he didn’t know what to say toher, or how to say it; she had a way of making him feel awkward, as if it was the first time they’d met, every time.
Part of it was because she looked different. Instead of wearing her hair up, it was down, soft around her shoulders, and it made him remember how soft and heavy it had felt in his hands.
She’d been spending time outside in the sun. He saw a bright splash of sunburn on her nose.
‘You really should stop this,’ she said.
‘Stop what?’ She gestured around them, at the medical equipment. He nodded. ‘I should. Funny. Until I met you, I never needed stitching up.’
‘It’s my fault?’ She came another step towards him, but only one. He wondered bitterly if Wolfe had fitted her with a restraint again. Maybe the restraint was to keep her away from him.
‘You make me careless,’ he said. ‘I mean that as a compliment. I’ve always been too careful.’
‘I never thought that. You always seemed—’
‘You never seemed afraid of risking things.’This felt all wrong, all wrong. They were talking like two people who were strangers, and she wasn’t coming closer. There were shadows in her eyes, and in her smile. Distance.
‘Morgan,’ he said, and heard the longing in his voice when he said her name. He didn’t know how to go on from that, and wasn’t sure he could. ‘You should have run.’She took a step closer. No more than that.
‘Wolfe told me what you did. How you came back. I don’t remember any of it. I was hiding, and waiting for everyone to leave, and it took too long. The smoke came through the vents. I tried to stand up, and …’ She let it hang there, then raised her hands, palms up. ‘Then I was in the forest, and they said you were missing. How could I leave?’
‘How could you not? If ever they would be distracted, that would have been the time.’
‘I know.’ She came the rest of the way, across the floor, and settled on the foot of his bed. He was intensely aware of her, and at the same time, of the fact that he still smelt of toxic smoke, dirt,and sweat. ‘I had to know that you were alive. I thought – I thought the Burners had killed you.’ Her breath caught suddenly, and her eyes widened, and she turned her head to look at him. ‘That’s what it felt like, when you thought I’d jumped. Oh, Jess.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I didn’t do it to teach you a lesson.’ A laugh burst out of her,and she leant over and kissed him. I taste of Greek Fire, he thought, but if he did, she didn’t pull away. She relaxed against him, and the sweet taste of her lips drowned all the bitter chemicals. All the bitter memories. He pushed her loose, dark hair back from her face, and sighed as she pulled back, just a little. ‘I missed you,’ he said. ‘But I really was hoping to never see you again.’ ‘That is no way to charm a girl.’ Thomas’s voice, from the door of the tent. Morgan stood up in one quick motion, and Jess almost laughed himself at the expression on her face. Thomas did laugh.
‘Don’t you think I know? We all know. We have no secrets, we students.’
That was blackly funny in itself, but it didn’t incline Jess to laughter this time. We’re nothing but secrets, he wanted to say, but Thomas wouldn’t understand.
‘What’s that?’ Morgan asked. Thomas had something in a bag over his shoulder, and it wasn’t small.
‘Something to keep Jess occupied,’ Thomas said. ‘I had time to finish it. None of us but Khalila can beat him at chess. I thought I would makehim a proper opponent.’ ‘Make one?’
Thomas set down the bag, looked around, and found a small folding table that he carried over to sit next to Jess’s bed. Then he reached in and took out a large wooden chessboard that sat on a metal box frame almost two inches deep. He looked for the drawer where the chessmen would be kept, but the sides were seamless.
‘You brought me an empty board?’
‘Ach, sorry, no room for the pieces inside.’ Thomas reached back into the bag and took out a smaller matching box, which he opened. Inside were metal chess pieces in steel and iron. Thomas set them in quick, deft motions.
‘Black or white?’
‘White,’ Jess said.‘Move.’ Jess obligingly pushed a pawn forward and waited for Thomas to do the same.
Thomas didn’t. He just stood there with that delighted grin on his face.
A piece of black iron moved itself, gliding forward two spaces.
‘It’s an automaton,’ Thomas said. ‘One that plays chess. I had Khalila help me with all the calculations.’ Jess moved his pawn forward again. The automaton’s black pawn slid into his, and his white piece tipped over on its side, rolled off the board, and fastened itself to one side of the metal box.
Taken off the board.
‘Magnetic,’ Thomas said.
‘If I had more time I would make it smaller underneath so there could be a drawer for taken pieces. Next time.’ ‘It’s incredible,’ Jess said.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Morgan said. She picked up the piece that had fastened itself to the side and ran it through her fingers. ‘Did you make all this? How?’
‘Yes. Captain Santi was kind enough to have it sent to Toulouse, and the soldiers brought it,’ Thomas said. ‘I finished it before we left Alexandria.’
‘Can it actually play a full game?’ Jess moved another piece, this time really putting thought into it, and it was eerie how quickly the machine countered him.
Correctly countered him.
‘That was why it took so long to build,’ Thomas said.
‘A chess game has at least tento the forty-third power of moves.’
‘How long did it take you, then?’ Morgan stood and watched as Jess moved pieces, and the automaton played its side.
‘Months, for the clockworks. A few days for the pieces. Alles Gute zum Geburtstag, Jess.’
‘It’s not my birthday.’ Thomas shrugged. ‘I’veknown you this long. It must be coming some time.
Besides, you need a distraction.’ A smile spread wide across his face.
‘Although it seems you have found a very pretty one, anyway.’
‘Flatterer,’ Morgan said.
‘Go ahead, Jess. Play.’ Jess moved pieces until it became clear that Thomas’s automaton was going to trap him in four moves, and, marvelling at the eerie intelligence of the thing, he tipped his king.
All the pieces, even the ones that had been fixed to the sides of the board, glided back into place. The board lifted, spun opposite, and the automaton moved white this time.
‘You’re bloody brilliant, Thomas,’ Jess said. His throatfelt tight with emotion, and he knew it was in his rough voice, too. ‘I hope you know that.’
‘I know,’ Thomas said.
‘Wait until you see what I have back home at Ptolemy House.’
‘I thought this was what you were working on.’
‘This? No. It is a toy.
Elaborate, but a toy. What I have there is different.’ His grin faded, and suddenly Thomas looked completely serious. ‘What I have will change the world.’
It felt like freedom for the next six days; their wounds healed, and the six of them were much in each other’s company. They held a chess tournament, and took the Toulouse soldiers’ bets on machine versus student;invariably, they made a profit. Khalila played
Thomas’s automaton to a draw many times, and won twice; Jess prized the one time he’d managed to force the machine to tip its king in defeat. Soldiers took a seat.
Even Wolfe had a try, which brought the most heated betting of all, but he, too, went down to defeat.
Thomas, curiously, could beat it every time. ‘I know how it thinks,’ he said when Jess asked, which was as mysterious as it was maddening.
It began to feel almost benign, these calm days in the sun. When the doctor released him, Jess treasured the hours spent with his friends, individually or in groups. He began to wish it would just … go on.And then, on the sixth day, Wolfe called them to his tent. It was a pretty blue-sky day outside, with a crisp turn of autumn in the air.
Inside that tent the mood felt like winter.
They entered together, the six of them, and found Wolfe seated at a camp desk with his journal open in front of him, and a pen marking the centre. He closed the book.‘The escort arrives in the morning,’ he said. ‘Another trusted commander. Nic has seen to that. We will be travelling in armoured comfort back to Alexandria.’ The armoured part Jess didn’t doubt. The comfort was questionable. Khalila sighed and shifted, as if she could already feel the kinks in her back from the trip.
Wolfe looked tired, Jess thought. There were lines around his eyes and mouth that he didn’t remember seeing before. The man hadn’t put on Scholar’s robes for some time, and Jess had almost grown used to seeing him without them now.
But the robes were out today. They were neatly folded on a chest, ready to don.
It’s almost over, Jessrealised. We’re going back.
Back to what?
As if he’d read Jess’s mind, Wolfe said, ‘When we arrive, I will be summoned to the Artifex to give him my recommendations for your placements. It’s possible that I won’t return in time to give them out, but someone will deliver the scrolls if I am unable to attend.’
‘Unable, Scholar?’ Dario asked. ‘Or do you mean, prevented from returning?’ When Wolfe looked up, he shrugged. ‘It’s clear that you’ve got powerful enemies there. You’re even worried here.’
‘Sir,’ Glain said. ‘They don’t have grounds to punish you. You were sent to retrieve the books from
Oxford, and you did exactly that. We will all support it.’Wolfe acknowledged that with a very slight bow of his head to them. ‘It’s been my privilege to be your proctor,’ he said. ‘It comes as a surprise, I assure you, to say that; I am the most reluctant Scholar ever to be forced to take on a year’s class, and the least inclined to charity. So when I tell you I am proud …’ He shook his head, and smiled. It was a tight, private smile, a little rueful. ‘When I tell you I am proud, I mean it.’
‘Sir …’ Khalila hesitated, then plunged on. ‘What happened to Guillaume and Joachim wasn’t your fault.
We all know that, and if they ask us, we’ll tell them you did everything you could. There were risks; we knew that.
Life is risk. But you brought us through it. And it is we who are proud. Honoured.’ She inclined her head to him. Next to her, Dario followed. Then Glain and Thomas.
That left Jess and Morgan.
Jess bowed his head, and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Morgan do the same.
‘Honoured,’ Morgan said.
Wolfe watched them for a long few seconds, and then opened his journal and picked up his pen. ‘Be ready tomorrow morning by dawn.
Tota est scientia. Dismissed.’ He didn’t look up as they filed out, and when Jess glanced back, he saw Wolfe pressing pen to paper.
But the man didn’t write a word.
Dinner meant sharing a large, airy tent with the Toulouse Garda crowding the benches, along with the Medica staff they’d brought with them.
Wolfe’s party was pushed close at one table. Jess had tried to take a seat beside Morgan, but she had been blocked in by Wolfe on one side, Santi on the other, and the best he was able to do was claim a place across from her.
It did give him a chance to study her as they ate. She didn’t seem to mind.
The food was better than Jess expected, or maybe his health was coming back; he ate with real hunger and savoured the lamb and fresh vegetables and crusty French bread. Wolfe and Santi were, at first, the only ones allowed wine. Santi had only a little, but Wolfe steadily filled glasses, emptied a bottle, then another. He called for a third,and glasses for each of the students. Dario applauded that. Khalila declined, but everyone else accepted.
As the wine was poured, Jess glanced up and saw Morgan watching him. The last night, he thought.
Tomorrow, at dawn, it would be different. Tonight would be her last chance to run. He wondered if that was why Wolfe and Santi had so firmly blocked her between them.
Wolfe stood up, glass in hand. He didn’t seem quite steady. ‘Postulants,’ he said.
‘Your attention.’ He didn’t ask, he demanded, and they all gave it. ‘Guillaume Danton and Joachim Portero.
Drink to them.’
They all stood, then, and toasted in silence, and drained glasses. He nodded, and they sat again, but he stayed on his feet.
Wolfe clumsily refilled his glass. ‘And a toast to all of you still here.
Congratulations. You’re now in the safe embrace of the Library. Good luck.’ He threw back the entire glass at one long gulp. Santi sat back.
He looked concerned.
Wolfe had to brace himself with one hand on the table, as if the room had tilted. None of them spoke.
Jess had never seen Wolfe out of control before, and it felt deeply wrong.
‘Thank you,’ Khalila finally ventured. ‘You’ve taught us so much.’
‘Don’t thank me for risking your lives. You deserved better than that.
Better than me.’ Wolfe refilled his glass, emptied the bottle, and signalled foranother. Santi leant back to send Wolfe a look behind Morgan’s back, but Wolfe didn’t seem to notice. ‘I didn’t ask to be your proctor.
Saddling me with your class was a kind of punishment. To teach me obedience.’
‘Wolfe,’ Santi said.
‘Enough. Sit down.’
‘No. Not enough.’ Wolfe slammed his glass down on the table with so much forcethe glass cracked up the side.
A dining attendant, who’d come with another bottle of wine, deftly scooped up the damaged vessel and put another one in its place.
‘They’re no longer my students. No longer my responsibility. All that remains is for the Library to break their hearts, as it broke ours years ago.’ Wolfe levelled a finger at Santi.‘Say I’m wrong.’ Santi stood up, put the cork firmly in the bottle, and leant close to Wolfe. ‘You’re drunk, and this isn’t the place or the time. If you don’t care about your future, think of theirs. Think of mine.’ Their eyes locked for a moment, and then Wolfe blinked and nodded. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Forgive me.
I’m … tired.’‘You’re grieving,’ Santi said. ‘We’ve all got scars.
Don’t show them here.’ Dario waited a second before saying, ‘Well, if you’re done with the wine and moved on to self-pity, pass the bottle down. That’s half-decent French. Not
Rioja, but still. Hate to waste it.’
Glain, of all people, stood up, retrieved the bottle and poured herself a very respectable glass. Then she topped up Dario’s, and passed the bottle down the row.
Thomas took a glass. So did Morgan, and then Jess.
Santi helped Wolfe to his feet and said, ‘I expect you to watch your behaviour.
Morgan, that tether’s still active. If Wolfe’s not watching, I will be. We had that double-locked by an Obscurist. Don’t even try removing it.’
She nodded and picked at the restraint wound around her wrist. She’d been rubbing on it, Jess saw; there was a faint red mark on her skin around the golden coils. He wondered if she’d tried to take it off again. Probably.
Wolfe’s soldiers – the five of them who were left – sensibly took the rest of the wine. The mess cleared out, but their table stayed while the kitchen staff cleaned and sent them increasingly irritated looks. Jess only sipped at what remained in his glass, since his Medica surgeon stopped to remind him that his liver was needed for the future.
Morgan was the first to leave. ‘It’s late,’ she said, and shook her head when the others chorused a desire for her to stay. ‘No, enjoy yourselves. It’s our last night together.’
Khalila stood with her.
‘I’ll walk with you,’ she said.
Dario bowed them off with exaggerated deference.
Jess drained a glass of water, watching Morgan go.
Another bottle came around again, but this one was filled with fruit juice. He silently shoved it over to Glain. She filled her cup.
‘I’m going too,’ he said, finally. ‘I’m still getting my strength back.’
‘You are missing out,’ Thomas said, all too cheerfully; his face had gone pink. ‘Dario is off to find another bottle.’
‘Not if I get it first,’ Glain said.
‘I will wrestle you for it,’Thomas said, and placed his elbow on the table. Glain handily pinned Thomas three times in a row, and claimed the bottle, which didn’t so far actually exist.
Dario was offering her a game of dice, which was probably far better odds for him, when Jess walked back to his room.
They’d moved him from the medical quarters to something smaller, but it had a comfortable bed, and that was all he cared about. He felt tired, and strangely restless underneath it.
Unsettled. Seeing Wolfe come undone, even that much, made him feel that nothing was secure in their strange, new world.
When he stretched out still fully clothed, he heard an unfamiliar crackle of paper,and reached under the thin pillow.
It hid a folded paper note.
I will come at midnight.
She hadn’t signed it, but he knew her handwriting, the bold and elegant sweeps of her pen. She hadn’t sent it by Codex. She knew those messages would be read by someone – if not Wolfe, then someone hidden back in the Iron Tower.She hadn’t said it explicitly, but he knew she meant to come to say goodbye. That was both sweet and sour at once. He took the note and put it into his personal journal, then took up his pen and let his thoughts run about how he felt. About seeing her. Losing her. About all this coming to an end, and his friends scattering. What had he said to Morgan on the train? Reset the board. Start a new game.
He didn’t know if he could, after this.
Jess turned to his journal for comfort. He’d always filled the pages with his feelings … fear and guilt, in his earliest childhood. Then guilt, anger, and bitterness.
His entries since Alexandria had been about pride and achievement, grief and horror, loss and love.
The last few had been about Morgan. Just Morgan.
Writing about it helped, but it didn’t erase the pain completely; he left the journal next to his bed and turned to his blank. He’d loaded it with Inventio Fortunata, line after line of careful script, written in a time when every rounded letter was its own work of art.
Tales of adventure and discovery from a man long dead.
A blank isn’t the same. He remembered holding this book, feeling the history of the leather cover someone had tanned and stretched and cut to fit. The paper that someone had laboriously filled by hand and sewn into the binding. Years, heavy on the pages. Morgan had been reading a copy of it. An original. It felt like the old monk’s story was part of his own.
But when he read it in the blank, it was just words, and it had no power to carry him away.
Someone knocked on the board outside his tent door, two quiet raps, and he sat up so fast the blank fell to the floor. ‘Come in,’ he said.
It wasn’t midnight yet, and it wasn’t Morgan at his door.
At the sight of Niccolo
Santi, Jess grew cautious.
This wasn’t the friendly version of the captain; this was the closed, professional soldier.
‘What do you want?’
‘I know that Morgan’s planned to leave. I know she’s coming at midnight. I have orders to take her into custody.’ When Jess started to speak, Santi waved it sharply aside. ‘Don’t bother to lie to me. I know. The question is, how did they know? She wouldn’t tell anyone else. Just you. Who did you tell?’
Jess glared. ‘I didn’t tell anyone!’
‘Then how did the bloody Artifex Magnus already know?’
Jess opened his personaljournal and flipped it to the middle, where he’d left the pen as a marker. The folded note slid out. He handed it to Santi. ‘Maybe someone else saw this. It was under my pillow.’
‘It’s not enough,’ Santi said. ‘Anyone who saw it would think it was romance, not intrigue.’ His stare moved to the book in Jess’s hand.
‘Did you write it in your journal?’ ‘I – yes. I mentioned it.’ ‘When did you write it?’ ‘An hour ago, when I
found the note. It hasn’t left my side. No one read it.’ Santi grabbed the journal from him.
‘What are you doing?’ Jess lunged, but Santi was faster, and kept the journal out of his reach. ‘You can’t!’ No one was allowed to read a personal journal without permission, not until the owner’s death. Even his brother Brendan hadn’t violated that trust.
‘I’m not reading it.’ Santi took out a knife, and that checked Jess’s advance, but Santi wasn’t threatening him.
He slit open the inside of the back cover of Jess’s journal and peeled back the paper.
Behind the paper was a line of symbols in precise writing, and a splash of something that might have been blood.
Jess knew enough to recognise alchemical symbols when he saw them, but he didn’t understand. Not immediately.
‘Mirrored,’ Santi said.
‘They’ve been reading everything you write. When did you get this book?’ ‘I asked for a temporary journal,’ Jess said numbly. ‘I got it in the Welsh camp.’ His mind raced over all the personal and private things he’d written. That was the purpose of a journal, to record a life in all its wounds and bruises, triumphs and sins. It was supposed to be for the future. ‘Who—’ His voice cracked, and he tried again.
‘Who read it?’
‘Either the Artifex, orsomeone close to him,’ Santi said. ‘Not much time between your entry and the order to stop her.’
Jess’s neck felt stiff and hot, and the pressure in him was turning slowly from shock to rage. Had he written anything about Frederick?
About his brother? He couldn’t remember. Jess grabbed the journal back and flipped pages. He hadn’t filled many so far, and as he scanned each with furious concentration, every very private thing he’d written cut him. Some went deep. He had written about Frederick, and Oxford, but Frederick had left and would be far away by now. Safe, Jess hoped.
Thank God, he’d not written a word about Brendan, or his father. But he’d put in too much about Morgan. Worse. He’d written that Wolfe had known about Morgan. That he’d helped her.
Jess sat down hard on the bed with the book in his hands, and fought to keep breathing. ‘It’s my fault.’ ‘It’s not,’ Santi said.
‘Journals are supposed to be private. You’re a Catholic; they’re like confession, the law treats them the same.You couldn’t have known someone was watching.’ ‘What about Morgan? If mine’s mirrored …’ ‘Morgan doesn’t have one,’ Santi said. ‘I think her father taught her to never trust them. He might be a Burner, but he was right about that.’ Santi was angry too. Vibrating with it. ‘I was willing to let her slip away, as long as there was no proof we were complicit, but that ship’s sailed now. They know. It’s Wolfe’s life if she gets away. And yours.’ ‘What are you going to do?’
‘No choice. I have to take her. I know how you feel about Morgan, but it’s too dangerous now. I’m not letting Christopher die for her,’ Santi said, and immediately looked as if he regretted the words. He’d had too much to drink, too. He probably wouldn’t have been so direct any other time.
‘They won’t kill Wolfe.
He’s a Scholar.’
Santi’s gaze locked on his, bright and suddenly all too sharp. ‘They can do anything they like. To anyone.’ Jess felt his mouth go dry.
‘They did try to kill us, didn’t they? They blew up theExpress. Danton was right.
They were blaming it on the Burners.’
‘Take my advice,’ Santi said. ‘Never say that out loud again. Not to me, not to your friends, not to anyone.’ He took in a deep breath. ‘I could take Morgan before she comes here, but I won’t. I’ll take her on the way out.
That’s a gift, Jess. For both of you. ’And then he was gone, and Jess watched the clock hands grind very, very slowly on towards midnight.
Morgan didn’t come at midnight. Mingled with the disappointment was a sour taste of relief. He didn’t know how he could tell her that he’d cost her the only chance she had to be free. If she didn’t show, if she ran without telling him goodbye … maybe he would have done some good for her by being a distraction for Santi.
If she came, he’d have to tell her that he was the bait in the trap, and watch everything die inside her. He didn’t think he could.
She’ll understand. She deceived you on the train.
And she’d been sorry for it.
He was unprepared when she pulled back the flap of his tent and let it fall behind her.
She was fully dressed in thick black trousers and a black Library uniform shirt that was too long in the sleeves. Stolen, he thought.
The boots looked like her own. She had a small pack on her shoulder.
‘I don’t have long,’ she said. ‘I figured out how to slip the bracelet. I’ll leave it in the privy.’ She still thought she had a chance. You have to tell her, Jess thought. It’s going to crush her, but it’s better coming from someone she trusts.
Or, it would feel like the last, fatal stab in her back, and she’d never trust him again.
‘At least it’s a nicer privy than the Welsh camp,’ he said, just because it was the first thing he thought to blurt out. She was too far away, and it seemed to him that she was moving away, even though she was standing still.
The space between them was too vast. ‘So you came to tell me goodbye.’ She nodded, and he saw a sudden wash of tears in her eyes.
‘Yes,’ she said, and wiped at her face with her sleeve. ‘I won’t tell you where I’m going. I don’t want you to have to lie to the others.’ He was already lying.
He’d said she made him careless. Funny word.
Careless. It wasn’t true. He cared so much more than he’d ever thought he could.
The only thing they had was this moment. This one, last moment.
Jess crossed the space –not so big, after all – and kissed her, and she gasped her surprise into his mouth for just a heartbeat, and then he felt her responding with all the heat and desperation he craved from her. I am careless.
He pulled back far enough to whisper, ‘Stay. Just for a while.’ He kissed her lips, gentle, light touches that turned deeper. ‘Stay.’‘I can’t.’ ‘Morgan.’
‘You won’t make it.’ ‘Jess, it’s all right. I can do this. See this?’ She held up her wrist, and the golden twist of the restraint. Passed her palm over it, and a whisper of symbols floated up from it. Shimmering orange and red, twisting like sparks from a fire. She stared hard at them, and the swirl of symbols paused and held.
‘Right there. If I change that one symbol, from gold to iron, I transmute the property of this wire without setting off the alarm. I won’t break it, and the seal doesn’t change. I will just make it something else. I’ll slip it off my wrist, they’ll be chasing a ghost. And once I’m at the—’ He closed his hand over hers, and the sparks of symbols flew away, collapsing back on themselves. ‘Don’t try it. And don’t tell me any more.
‘I have to try it, you know that. I know you don’t want to keep my secret any more, but I know you wouldn’t betray it, either.’ Her voice was soft. She believed he wouldn’t hurt her. Somehow,horribly, he’d made her believe that. ‘Believe me, I’m sick of secrets. Sick of playing by the rules other people set for us, of being trapped and robbed of choices. I’m sick of it all, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ he said. And he was, rotten with secrets all the way to his core. But if he let them all go, who was he?
He’d never known life without them, the way someone like Thomas lived it.
What would that be like, to have that single, unshakeable faith in the world, to not see all the shadows?
‘It doesn’t have to be this way. You could … you could come with me.’ She said that last in a rush, as if she was afraid to say it, and the high colour that flooded her cheeks made him feel even more like a villain. ‘You don’t have to stay here. This is good. We’re good. You’re good.’
‘I’m not,’ he said. The clean, crisp smell of her hair made him want to hold it heavy in his hands, but he somehow resisted that. ‘I’m not good. You know what I am.’
She shook her head. Hair moved over her forehead and draped across one eye, and he gently moved it back. She turned her head away. ‘I know. Jess, I want you to come with me. I didn’t want to go to the Iron Tower before, but now … I can’t let them put a slave collar around my neck and breed me like a prize mare—’
He hadn’t heard that right.
‘Obscurists are rare,’ she said. ‘Why do you think they want me? I’m a new bloodline to add to their stock. I won’t leave the Iron Tower. My children will never leave. Once I go inside, I have no freedom left. Not even that.’
Jess felt a massive emptiness inside, and then a sick surge of anger. ‘No,’ he said. ‘That can’t be true. It goes against everything the Library believes.’ ‘The Library isn’t a person. It doesn’t have a conscience, or a heart, or a soul. It does what it has to do to survive!’
‘You sound like a Burner.’ ‘Maybe they make sense.
You’re smart, Jess. You’ve never hidden from hard truths. You know the
Library’s not what it once was … what we were told itwas, from out there.’ She wiped tears from her face angrily with the back of a hand, and he caught her damp fingers and held them.
‘Please, come with me. You know I can’t stay.’
There was nothing left of hope now. Only this moment, he thought. He put all his longing into the kisses he placed on her hands and her shoulders and her throat, until they were both breathing raggedly with desire. He’d lied. He’d betrayed her, though he’d never meant to do that. Losing her had made him desperate. It had made him a liar, instead of lying to her with words, he was telling lies now with his body. With kisses and promises. Just tell her. Tell her that you can’t save her, you can’t go with her, there’s no chance for her at all.
But he was a coward, and he couldn’t.
When Niccolo Santi stepped inside the tent, Jess felt a surge of fury and bitter disgust. At Santi. At himself.
At all the dreams breaking into pieces.
Morgan didn’t see Santi.
She saw Jess’s face. He was a good liar, had been one his whole life, but he couldn’t hide how he felt in that moment. One look, and she knew. She backed up a step, eyes wide, and whispered, ‘No.’
Behind her, Santi said,
‘Morgan. Please don’t make this more painful than it has to be.’
‘No,’ she said again, this time a little stronger. ‘Jess, you knew.’ The disappointment in her, the look in her eyes, the wounded betrayal … it was like knives cutting pieces of him away.
‘You said stay.’ It was simple, those three words. It was the world cracking open between them.
She lunged at him. He captured her in his arms and held her so tight that she couldn’t hit him, couldn’t struggle, until Captain Santi pulled her away.Santi pulled out a pair of iron shackles, and he fitted them over Morgan’s wrists.
They were a favourite of the London Garda. No Obscurist tricks. Just a key. She went still as she felt the locks click shut, and her face, God, Jess would never forget that look as long as he lived. Her stare was as cold as a winter river.
She’d have ripped his throat out if she could, and there was no changing it. No going back.
If he’d warned her the second she’d walked into his tent, if he’d told her to run then, maybe it would have been different.
But he’d asked her to stay, and she would remember.
Santi’s face was remote and still, as if he was a stranger to both of them. ‘I know it doesn’t help,’ he said,‘but I’m sorry.’ He walked Morgan towards the tent’s exit. Gentle, but firm.
Morgan dug in her heels long enough to give Jess one last, look. ‘You told me there were always choices. When did you stop believing it?’ When I didn’t have any choice but to love you, he wanted to tell her. But he didn’t have the right to say it.
He was the reason she was in chains.
‘You’re damned quiet,’ Dario said the next morning. He’d taken the seat beside Jess in the armoured carrier – this one had real seats, with padding, which was a vast improvement from their last conveyance. The Library had dispatched what seemed half an army to accompany them home, and yet Jess felt very,very alone.
‘Tired,’ Jess said. He had his eyes shut. There was nothing to see, and he didn’t want to join in his friends’ chatter.
He felt, rather than saw, Dario bend towards him. ‘I heard Morgan is in the other carriage. What’s wrong, she come to her senses and want nothing to do with you?’ Jess opened his eyes and stared Dario down at very close range. He didn’t know how it looked, but he knew he was a hair’s snap from punching the boy in the throat.
‘Not today,’ he said.
Dario lost his grin and faced forward. He seemed suddenly very interested in the story that Thomas was telling about a bar in Munich where he’d made a dancing automaton puppet in exchange for his uncle’s unpaid bill. It was a good story.
Jess wished he cared.
Khalila was both smiling at Thomas’s story, and watching Jess in concerned little glances. Her sympathetic, questioning gaze was impossible to bear.
Wolfe and Santi hadn’t told anyone of Morgan’s detainment, and Jess … Jess didn’t have the stomach.
He rose and shifted farther back from the others to an empty row, where he stretched himself out across two seats and pretended to sleep. He hated the sound of his friends’ laughter; it felt like a whetstone scraping his soul open. He wanted to be somewhere else. Gone.‘Shove over,’ said a voice from over him. He took his arm off his eyes and frowned up at Glain. Her head wound had healed, but there was an angry scar cutting diagonally across her forehead that would probably be with her for life. She was proud of it.
‘Plenty of seats up there,’ he said, and put the arm back in place. She took his legs and pushed them over, and he came upright with something that felt and sounded like a snarl trapped deep inside his chest.
She dropped into the seat beside him. ‘It’s tiring, isn’t it? Pretending it’s normal. I know about Morgan.’
One less person he had to break the news to, then. ‘Tell them, not me.’
‘If you want.’ She let a second or two slip by before she said, ‘Wolfe’s afraid you’re going to be accused of Burner sympathies. Makes sense. You went off with them after the train blew.’ If she’d been intending to prod him into real anger, she succeeded. He slowly sat up, staring at her. ‘I didn’t go off with them. I was taken.’ ‘Then they just let you go free, with hardly a scratch on you that couldn’t be explained by the train explosion. Look, I don’t say I believe it. I’m telling you that it’s easy to paint you that shade. The Artifex sees infiltrators behind every column in Alexandria. You should take care he doesn’t see you that way, too. You’ve already got enough marks on your record.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’ ‘I mean your family, yn fytyn. I didn’t know before Oxford, but now we all do.
You don’t think the Artifex knows? Even if he doesn’t, don’t you think Dario would use it if you came up against each other for a placement?’ ‘Or you would,’ Jess said.
Glain sent him a sideways glance. ‘We’ve never been friends. You’d shove me over the cliff for what you want.’ ‘We don’t want the same things, so that doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I’m not well suited to be a Scholar, but I intend to be Garda Magnus one day. So I’m no threat to you. Nor you to me, I think.’
‘I’m a threat to everyone right now.’
‘Mostly to yourself,’ she said, and paused. Her tone changed, just a little. ‘Santi says that she’s all right.
Angry at everyone, but all right. She’ll make it. She’s strong.’
It sickened him that even Glain, the least sensitive of all of them, could read him like a blank. ‘I knew he was coming for her,’ he said. ‘She could have escaped. I made sure she didn’t.’
Glain didn’t immediately reply to that, and when she did, her voice was even softer and more guarded than before. ‘She wouldn’t have made it. I spent time drinking with the Toulouse brigade. If Morgan got free, they were to hunt her down by any means necessary and send her back by Translation. If we got in the way, they would have killed us.’
He turned to look at her.She seemed all too serious.
‘Bollocks!’ Although he didn’t think it was, not really.
‘It’s not bollocks. They’d just say the train fire had no survivors. Letters to our families, so sorry, problem solved. And Wolfe is a problem for the Artifex, you know. You heard him at dinner last night.’
‘He was drunk.’
‘He was honest.’ Glain met his eyes squarely, for once, and it wasn’t an angry glare. It was almost kind. ‘It wasn’t your fault. She’ll know that, eventually.’ She patted his knee in a strange, awkward way that he realised was her version of affection, and got up to rejoin the others.
He stretched out across the seat again, and shut his eyes.
It was his fault, no matterwhat Glain said. And even if Morgan forgave him, some kinds of guilt had to be carried, for ever.
The convoy travelled far, camped, and Morgan wasn’t seen again. Not by anyone.
Glain was as good as her word; she told the others, quietly, and by that evening, no one mentioned Morgan to him at all.No one, not even Thomas, knew what to say, so they pretended it was all fine, that going back to Alexandria was a relief, that everything would be back to normal once they slept in their own beds at Ptolemy House. It was gallows cheer, and Jess was the silent ghost at the table.
He couldn’t avoid Thomas the second night, because the big German decided that Jess needed company on his walk through the camp. The elite men and women from Alexandria weren’t taking any chances. They had set picket lines, sentries, heavy armaments.
‘It’s good to stretch my legs,’ Thomas said. ‘Not much space for them in those small carriages. Are you all right?’
The question surprised Jess, and it broke through his black shell enough to make him throw a look at his
‘I didn’t think you were.
Everyone wants you to be.
That must be worse, that they just think you should be … fine.’
Thomas wasn’t ignoring his pain, and he wasn’t poking at it, either. He was just quietly understanding it.Jess let out a slow breath and stopped to look at him. ‘She’s in a cage,’ he said. ‘I put her there.’
‘You didn’t. I know you better.’
Jess shook his head and started walking again. He wished he could walk all the way to Alexandria. Crawl.
Maybe that pain would help clear his head.
‘What are you looking for out here?’ ‘Nothing.’
‘Jess.’ Thomas sounded disappointed. ‘Lie to the others. Please don’t, not to me.’
‘I’m looking for her,’ he said, and it was the first time he’d even admitted it to himself. ‘Glain told me she was in one of the carriers, alone. I want to find where it is.’‘You can’t get her out.’ ‘I know that. I just need to see it.’
Thomas shook his head, but he walked along, limiting the length of his strides to match Jess’s. ‘How can you tell? She won’t be at a window.’
‘The guards,’ Jess said.
‘Most of these are empty at night. Hers will have guards around it. Not many. They won’t want to make it too obvious.’
‘They’ll be warned about you, you know. You won’t get close.’
Jess nodded. It didn’t matter. They walked on, and he studied every carriage they passed. None of them looked right.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ Thomas said, ‘that I should go ahead and show you what I was working on before we left Alexandria. Would you mind? Maybe we could work on it together when we are back.’
‘I’m not much for engineering.’
‘You need to work. Using your hands helps make things clear.’
‘You don’t need to invent something else. The chess machine is brilliant. You should apply for a Library patent and sell it. I know the Library gets most of the money, but it’d make you a rich man.’
‘I’m not interested in being rich,’ Thomas said.
‘Rich lets you buy more bits of junk.’ Jess’s mind wasn’t on the conversation.
Where are you, Morgan?
Even if he found the lorry, even if by some strange miracle he could speak to her, what would he say? It had been said already. You said stay.
He couldn’t take it back.
‘Let me show you what I mean,’ Thomas said. He pulled out a worn personal journal and handed it to Jess.
Pages and pages of intricate drawings, schematics,
German writings. Thomas flipped to a diagram, very finely drawn and lettered.
Complicated. Jess had no idea what he was looking at.
At least he didn’t have to worry about warning Thomas not to ever tell secrets in his personal journal. Thomas was far too focused on his machines to be writing anything about feelings.
Jess handed it back. ‘Is it another of your dancing automata? Didn’t you get enough of that in Munich, paying your uncle’s bar bills?’ That had too much of an edge, and Jess was immediately aware of it.
‘Sorry, Thomas. What is it?’ ‘I had the idea long ago from watching an ink man who copied out some documents for my father. It took so long, even though that was his trade,’ Thomas said. ‘I thought, what if it could be done at the simple press of a button?’
‘A letter-writing automaton.’
‘No, no, that is a carnival trick. This is something that could change everything. You see, here, this is a matrix on which you place precut letters …’
Jess’s attention zeroed in on a carrier two down from where they were walking.They passed a large tent that smelt like dinner’s leavings; the clatter of pots and pans said that the mess crew was still on duty. Everyone else inside the perimeter was settling down to bunking for the night, but not around that one carrier. At least a dozen heavily armed soldiers were crouched around it. They didn’t look like they were specifically guarding it, but then again, they seemed vigilant. Too vigilant. ‘It looks like a children’s letter game.’
‘No, no, nothing like that.
You see, you spell out sentences and load the lines from bottom to top. You spell backward, because it will reverse. Then this reservoir here—’
Thomas was pointing at the diagram, but the words blurred into nonsense. Jess couldn’t focus on it, even though he understood the kindness Thomas was offering. He was a bad friend, but he’d been worse to Morgan, and he felt a fierce desire to … to what? Make it right? He couldn’t.
Maybe he just needed to know that he couldn’t, by seeing it with his own eyes.
Thomas was still trying to explain something about ink and blocks and paper. Jess didn’t pay much attention because he knew with a sudden visceral jolt that Morgan was in the carriage just ahead. Locked away, maybe still in iron shackles.
She was right there, wondering how to escape, and damning him for every moment of her captivity.
He could feel it.‘Well?’ Thomas asked, and nudged him. ‘Would you like to help me? When we get home?’
Home. Alexandria. Where Thomas would almost certainly be made a Scholar … and Jess was still the son of a smuggler, with a nasty rumour of Burner sympathy trailing him now. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘When we get home.’ There was nothing left in Alexandria for him. How was he supposed to stare at the Iron Tower every day and not think about what he’d done?
Thomas grinned and clapped him on the back.
As they approached the carrier, two of the High Garda troops, both women, rose and wandered in their direction without seeming to react directly. One of them – a small Indian woman, with her black hair knotted into a complex design at the crown of her head – gave Jess a casual nod and smile. ‘Good evening, sir. Having a nice walk? It’s good weather for it.’
‘It helps to stretch all the kinks out,’ Jess said, and smiled back as charmingly as he knew how. ‘Hard travel for you? You came up from Alexandria to get us. That must have been tiring.’ She exchanged a rueful
grin with her companion, who was taller, broader, and had more of an east Asian cast to her features. ‘Tiring’s one word for it,’ she said. ‘But we go where the Library needs us. Say, I heard there was a card game coming up on the other side of the camp.
You’re headed back, aren’t you?’‘Of course,’ Jess said.
‘Just heading back to the tent.
How about you, Thomas?
Legs sufficiently stretched?’ ‘Yes, I feel better.’ Thomas gave him a look that, Jess suddenly realised, was all too perceptive. ‘And you?
‘I believe I am,’ Jess said.
‘Good,’ the little Indian woman said, and strode along beside them at a pace that even Thomas’s long legs found hard to match. She seemed to give off wild bursts of energy. ‘I am Rijuta Khanna. And you are with Scholar Wolfe’s party.’ ‘The big one’s Thomas.
I’m Jess. And your friend?’ Rijuta nodded at the other woman, who had a friendly sort of manner, but watchful pale eyes in a sharp-featured face. ‘That’s Yeva Dudik. Don’t mind her, she’s not as chatty as I am.’
‘Ha,’ Yeva said. It wasn’t a laugh. ‘I’ve met drunken parrots who weren’t as chatty as you.’
‘It passes the time.’ ‘Someday, someone will shoot you over lost sleep. It could be me.’
Jess wasn’t fooled. They were excellent at their job, and their job was to misdirect, misinform, and at all costs, move any of Wolfe’s party who got close away from that carriage. Jess didn’t care. He’d found out what he needed, because all he had to do was note the number marked on the side.
He’d be able to find her now, even among all of these identical vehicles.
He couldn’t free her from a locked carrier. He couldn’t help her get away. But he knew where she was, and that almost seemed like alchemy an Obscurist would understand: knowing where she was seemed to put them closer.
The Doctrine of Mirroring. As above, so below.
They parted company near their sleeping quarters with Rijuta and Yeva, who continued on to their likely imaginary card game.
Thomas was talking some nonsense about the saturation properties of ink on paper, but he fell silent when Jess stopped replying.
Jess stretched out on his camp bed, closed his eyes, and fell asleep to the dancing visions of ink blots that left bruised echoes nothing could erase.
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