فصل 12

کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 26

فصل 12

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CHAPTER TWELVE

If the Alexandrian Express hadn’t been the best, most advanced piece of machinery in the world, built to carry no less than the Archivist Magister, they likely would have all been dead. Jess had said it himself: nothing but a smear of blood on the tracks.

As it was, the train looked oddly twisted out of shape, and he could feel the engines labouring unsteadily under the corridor floor. Jess looked out the windows as he stepped out of his room, but it was dead of night outside, and nothing visible but hills and trees.

Dario emerged at almost the same moment. He had put on his boots and pants, but he’d never got to his shirt. It made him look even more piratical, as did the gun in his hand.

‘Burners?’ Dario asked.

Jess shook his head, because he didn’t know, although it was a decent guess. ‘Where’s your gun?’‘I turned over my pack. It should be in the rear of the train with the rest.’

‘Good thing for you I kept a gun, then,’ Dario said, and grinned. He seemed to love this, which made Jess want to hit him very hard. ‘Come on, let’s make sure the others are all right.’

A door opened on Jess’s left. It was Khalila, who’d either taken the time to put on her headscarf or hadn’t yet removed it. She seemed calm and unhurt, and like Dario, she held a gun. Was I the only one not to stay armed? Jess thought.

Thomas, who came pelting through the doors that separated the cars, looked rumpled and unkempt; he was also unarmed, which made Jess feel a little less foolish.

‘All okay?’ he asked. They nodded. ‘Glain has hit her head. Wolfe is seeing to her, but he told me to take you all to the lounge. Gretel says it is the most secure place.’ That seemed simple enough, until Dario turned to head that direction, and the door in front of him opened to reveal a stranger – no Library uniform, and the man was armed with a gun of his own.‘Stop!’ Dario shouted. The other one – the Burner, Jess assumed – did, but only for an instant. He lunged forward, low and fast, and Dario’s shot went wild.

Khalila’s did not. She braced herself, aimed, and hit the Burner with one shot, right in the chest. The sound was shockingly loud in the enclosed space, loud enough to set up a ringing in Jess’s deadened ears like bells.

Khalila calmly walked over to the man she’d shot and crouched down to press her fingers to his neck.

‘Dead,’ she said. She slid his gun over to Jess, and he picked it up. His ears were still ringing, but he could make out what she said. ‘He won’t be the only one.’ ‘Is he a Burner?’ Dario asked.‘I don’t know. But he meant to kill us.’

Jess checked the doorway to the next carriage. Beyond the door, the dining room seemed empty, though darkened, and Jess took the lead forward. Chairs and tables were broken and scattered, white tablecloths slumped in tangles, crystal broken and crunching underfoot. Jess was glad he’d had the foresight to put on his boots. Something moved ahead, and Jess stopped, planted his feet, and aimed. It was just a shadow, and then he blinked, and saw it was Gretel, the train attendant.

Bloody, and injured. He lowered the weapon and moved to her to help her up, and silently passed her back to Dario, who took charge of her.There was no one else in the dining hall. He checked the exterior door; it was unlocked. ‘Gretel,’ Jess said.

‘How do I lock this?’ ‘You can’t,’ she said.

‘Someone sabotaged the outer locks. That girl. The one who jumped.’ Morgan. But she couldn’t have known about this, could she? Not about an attack.

She’d only wanted to make Wolfe think she’d died. She wouldn’t risk their deaths like this.

He didn’t believe it. Wouldn’t.

‘I’ll keep watch,’ Khalila said. ‘Go.’

‘What about the train driver?’ Dario asked. ‘Should we find him?’

‘There is no driver,’ Gretel said, and swiped at the blood dripping from a cut on her forehead. ‘We don’t need one.’

‘High Garda?’

‘No, they were not assigned this time. Only when the Archivist is travelling.’ ‘I am less impressed with this train now,’ Dario said.

‘Given that we will probably all die on it.’

‘Dario,’ Khalila said.

‘Shut up.’

‘Yes, desert flower.’ His voice became serious. ‘Will you be all right here?’ ‘I will be fine,’ she said.

‘You missed, remember. I didn’t.’

‘You might want to give her that one,’ Jess said.

‘Come on, Dario.’

The two of them went to the next door. The lounge was still closed. Jess leant against the wall for a second, listening to the fast hammer of his pulse battling against the booming hiss in his ears, and then looked quickly through the cracked door to see the inside of the lounge.

It was full of rough looking men, all armed.

‘They’re coming,’ Jess said. Dario rolled one of the heavy, tilted tables up to block the door and fired through the glass at the men on the other side.‘Other way,’ Khalila said.

‘To the back. We need to find Wolfe and Santi.’

‘What do they want?’ Dario asked. ‘They can’t be here for us. We don’t matter!’ ‘It’s the Archivist’s train,’ Khalila said. ‘At a guess, they want him. They will be very upset to find he isn’t here.’ Once they were through, Jess didn’t know how to lock the carriage door to the dining car, but he did the next best thing; he destroyed the controls with a shot after closing it, and then ducked into Dario’s room and wrenched a piece of metal from the top of the wall, which he jammed tight in the gap of the door’s track. That would slow them down.

They went quickly through the silent bedroom carriages. Jess’s door was still shut. He moved on past more cabins marked with their assigned inhabitants. Santi’s remaining soldiers had been bunked two to a room, which Jess supposed came as no real surprise; they were used to sleeping rougher than mere students, especially those who’d been wounded.

He passed Wolfe’s door, still closed. And Santi’s open.

Wolfe and Santi. Still surprising.

Ahead was the compartment that still had the bloody imprints of Jess’s knuckles on it. The compartment where Wolfe had locked him out. As he came closer, it opened.

Scholar Wolfe stood there.

‘Inside,’ he said. ‘Move.’ Once the three of them were in, Wolfe touched his gold band to the symbol on the inside of the door. The lock clicked shut with a thick hiss and hum.

‘Keep going!’ Wolfe said.

‘Get to the baggage room at the rear. Thomas, find yourself a weapon when you arrive. The rest of you, extra points for preparation.’ ‘Is there an exit?’ Jess asked.

Wolfe’s gaze didn’t turn from the locked door as he motioned them on towards the back of the train. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But whether or not we can use it will depend on the situation. Go, I said!’ Santi and his soldiers were gathered in the back with Glain. She was sitting up, her head wrapped in a bloodstained white bandage, and she looked sick enough to drop. Concussion, Jess assumed. Probably not a broken skull or she’d have been on the floor instead of sitting with a pistol in her hands.

‘All here?’ Santi asked, and answered his own question as he quickly scanned faces and checked them off his mental list.

‘Burners destroyed the track ahead, and judging from the last lurch the train took, they fired the tracks after we passed. We’re trapped here.

Library troops have been sent from the nearest available base with a commander I can trust. Toulouse.’

‘We’re still in France?’ ‘Yes. We’re stopped in a park not far from Cahors.

When I sent the message, they said it wouldn’t be long.’ ‘Too long,’ Wolfe said.

‘We’re sealed into this compartment, but we’re still vulnerable. They can set off Greek Fire beneath this car, and we’ll roast. We stand a better chance outside.’ Santi nodded. ‘We’ve enough small and heavy arms to go around. Best to do it now before the search gets this far. My troops go first and secure the ground, the rest of you follow. Maps show that we have about a hundred-metre run to the forest for cover.’ ‘It works better with a diversion,’ Glain said. She’d leant forward, and despite the blood and sweat on her face, she didn’t seem at all vague.

‘We have alchemical smoke, but we’ll have to make it count,’ Santi said.

‘Since you brought it up, that will be your job, Wathen.

Glass tube at your right, on the wall. On my signal, jump out, break the tube in half and drop it. Don’t breathe it in.

Can you do that? I will be covering you.’

‘Yes sir, Captain.’

Glain stood up, but as she did, a sudden strange shudder ran through the train. Not the engines, Jess thought. It felt like something had exploded, but towards the front of the train.

The train attendant, Gretel,checked her Codex, which must have held information about the train. ‘The engine is burning,’ she said. ‘And the lounge. Greek Fire, I think.’ She looked pale now, and shaky, and she grabbed for Thomas’s hand. ‘It’s spreading to the dining car.’ ‘We need to go,’ Wolfe said.

After the dining car would be the first bedroom car.Jess’s room.

He didn’t think. He just stood and headed for the door.

It took a moment for Wolfe to notice, and then Jess heard him bark out,

‘Postulant! Where are you going?’

He got as far as the door and reached for the handle. It burnt him. He gritted his teeth and grabbed it again. He couldn’t hold on. The tube running around the door was hissing like a poisonous snake, bubbling with some liquid.

‘Brightwell!’ Wolfe pushed him back and held him against the wall. ‘Jess.

What are you doing?’

Jess could smell the acrid stench again, the same as in St Pancras when the Burner had died. The same as in the ancient Serapeum chamber in Alexandria. The dining car is burning.

‘I left her,’ he said. ‘She’s still there, waiting for a chance to run. I have to get her out.’

Wolfe’s eyes widened, and he took a step closer. His fists clenched hard in Jess’s shirt. ‘Are you telling me Morgan is alive? She didn’t jump?’‘I have to get her. Open the door!’

Wolfe hesitated for only an instant before he turned and shouted back, ‘Nic, go!

Get them out!’ He slammed his wrist on the seal of the door and said, ‘Stay behind me. And don’t breathe the smoke.’

Wolfe locked the door again from the outside, and moved quickly down the hall, checking each room as he went. The train seemed eerily peaceful now. Jess touched the sides of the car, and it felt hot, as if it had been in the sun for hours. As they neared the next compartment’s door, he could hear what sounded like hissing.

‘The fire’s spreading,’ Wolfe said. ‘Our attackers might already have withdrawn. When I open this, the smoke will spread.’ Toxic, he remembered the ghost of a London Garda saying to him, holding him down on the tracks at St Pancras. ‘Hold your breath as long as you can.’

The door slid aside, and a thick, greenish fog reached for them, wisping and whirling. The hissing was louder, now almost a roar,and when Jess tried to brace himself on the compartment wall inside, it singed his fingers. The smoke stung his eyes and blinded him with tears, and it was hard to remember how many doors there were. Which one he needed.

Wolfe was a dim shadow on his left. He found his door and slammed it open, and broke into uncontrollable coughing. ‘Morgan!’ he shouted. ‘Morgan—’ He couldn’t see her. There was smoke here too, a thick, reeking darkness. He scrambled over fallen bedclothes and felt on the bed, all the way to the corner.

Then the floor. He yanked open the small bathroom door.

Morgan was on the floor.

He picked her up, and she lay limp in his arms. His lungs were screaming for air, shuddering for it, and he had to breathe, but when he did it was like breathing in flames.

Jesse coughed and gagged and struggled to find some clear air in the miasma. I can’t leave her, he thought.

She was heavy in his arms, and he needed air, but he couldn’t leave her.

Somehow, he was kneeling on the floor, with Morgan cradled against him.

He didn’t know if she was even breathing. The fire was a roar now, and it seemed to him as though the metal of the far wall was soft and sagging in. A silvery tear ran down, and caught bright green fire.

Someone grabbed his head from behind, and before he could resist, he felt a suffocating pressure over his face, and then a sudden cold rush of air. He breathed, coughed, breathed again sweet, clean air. Someone had put a mask on his face. It clicked and hissed and glowed with a soft amber light, but all he saw was a thick, blinding cloud of greyish-green smoke beyond the glass.

He could breathe. God, he could breathe.

‘Go!’ That was Wolfe’s voice. ‘Go!’

Jess struggled up to his feet. He felt sick and dizzy, and the floor beneath him seemed soft and muddy. He got Morgan into the corridor.

One direction was blocked by an eerie, dripping curtain of green flame, melting and burning everything it touched. He went the other way, step after step, breath after breath, and his head began to clear.

Wolfe, he thought, and turned. Wolfe was behind him, but he was failing, and as Jess watched, he slid weakly down the wall, and stopped moving. He had no mask. How he’d made it so far, Jess couldn’t imagine, but his strength was gone.

Jess put Morgan down and ran back. He gasped in as deep a breath as he could from the mask, then ripped it loose and pressed it to Wolfe’s face. He grabbed him under the arms and dragged.

The rest of it came in flashes, like a dream … a weirdly beautiful eddy of green smoke, drifting past his face. The shock from the handle of the baggage car door. Holding Wolfe’s wrist to the seal.

Dragging Morgan, then Wolfe, across the threshold and sealing the door against the roar and smoke and flame.

I can rest now, he thought.

Just a little. It’s all right if I rest. His lungs felt thick and heavy, and he couldn’t seem to clear them.

He tried to close his eyes, but there was shouting, and Captain Santi’s face. Glain, bloody and firing a gun.

Someone was pulling him along by an arm. Then he was on his feet, running after Captain Santi, who had Morgan in his arms.

He was running, and the world suddenly turned white.

There was an indescribably huge noise, a wave of heat, and as he spun Jess saw the Alexandrian Express bloom into a poisonous flower of metal and fire. He was flung backward hard enough to stun him, but as he opened his eyes again he saw the huge bloom of flame and smoke rising up towards the black sky. Twisted metal sped overhead; some embedded itself in tree trunks. Smaller trees had been torn to shreds, and some toppled in eeriesilence. The whole world went almost silent, with a high, thin ringing on top.

Jess managed to push himself up on an elbow, and by the confusing flicker of the fire, he saw Morgan beside him. He reached over to stroke a hand through her hair, then turned away to cough and retch. Everything came out green.

Someone stumbled over him, a blond giant half carrying a girl with a cut on her head … it was Thomas, and the girl was Glain, he was starting to put it back together now. Thomas sat Glain down against an undamaged tree root and went to roll Wolfe and Santi over on their backs.

Santi was moving weakly, and tried to push himself up.

Dario was there. Khalila.

Wolfe lay where he’d fallen, very still.

Jess crawled up to his knees. His hearing cracked and popped, and he thought that might have been the fire, but he couldn’t be sure.

Nothing seemed to match up to what he was seeing, and even that didn’t make much sense at the moment. His lungs were still burning, and his eyes blurred every time he blinked. His head ached.With the help of a tree trunk, he got to his feet, and found himself staring at a piece of thick metal as big as his arm that had buried itself edge-on in the wood. It was still smoking and black on the edges. Jess took a step and almost went down. Someone caught him, he couldn’t see who it was until his helper had moved past him – one of Santi’s soldiers.As the group slowly reformed around Wolfe’s still body, the man opened his eyes suddenly, blinked, and raised his head to look at the inferno of the train. Then his chest rose and fell a few times before he accepted Santi’s offered hand to help him to his feet. He bent over to retch up green bile.

Alive. Jess couldn’t believe it. He felt a sudden rush of giddiness, and then something else, something acidic boiling in his stomach, and he stumbled into the firelit darkness to bend over and cough more of the poison out of his lungs. Too dark to see if he’d thrown up blood.

All too possible, considering the stains on his shirt and the disconnected, weirdly elastic feeling in his body.

He was still on his knees when the Burners found him, put a knife to his throat, and dragged him off into the darkness.

They didn’t take him far. He could still see the carnival glow of the burning train through the trees, hear the groans and snaps and hisses as it fell to pieces.

He was too weak to fight, and truthfully, too tired. His lungs burnt, and he ached in every muscle. When they finally let him fall, he was strangely grateful.

Dragging him even this far seemed a lot of trouble, if they were going to kill him.

‘Which one are you?’ Jess tried to focus. There were three men, two of them standing behind him; one was a burly man in a thick slouch coat who smelt of stale sweat and vinegar, and the other was older, shorter, wearing a knitted cap. He’d tried to remember their faces, on the unlikely chance that he survived.

The third man, the one who’d spoken, he couldn’t see very well, until the man crouched down and looked him right in the face. Even then, it was hard to bring him into focus; the smoke had left Jess’s eyes blurred and watery, and it took a lot of blinking to make out details.

He had a moment of confusion, because it seemed like he knew this man … and then he didn’t. The man had thinning, light-blond hair, and a familiar line to his nose.

Then Jess made out the light grey of the man’s eyes, and put it together. ‘Jess Brightwell,’ he said. His voice sounded thick and hoarse, and he coughed. ‘I knew your son. Guillaume Danton.’

‘Brightwell. He said you were quick,’ the man said.

‘My son liked you. You and the Arab girl, what was her name? Khalila. He said you were the best. He wanted to save you.’

‘Save us,’ Jess repeated.

‘Save us from what?’‘From yourselves. From selling your soul to the devil.’ Jess sighed. ‘If you’re going to try to convert me to Burner ways, just kill me and get it over with,’ he said.

‘We’d both be happier.’ ‘I won’t waste my breath.

You have to learn how to listen before you will hear.’ ‘They’ll be looking for me. Is this all you have left?

Three of you? Didn’t go theway you planned, did it?’ Danton reached over and took a handful of Jess’s hair.

It hurt when he yanked and forced Jess’s chin higher. ‘I want you to tell me who

killed my son.’ Jess swallowed hard. ‘He died in an accident. Nobody killed him. It just happened.’ ‘Just happened. Of all of you who went through this Obscurist machine, only my son died. That doesn’t just happen.’

Jess didn’t answer. The hold on his hair was going from painful to brutal. ‘Tell me what happened. Every detail.’

‘Guillaume went after Captain Santi, first one of the students. He volunteered to go first. We’d seen how bad it was, and none of the rest of us wanted to do it. I didn’t want to. Your son was better.

He didn’t hesitate.’ ‘Did he suffer?’ Jess didn’t answer, and Danton shook his head like a rag doll.

‘Answer me! Did my son suffer?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘But it was over fast.’

‘Did he scream?’

‘No,’ Jess said. He vividly remembered Guillaume’s shrieks, those horrible bone deep cries, but he wasn’t going to say it. Not to his father. ‘He was brave.’ The hold on his hair suddenly released, and Danton sat back on his haunches. His eyes were wide and glittering. ‘I liked him, your son. I thought he was clever, and quiet, and smart.’

‘Did you see his body?’ ‘He looked peaceful.’ ‘How do you know what happened to him? You said he went first. Someone could have killed him the moment he arrived.’

‘They were working to save him.’ Jess’s throat seemed worse now, more hoarse, more painful, and he realised that it was the weight of sadness. He hadn’t really had time to think about

Guillaume’s death. About how useless it had been.Strange time to really feel that, when so much else had happened. It seemed like so long ago. ‘Nobody killed him. He just died. And I’m sorry.’

‘Sorry,’ Danton echoed.

‘He was murdered.

Guillaume would have exposed their secrets if he’d lived, and they couldn’t let him. Better to kill him quietly, in an accident. You all believe the Library’s lies so easily. How they are good and kind and lead us all by the hand into the future.’ He shook his head and stared into the fire. ‘They turned four million people out of Paris to starve – those they didn’t kill outright.’

‘You’ve killed.’

‘You think I’ve got blood on my hands? The Library’s halls run thick with it. Read your history.’ ‘Read yours,’ Jess said.

‘Libraries burnt. Scholars slaughtered.’

‘Ah, you know so much. I know things too, boy. I know about the Black Archives.

About the interdicts. Perhaps you should ask more questions before you choose your side, then.’

‘I have,’ Jess said. ‘It’s not yours. Never going to be.This didn’t go the way you planned, did it?’

‘Greek Fire is a powerful thing. Sometimes, it has a mind of its own. We didn’t intend to burn the train so quickly. We intended you to have time to leave.’

‘So you could shoot us.’ ‘Wolfe and his men. Not students. I wouldn’t have your blood on my hands.’ Jess was angry now, and sick of all of it. All the blood and death and self justification. ‘You blew it up!

You could have killed us all!’ Danton watched him with an odd expression on his face for a moment, and then shook his head. ‘We didn’t set the bomb,’ he said. ‘Someone told us where you would be,’ Danton said. ‘A message that came from inside the Library.

Our own men died when the train exploded. That was meant for you. Scholar

Wolfe, and his promising young students, all gone.’ He made a little opening flower motion with one hand, and Jess remembered the train peeling open, the white light of it. It hadn’t been Greek Fire. He knew what that looked like. ‘A bit surprising, given Wolfe’s family connections.’He had a bad feeling that Danton had just told him the truth.

‘Monsieur,’ said one of them at Jess’s back. ‘They’re looking. We should go.

Quickly.’

‘Yes,’ Danton agreed, and stood up.

Jess started to relax, and then he felt the cold pressure of a gun at the back of his head. He flinched, then held himself still, staring straight ahead.

‘Non,’ Danton said. ‘Too loud.’

‘Ah,’ said the man behind him. ‘I have a knife. Quick and quiet.’

Danton looked at Jess intently. ‘Are you going to beg?’

‘Your son wouldn’t,’ Jess said. ‘I won’t either.’ He couldn’t tell whether or not they’d just kill him anyway, not at all, until Danton gave a sharp jerk of his head to the man standing behind him, and the three simply … melted away. Gone into the woods they probably knew better than anyone.

He could hear the shouts of the searchers now. His name, ringing through the trees.

Time to get up, Jess thought, and managed to stand, somehow. Someone must have actually missed me.

He had to go back, anyway. He had to ask Wolfe why the Library had blown up their train.

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