فصل 02کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 6
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London had been, to Jess¸ a sprawling modern metropolis.
It had been impossible to imagine anything more majestic than the buildings that had challenged that low,grey sky. On some very basic level, he had always believed that England, and London, was quite simply better than the rest of the world.
His first indication that he was wrong had been when his new friend Thomas shared the news that students in Berlin regularly scored far better than he did on the tests, but that might have been simply a fluke … until he began to talk to his fellow postulants, and began to realise that every one of them, every one, was as good as he was, or better.
And then, there was
Alexandria. Oh, Alexandria.
London had been a warren of narrow, winding streets, tiny alleys, blind corners.
Crowds. Dirt that never quite seemed to be scrubbed away, even in the cleanest of places.It was a wonder, but a wonder that had the sweat and dirt of humanity ground deep for more than two thousand years.
Alexandria, for all its long, turbulent history, gleamed like heaven.
Everywhere it was sparkling and spotless, with broad avenues for steam carriages and wide, flat pedestrian walkways that led past preserved ancient monuments. Priceless gold decked statues commemorated a rich and ancient legacy, and it stunned Jess, once he thought about it, that no one sneaked about at night to pry the precious stuff away. Even the poor seemed to have respect for history here. Every building was carefully maintained and fresh-painted each year in what he was told was a riotous public festival, and the streets were lined with beautiful gardens, flowers, trees, fountains, all carefully groomed. The city even smelt good.
For the most part, the people matched the place: exotic, clean, attractive, polite. Cosmopolitan.
He felt like a rude country lout, compared to most of those he saw on the trip to their lodgings. Scholar Wolfe had commissioned a large carriage to carry them all, and as it chugged smoothly along past overwhelming wonders, Wolfe stood in the aisle and talked.
‘You will be quartered at Ptolemy House,’ he said.
‘You are treated as adults; there are no childish rules, no one to coddle you. You will share rooms. The accommodations are not luxurious. There will be a staff on duty, but they are not your servants and they will not clean up your messes.
Tomorrow you will begin your studies. Am I clear?’ They all murmured agreement, then shouted it when he demanded more volume. And when the carriage parked, he was the first off, gone before Jess could think of a single question to ask. Not, he sensed, that Scholar Wolfe would have been inclined to answer one.
Ptolemy House proved to be an unremarkable squared off building near the Alexandrian University. It was not luxurious, as Wolfe had said, but Jess had dossed in far worse places in his life.It was clean and cool, and that was what counted.
Room assignments were posted in the hallway. He found his number, opened the matching door, and half carried, half-dragged his train case inside before he collapsed boneless on the first bed he came to.
It never occurred to him that it might not be his own bed until the bathroom door opened, and an impossibly good-looking young man in a crimson robe said, ‘¿Quién diablos es usted? Who the devil are you?’ The maroon of the robe went well with his bronzed skin, and his eyes were almost as dark as his hair.
Jess had already met his fill of new people, but he dragged himself upright to a sitting position, rubbed sweat from his palm, and offered it to the new boy. ‘Jess
Brightwell,’ he said. ‘I suppose we’re to share the space.’
‘No,’ the other boy said. ‘I have a private room. Get out.’ That was it. Nothing but the cold words. Jess slowly lowered his hand back to his side and wondered for a moment what exactly the right move would be, and then he just let himself fall back to the pillow. It felt good. ‘I’m too tired for it, mate,’ he said. ‘I claim this bed for England.’
That lasted about five seconds, before the Spaniard grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and heaved him bodily upright again, and threw him on the floor. ‘Out!’ he said, and showed very white teeth. ‘Final warning.This is my room. I don’t share.’
Jess had his measure now, and the shove hadn’t actually had much force behind it; the boy clearly never expected to really fight. He’d been born rich, and was used to those around him deferring to whatever he wished.
Jess rolled into a crouch, exploded upward, and slammed the boy hard against the wall with a forearm like a bar against his throat. ‘Let’s start again,’ he said, and bared his teeth this time. ‘I live here because my name’s posted on the bloody list outside. If that’s your bed, I apologise, and I’ll take the other. Fair enough?’ He emphasised it by leaning forward. The Spaniard struggled a little, but their gazes locked, and he must-have seen that Jess was serious.
‘Keep the bed,’ the other boy said. His voice sounded rough and strangled under the pressure of Jess’s arm.
‘You’ve got your sweat all over it. I wouldn’t touch it now.’
‘Fine.’ Jess let go and stepped back. He offered his hand, again. ‘Let’s start over.
Jess Brightwell.’The Spaniard continued to stare at him with a slight frown grooved above those sharp eyes, and he finally took Jess’s hand and gave it a too-firm squeeze. ‘Dario Santiago,’ he said. ‘We won’t be friends.’
‘Probably not,’ Jess said.
‘But we will be sharing this room.’
Dario’s lips suddenly curved into a truly amused smile. ‘You may not prefer that, in the end.’
For some reason, Jess had assumed that Library classes would be held, well, in the Library, though that institution was more of a sprawling, vast complex than any single building. He’d expected a steady diet of classrooms and essays and tests, the same as he’d had back in London at the Library-administered public schools.
But Scholar Wolfe wasn’t so predictable.
At dawn the next morning, shrill bells rang throughout the dormitory, throwing Jess groaning from his bed, still sore and stupid with exhaustion. He hadn’t unpacked, and struggled with the suitcase locks for far too long before he remembered how to work them properly.
Inside, his clothes smelt of damp, of London, and he felt a strange pang of homesickness for a moment, though not for his family so much as familiarity.
He grabbed a clean pair of trousers, shirt, underwear and a vest, and hurried for the bathroom.
Too late. Dario was already inside, with the door firmly locked. Jess cooled his heels and seethed as Dario took his sweet, leisurely time.
He was still waiting when Thomas banged on the outer door, cracked it, and said, ‘Coming, English? You’re late!’
‘I’m still waiting for the shower! He’s slower than my mother.’
‘You’d better come anyway. Scholar Wolfe is not a man to keep waiting.’ That was certainly true, just from the first acquaintance at the train station. Jess cursed softly and stripped down as Thomas politely turned his broad back. He was pulling on his boots when Dario finally unlocked the bathroom door and stepped out, wreathed in a herb-scented cloud of steam. He looked fresh, perfect, and every inch a gentleman.
Jess felt like an unwashed, grainy-eyed lout, but he yanked his boots in place and followed. Thomas stood aside to let Dario pass, and raised his pale eyebrows at Jess. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Don’t ask,’ Jess said.
‘The key must be to get up before him,’ Thomas said.‘Thank you for spotting the obvious.’
Thomas just grinned and held the door open. He was big enough that Jess hardly had to stoop to walk under his outstretched arm.
The common room on the ground floor was already filled, and Jess felt even worse, seeing that everyone else had managed freshly washed faces and neatly arranged hair. He tried to finger-comb his into some semblance of order, but from Thomas’s mournful head shake, it wasn’t a success.
Scholar Wolfe didn’t come for them. Instead, he sent a tall man dressed in the intimidating black of the Library’s High Garda elite, with a gold band on his wrist.
The weapons he kept on his belt looked well cared for,and perhaps more significantly, well used.
Thomas nudged him with an unsubtle elbow and leant close to whisper, ‘He is a Library soldier!’
‘I know that,’ Jess whispered back. ‘What’s he doing here?’
‘Perhaps frightening us?’ Accurate observation, because the man swept them with an indifferent, middle distance stare that was more intimidating than a glare. He took a swift count and said just two words: ‘With me.’ Then walked down the hall, leaving them all to scramble along in his wake.
Outside, there were no waiting carriages, and the High Garda soldier led them down the boulevard at a quick-march pace. The sun was just rising, but it was already unreasonably hot and damp, and clothing that had seemed comfortable in London quickly felt smothering in Alexandria.
Jess thought that it was an advantage to have skipped the shower, in all, because while he was sweating through his clothes, so were the others, even Dario, and by the time they finally came to a halt in front of a nondescript low building, Jess seemed no worse off than his fellows.
They’d walked all the way to the harbour, Jess realised; he could see the steamships bobbing beyond the low roofs, and the large passenger ships moving in to the docks, ready to disembark their travellers. He longed to see all that; he’d always loved being on the docks in London, with all the noise and activity. The half reeking, half-fresh smell of the sea seemed like home.
But instead, their guide led them to a silent, darkened building with a single entrance. No windows. Going inside it felt like walking into a tomb … and the floor slanted down.
‘Where are we?’ he asked Thomas, but the bigger young man just shook his head. The ceiling was low enough that Thomas had to stoop. The walls were plain, but they seemed to have dirty smudges on them, and the whole place reeked of an acrid, chemical smell. Not that he had time to ponder it, because their High Garda guide was still walking at a brisk, martial pace.
Then, suddenly, they emerged into a much wider,taller room. Jess took three steps inside and stopped, craning his head upward to admire the vaulting height of it. Someone shoved him from behind, and he moved out of the way to a spot on the side of the room. It was rounded, and like the hallway, bare of decoration. Their small group of thirty didn’t take up much room in the relatively vast space.The room seemed very sparse. Impressive, but empty; the walls had the same dark smudges, and the air still carried that sharp, chemical tang. It reminded Jess of something, but he couldn’t think what.
In silence, they waited.
Their High Garda guide had disappeared, leaving the rest of them staring at each other.
Jess had met most of the postulants, though the names escaped his tired brain at present; he most vividly knew Dario, of course, and
Thomas. He spotted Khalila standing off on her own, looking fresh and calm in her headdress and loose robes, while the Welsh girl Glain towered over the other females by several inches.
None of them spoke. A few shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other in discomfort from the long walk, but by common consent, they understood this was not a place for conversation.
And then Wolfe emerged from the single entrance, and walked into the centre of the room. He looked just as he had at the train station: dark, dangerous, and impatient. He took a moment to look around the room at each of them, and then said, ‘Here begins your first lesson. You stand in the first daughter library of Alexandria, the first Serapeum. In this room, copies of works from the stores of the Great Library were first made available to anyone who cared to come and read them … even women, though that was not common practice at the time.Alexandria was the first place in the world to encourage common people to read and learn. The first to educate without regard to status, creed, sex or religion. You stand in the birthplace of our history.’
He let that sit for a moment, and in truth, Jess could feel the weight of it bearing down on him. The walls had been renovated,obviously, but the floor had not. It was ancient stone, worn smooth by millions of steps taken across it. Aristotle might have walked here, he thought. Might have scratched out that first copy of On Sphere Making, sitting at a table right over there.
It gave him a chill, as if he was surrounded by ghosts.
‘The reason I am here as your proctor is to teach you who we are. What we do.
And we begin here in this place where the Great Library took the first steps towards what it has become.’ He paused, studying them. ‘Do you understand what the job of a librarian is?’
It seemed like a stupid question, and hands shot up.
Wolfe sighed. ‘You are not children,’ he said, ‘and I will not favour the shy. Speak out if you have an answer.’ A riot of voices. Wolfe scanned the crowd and pointed a finger. ‘You,’ he said. ‘Step forward, give your name, speak your mind.’ A pretty young girl with glossy red hair and a confident smile moved forward with perfect grace.
‘Anna Brygstrom, sir, from Denmark. Librarians run the daughter libraries, the Serapeum.’ ‘Postulant Brygstrom, I did not ask for your nationality. You have no homeland here, because once you enter Library service, it is your nation. We are your countrymen.’ He paused, and there was a cruel glitter in his eyes. ‘If you’ve come all the way here to learn the mundane details of how to create a work schedule and properly fill a patron’s request, then you are in the wrong place. A properly trained marmoset could run a daughter library, since it is merely a mirror of what is concentrated here, in Alexandria. Step back.’ She no longer had a smile, confident or otherwise, as she disappeared back into the circle.
Someone else stepped forward to take her place, and Jess recognised in the next second that it was the Arab girl, Khalila.
‘Postulant Khalila Seif, sir. We are not here to learn how to run a daughter library.
We are here to learn how the Great Library itself runs.’ Wolfe stared at her for a long few seconds, then nodded sharply. ‘Correct.
Step back, Postulant Seif. On the highest possible level, the Library exists because each nation of the world benefits from it, and because the Library favours none, relies on none. It took time to free ourselves from the tyranny of politics, kings and priests; it took time to assemble the wealth and the force to
defend what we have. But most of all, it took a miracle.
And what was that miracle?’Jess took a chance and stepped forward. ‘Jess – Postulant Jess Brightwell, sir.
The discovery of mirroring.’ He kept it short and to the point; it was Scholar Wolfe’s job to lecture, and if he tried, he could tell it would only lead to a bloody scar on him.
At Wolfe’s precise nod, he moved back again.
‘In 1029, the Serapeum of Rayy in Persia was utterly destroyed, with the devastating loss of more than fifty thousand original works.
It was an orgy of looting and fire that destroyed thousands of years of knowledge. We credit the four hundred and second leader of the Great Library, Archivist Magister Akkadevi, with the discovery of mirroring, by which the contents of any book, any scroll, any document may be written into a similarly treated Library blank. The benefit of mirroring? You.’ Wolfe didn’t wait for volunteers. He picked someone out of the circle.
‘Postulant Glain Wathen, sir. It freed the Library from risking original books and scrolls. It doesn’t matter if a blank is damaged or lost, it can always be requested again.’‘Correct. The destruction of Rayy taught us that calculated politics and unthinking rage – make no mistake, the two are sometimes hand in hand – are the greatest threats knowledge can face. The Doctrine of Mirroring was the first great advance of the Library, the foundation on which all others were built. It ensures protection of knowledge while also giving free access to all, and this was an unquestioned good. But what followed?’
No one stepped forward this time for a moment, and Wolfe didn’t point. He waited. Finally, Thomas stepped forward from his spot beside Jess and cleared his throat. ‘Postulant Thomas Schreiber, sir. The next doctrine issued was the Doctrine of Ownership.’ ‘The Doctrine of
Ownership states that the Great Library must, for the protection and preservation of knowledge in trust for the world, own all such knowledge. Which means what, Postulant Schreiber?’ ‘It’s illegal to own an original,’ he said. ‘Sir.’ ‘Illegal,’ Wolfe repeated.
‘And do you agree with thisdoctrine, Postulant Brightwell?’
Jess flinched, because he hadn’t expected that, not at all. He stepped forward.
Thomas didn’t seem to know whether or not he should move back, so it left both of them together, side by side.
That made it a little easier.
‘I asked your opinion of the doctrine. Do you agree itshould be wrong to own original works?’
Of course, Jess knew he ought to say; it was the standard answer. The Library was never wrong. But something made him say,
‘I’m not sure.’
That woke a glint in Wolfe’s eyes. ‘Why not?’ ‘I’d like to hold one,’ Jess said, quite honestly. ‘To feel the weight and history of it in my hands. A blank can’t be the same, sir.’
‘No,’ Wolfe agreed. ‘A blank is a poor, pale imitation, though the words are arranged in precisely the same order; it is the difference between an idea and a physical thing. And some crave the physical thing, legal or not. Which is why there are such things as shadow markets, and the black trade, and ink-lickers.’ Jess went cold inside, because he felt – perhaps wrongly – that it was a very personal message to him, from Wolfe, that there was no hiding who he was, or where he’d come from.
Wolfe motioned for the two of them to step back, which was a deep relief. He paced around the circle, meeting the eyes of every student.
‘While the Doctrine of Ownership is logical, it led to our current age of unrest. At first, it was merely sentimentality that led people to conceal books in their homes; perhaps it had been an ancestor’s gift, or a favourite and well-loved volume. But then profit entered into it; in the early days, whole caravans of books werestolen. Even today, when new discoveries of original
documents come to light, it becomes a race between criminals and the Library to own them. Once something enters the black trade, it may disappear for ever – damaged, lost, greedily hoarded. And that robs all mankind of something precious.’
‘What about the Burners?’ said a soft voice.‘Step forward, postulant.’ A slender young woman with sleek black hair and the delicate features of Japan moved out from the group and bowed her head slightly to Scholar Wolfe. ‘Izumi Himura. Do not the Burners present a greater threat than the smugglers, sir?’
‘Explain your reasoning.’ ‘Smugglers would wish to preserve originals; it is their trade. To Burners, it is a political statement, because they wish to break the
Library’s hold on originals.’ ‘Inadequate analysis, Himura. You must go deeper to understand the real source of the Burner movement. But I will not ask any of you to probe that wound today. Congratulations, postulants.
Not a terrible showing for your first lesson.’Jess heard a collective sigh of relief. He felt one rush out of him as well; being fixed by Wolfe’s dagger eyes felt like being pinned up for dissection.
The class began to shuffle towards the single exit, but that exodus quickly halted, because the High Garda soldier was blocking the way, arms folded. Wolfe’s voice had a dark amusement in it when he said, ‘Did I tell you to leave?
Never assume you are dismissed until I tell you that you are. You’ll remain here until you work out the problem I have left for you. I warn you, there is a time limit. You’d do well to spot the danger quickly. Try to work together.’
Wolfe cut through them like a knife, and he and the High Garda soldier walked down the hall and out.
‘What are we supposed to do?’ The redhead, Anna, sounded annoyed. ‘He didn’t tell us what to do!’
Jess looked around, and found it was still the same featureless, unremarkable room as before. No other exits, besides the one. No windows.
‘What does he mean,danger?’ Dario asked.
‘There’s nothing here. It’s an empty room.’
Jess hated to admit it, but it seemed that Dario was right. The class spread out, pushing on walls; Glain touched the stained surface and frowned as she rubbed her fingertips together. She sniffed them. ‘There’s something odd here,’ she said. ‘Oily. Chemical.’‘The whole place reeks of it,’ Dario agreed. He came to look at the spot she was examining. ‘You would think if this was sacred space they would keep it in better order.
But what kind of danger does that put us in? Ruining our shirts?’
It was a clue, Jess realised.
This was the first place he’d been in Alexandria that hadn’t been kept utterly spotless. Why leave it in disrepair? It was, as Wolfe said, sacred space.
The smell was familiar.
‘These stains could be torch smoke. Maybe they have ancient ceremonies here,’ said another student. It was a decent guess, but Jess thought it was very, very wrong. A growing tension was gathering in his chest, and his heart was pounding faster. His body understood something that his mind was still trying to work out.
What had been the point of Wolfe’s lecture today?
Original books. Original books being destroyed in the looting of the Serapeum of Rayy. The development of the Codex and blanks.
The dangers of owning books. Smuggling.Burners.
Jess looked up, because everyone else seemed to be looking down … and saw that a panel had silently opened at the top of the dome, and now, a bulbous glass bottle dangled there, spinning slowly in place. It was hard to see it, but Jess spotted a telltale green liquid inside.
He went cold.
‘Out,’ he said, and shoved at Thomas, standing baffled beside him. ‘Get out now!
Thomas stared at him.
‘But the Scholar said—’ ‘Just get out! Go!’
He made Thomas move by force of shoving as hard as he could, and he grabbed others along the way and pushed them to the exit, all protesting. Dario shook free of him and bared his perfect white teeth. ‘I’m not going anywhere, fool. You may voluntarily fail yourself if you like, but I’m staying.
There’s a puzzle, and I’m solving it.’
Jess met his eyes and said, flatly, ‘I already did.’ He pointed up and lowered his voice. ‘That is a bottle of Greek Fire, used by Burners.
It could drop any time, and by the smell and state of this place, they’ve dropped it here before to prove a point. Now, help me get them out!’ Dario moved faster than
Jess would have given him credit for, and helped chivvy the class on, down the narrow little hall, amid a constant drone of complaints. Jess hurried after him. He could vividly imagine that bottle dropping, tumbling, shattering on the smooth worn floor, and bursting into toxic flame.
But there was no fire.
Instead, when he emerged from the long hallway into the glaring Alexandrian morning, he found the class clustered in the shade of a taller building, while Wolfe and the High Garda soldier consulted a timepiece.
‘All out,’ the soldier said.
‘Not bad.’‘Not good, either,’ Wolfe said. ‘But I suppose we will call it acceptable.’
Jess stared at Wolfe so hard he thought his eyeballs would burst. ‘You could have killed all of us!’
‘Only the ones too slow to move,’ Wolfe said. ‘I do give you marks for first noticing the bottle, Postulant Brightwell.’
‘How do you know? Youweren’t there to see it!’ That, of course, was Dario.
Wolfe gave him a long, silencing look and said, ‘Because I have a report from Santi’s man who was watching from the top of the dome, and don’t try to convince me that you should earn that honour, Santiago.
Brightwell. One question: why not shout a general warning to the class to clear them out?’ ‘If I had yelled about Greek Fire, with that small exit, it would have been a crush. None of us might have made it out.’
‘True,’ Wolfe said. ‘But then, life is risk.’
Khalila’s face was set and pale, and she stepped forward to ask, ‘Would you have dropped the bottle? If we’d missed it completely?’‘Not on the first day,’ Wolfe said, in a deceptively pleasant tone. ‘Here ends the lesson: smugglers bite away at the Library a little at a time, like termites on wood, but you must be constantly vigilant for Burners. Some of you come from countries rotten with the heresy; some come from lands untouched by it. It doesn’t matter. The first purpose of a librarian is to preserve and defend our books. Sometimes, that means dying for them – or making someone else die for them. Tota est scientia.’ Knowledge is all. It was the Library’s motto, and they all murmured it in response, as they had from the earliest schooldays.
‘Now. Everyone but Seif, Santiago, Wathen, and
Brightwell, draw a tile from the pot. There are numbers in it ranging from one to six.’ The High Garda soldier was holding out a small clay pot filled with numbered tiles.
He passed through the ranks of the students. Thomas stared at the tile he drew out in puzzlement, and silently asked Jess for hints; Jess didn’t have any to give.
Then the High Garda man took out a set of ivory dice and tossed them to Wolfe.
Wolfe rattled them and cast them on the flagstones.
‘Anyone with two or five, step forward.’
Only two students did, holding up their tiles. One of them was red-headed Anna.
The soldier collected the tiles and put them back in the pot.
‘You can pack your things,’ Wolfe said. ‘Go home. You’re done.’‘But—’ Anna had gone bleach-pale. ‘But we just got here! It’s the first day! It isn’t fair!’
‘Eminently fair, and random. Only Seif and Wathen had fully formed and correct answers to my questions; only Brightwell noticed the Greek Fire, a threat that all librarians must always guard against at all times. I generously gave Santiago credit for helping clear the room. The rest of you were bystanders, and the fact that I did not dismiss you all is a mark of my generosity of spirit.’
‘I’ll-I’ll appeal! You can’t do this!’
‘Certainly you can appeal.
The Archivist Magister is always available to listen to whining, spoilt children who think they’ve been unfairlyjudged. However, if he finds I acted within my authority, you’ll be fined for wasting his time, your placement fee will be forfeited, and you’ll be paying your own way home.
How confident do you feel?’ Jess felt a twinge of sympathy, and a larger bolt of fear, as he looked at the ashen faces of the two who would be leaving on the first day.
There but for the grace ofGod, he thought. And my early acquaintance with the Burners.
Their walk back to the dormitory was all too silent, and Jess couldn’t wait to get back to his room, take out his pen, and fill his journal with how much he genuinely was beginning to loathe Scholar Wolfe.
The first day set the tone.Wolfe was a merciless taskmaster, ruthless in dismissing those he thought were not worth his time. The first week was a brutal parade of failure. Of the thirty-two who’d moved their bags into Ptolemy House, twelve were gone within the first seven days. One left of his own accord, without a word to anyone. Jess understood that.
He felt the pressure like aconstant weapon pressed to his head, and he knew it would be easy to let it crush his spirit.
But he wasn’t in the habit of failure.
Wolfe did not take them back to the ancient chamber again … not that first week.
Instead, he carried out his classes at Alexandria
University in a conventional classroom, where heendlessly grilled them, one by one, on obscure points of Library history. After being caught out on the second day, and surviving the resulting dismissal lottery by sheer luck, Jess put himself to work.
So did all the rest of them.
‘This is foolish,’ Santiago complained the next night. It was direly late, and Jess’s whole body ached from it.
Apparently, the bells were set to clang every morning at dawn, and classes began before any of them were properly awake, but the amount of study that needed to be done left them with little chance of sleep. ‘I thought he said we’d be learning real skills. He’s doing nothing but stuffing nonsense in our heads. Who cares about the name of the forty-second Artifex
Khalila lifted her finger without looking up from the blank she studied. She had claimed a chair in the corner, while Jess had contented himself with sitting against the smooth white wall near the hearth, legs crossed.
‘How do you do that?’Thomas asked. Even Thomas, usually sunny, seemed clouded over and tired. ‘Can you name all the Archivists as well?’
‘There was an emphasis on study in my household,’ Khalila said. ‘And I had little interest in more traditional things, like cooking. So yes. I can name them all. You should probably try.’
‘Better history than distasteful conversations on smuggling,’ Dario said. ‘That is unnecessary information.’ ‘Scholars frequently investigate the black trades and markets, looking for rare books,’ Izumi said. ‘At least where I come from. Don’t they have such in your country? Or are you so virtuous no one sells originals?’
‘Well, it’s like kissing one’s sister,’ Dario said ‘If you have the bad taste to do it, you don’t talk about it.’ Khalila laughed and reached for the tea sitting on the table beside her. ‘I’m not afraid to talk about it. There’s a flourishing black trade near the docks, I hear. I’ve heard a few names.’
Jess deeply hoped that she was exaggerating. Khalila was mostly honest, butsometimes her stories stretched too far. ‘You’d better stay well away from those people.’ For my sake, he added silently. Those were his contacts, after all. He’d been given a list of names and addresses before his father had sent him off on the train, and he still recited them nightly before he went to sleep.
‘I am a woman of manyparts,’ she said. ‘And one of them is the ability to look to the future. Should I become a Scholar like Wolfe, I will need such resources, won’t I?’
‘Rough company,’ Dario said. ‘Unsuitable for an innocent flower like you.’ ‘You sound like my uncle.
One can be innocent and not be ignorant, after all.’ It was, Jess thought, nearlyimpossible to hate her, even when she sounded so smug.
‘I’m warning you: at least try to memorise the Archivists.
It’s just the kind of thing Wolfe will keep asking.’ ‘We are trying,’ Jess said.
His eyes burnt, and he couldn’t stop a yawn. It spread to the rest of them crowded in the common room, and he got muttered curses for it. ‘We’re just notas good at it as you, Khalila.
You should probably get used to hearing that.’
‘Did I give you permission to use my first name?’ she asked, but it was a mild sort of tease, not offence.
‘Forgive me, Postulant Seif,’ Jess said, and bowed as low as he could without really putting an effort in. ‘Your unworthy servant.’
‘Finally,’ Dario muttered.He’d claimed the most comfortable chair, and had a strong little group of followers fanned out around him. ‘The scrubber knows his place at last.’
Jess looked up, and met his roommate’s eyes. Dario’s were challenging and bitter, and his smile matched. No jokes there. And no quarter.
‘Oh, I do know my place, Dario,’ he said. ‘It’s ahead ofyours. What was your test score again?’
That woke hushed laughter from some of the others, and a smile from Khalila. Dario seemed to let it drop.
But of course, he didn’t.
Jess slept like the dead, when he had the chance, and that proved to be a mistake.
When he woke the next morning, after a bare three hours of rest, the bells were clanging in the dark, and Dario’s bed was already empty. He’d missed his chance at the shower, again.
When he opened his chest to grab fresh clothes, it was empty.
The shock echoed up from his toes, hit the top of his skull, and shot back down again. He was no longer sleepy. You bastard. He thought about kicking in the bathroom door and dragging Dario wet and naked out to kick his arrogant arse, but that seemed too easy.
Dario had a lock on his chest, and clearly, he’d foreseen the need to fasten it, but Jess had come from a family of smugglers, with a dash of thieving thrown in.
He knew how to pick locks, and this one wasn’t even much of a challenge.
Dario’s silken shirt felt good against his skin.
Definitely a step up from his own wardrobe. He took the other boy’s trousers, which were a bit long, and tucked them into his own boots.
Dario hadn’t bothered to steal those, at least.
Then he took his Codex and strolled down to grab a breakfast of fruit and thick,hot Egyptian coffee in the common room. He was early, but the room had filled with students by the time Dario burst in the door, hair still damp, face flushed. His bitter-black eyes fixed on Jess, and he advanced on him.
Jess sat at his ease, peeling an orange. ‘Good morning,’ he said. He didn’t try to defend himself, and didn’t stand. Dario reached down and grabbed hold of the shirt, then froze and let go, probably because he remembered that he would be manhandling his own expensive garments.
‘I should have known someone with your gutter manners would be a filthy little thief.’
Jess dropped a piece of peel into his bowl. ‘When my clothes are in my chest, I’ll give these back,’ he said.
‘Until then, I’ll assume you mean to share.’
Dario cursed at him in fluent, liquid Spanish, and reached for a sharp knife on the breakfast table. Jess got there first and slapped it down with a clatter.
‘Think,’ he said, and leant forward. ‘Which one of us knows how to use this better,little prince, you, or the one with gutter manners? And which one of us is more likely to be sent home packing after the crying’s done?’
Khalila eased up and put a gentle hand on Dario’s arm.
‘Dario,’ she said. ‘Please. We have struggle enough to survive already. Fighting among ourselves is foolish.’ Dario turned his head and glared at her. ‘Are you calling me a fool?’
‘Yes,’ she said, very calmly. ‘Now stop.’
He blinked, and there was a twitch of a frown on his high, smooth forehead, and then the smooth noble facade came down. He gave her an elaborate bow. ‘For you, desert flower, anything.’ Khalila gave him an unreadable look, picked up a bread roll, and carried it to the farthest corner of the room, where she pointedly opened her blank to read.
Jess took his hand off the knife and went back to freeing his orange from its thick prison. He wanted to goad Dario, but he knew it wouldn’t be wise; he could see Thomas silently beseeching him not to push his luck, and of course,Thomas was right.
The day’s session with Wolfe was in the classroom – a normal enough place, with narrow windows, desks, chairs, and a large, flat, blank sheet mounted on the wall for Wolfe’s use, should he need it. He didn’t. It was five hours of relentless questioning, which ranged from history to geography (Jess had failed to memorise the locations of all of the daughter libraries, but the weight of that question had crushed three other students) and on to the proper usage of a Codex to conduct advanced research.
They were all exhausted and fearing the reappearance of the lottery tiles when Khalila suddenly said, ‘Are you going to teach us about the Iron Tower, Scholar Wolfe?’It put a stop to everything for a few seconds, and then Wolfe slowly turned towards her. His expression put chills through Jess; he couldn’t imagine how it felt to be on the direct receiving end of it.
‘The Iron Tower?’ She said it with slightly less confidence this time. There was a darkness in the way Wolfe was looking at her, and a calculation, as if he was trying to decide what she meant by the question.
‘If you wish to learn about the Iron Tower, so be it. Tell me what you know about it, Postulant Schreiber.’
It was an unexpected lash of a question, but it didn’t seem to bother Thomas at all.
In fact, he seemed delighted to answer. ‘It was built by engineers from Artifex in the year 1789, to the specifications of the Obscurist Magnus at that time. It was made from a rare type of iron which, quite remarkably, does not rust – the Iron Pillar in Delhi is made from the same, and the process has been under study for—’
‘Fascinating, I am certain.’ Wolfe cut him off, in an utterly bored voice. ‘I was referring to those who reside inside the tower, however extraordinary the exterior might be.’
Thomas was on firm ground when speaking of the accomplishments of engineers, but less so now, and Jess saw him hesitate before he said, ‘You mean the Obscurists?’
‘The Obscurists would be a correct answer, if woefully inadequate,’ Wolfe agreed.
‘They … maintain the Library’s Codex system.’ ‘How?’
‘Postulant Seif wishes to discuss the Obscurists, and so we shall discuss them. Can you explain to me exactly how they accomplish the mirroring of the Library’s information across so much distance? The exact mechanism they use to perform this miraculous feat?’
‘I—’ Thomas swallowed.
‘Then what else do they provide to the Library?’ ‘They … provide the spark to power the automata that guard the Serapeum?’ Wolfe let him dangle in silence for a moment, then crossed to stare out the window at the Iron Tower with his hands clasped behind his back.
‘The burning of the Serapeum at Rayy, as we discussed on the first day, changed everything,’ he said.
‘Prior to that loss, alchemists worked in secret; after, they began to work together. Their discoveries led to the Doctrine of Mirroring, butt hey also found something curious: alchemical successes were not a simple matter of chemicals and potions and the time at which they were combined, as everyone had thought. The formulae worked for some earnest masters and not others, because there was a spark in only some, a talent that could imbue formulae with real power.’‘And those people became the Obscurists,’ Khalila said.
‘The most valuable resource in the world.’ Wolfe suddenly rounded on Khalila, stalked directly to her, and Jess saw the fine tremble that went through her that marked a desperate desire to retreat. It was a significant achievement that she held her ground; Jess wasn’t sure he could have done the same. ‘Do not ever bring up the Obscurists again, Postulant Seif. Your idle curiosity will not be so well rewarded.’
She was silent for a second, and then – remarkably, to Jess’s eyes – she drew herself up and held Wolfe’s gaze quite steadily.
Then she said, with only a tiny hint of a tremor in her voice, ‘With the greatest respect, Scholar Wolfe, I do not ask from idle curiosity, but from a desire to more fully understand the duties of a librarian. Librarians instruct, assist, research, develop, create … and protect, do they not?’ ‘Yes. Your point?’
‘You said they are our greatest resource. Does that not also make the Obscurists our greatest weakness?’ That sparked a sudden,common intake of breath, because it seemed more than daring, that question.
It seemed seditious.
Wolfe stepped back without blinking, and clasped his hands behind his back. Smiled. It was a strange expression on him, unnatural, almost brittle. ‘Explain,’ he said.
‘All of the other specialities of the Library –Medica, Artifex, Historia, Lingua – are positions to which we can aspire. But alchemy cannot be taught in the same way. None of us can become Obscurists, because they are born with a special gift. That makes them rare,’ Khalila continued. The tremor in her voice was more obvious now, and she stopped to swallow. ‘We must know if we are to help protect them.’ ‘And when you rise to the rank of a Senior Scholar, you might be granted that knowledge,’ he told her.
‘Until then, the question is a waste of your time.
Obscurists do their work in seclusion and protection within the Iron Tower. That is all you need know.’
‘But without them, documents can’t be added to the Archive, isn’t that true?
Without them, the automata that guard our daughter libraries cannot have the spark of life. Without them —’
She seemed to run out of courage, suddenly, and her voice fell silent. Jess finished the thought.
‘Without them, the Codex doesn’t work,’ he said. ‘And if the Codex doesn’t work,the Library falls.’ That got Wolfe’s attention. He instantly regretted opening his mouth.
The room was hot and still, and when he gritted his teeth in order not to flinch under that stare, his jaw ached tightly in the corners.
But he didn’t look away.
‘Remember,’ Wolfe said.
The word was silky soft, almost gentle. ‘Even here,you can ask the wrong questions and speak the wrong truths, postulants. Here ends today’s lesson. Tota est scientia.’
Their murmured response followed him as he turned and walked from the room, blending with the whisper of his black robes on stone.
Finally, after the doors closed, Jess let out his breath in a rush.‘Scheisse, Jess,’ Thomas said. ‘Did he just threaten you?’
Khalila was looking at him in concern, and her face was several shades too pale.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean—’
‘Never mind,’ Jess replied, and picked up his Codex from the desk. ‘It was a good question.’
Outside, Wolfe’s HighGarda friend was waiting with the pot of tiles. Jess automatically reached for one.
The man pulled it back and gave him an unexpectedly friendly grin.
‘Not you,’ he said. ‘Pass.’ Somehow, Jess thought, that only made it seem more ominous.
The day’s lottery yielded no losers, by some miracle.By the time they made it back to Ptolemy House, the sun was down, they were all soaked with exhausted sweat, and Jess stood in the shower for well on an hour, wondering if he could survive this gruelling process, and more, if he should.
When he came out of the shower, his missing clothes were back in his trunk.
Stained, muddy, and filthy,but returned, and fair point, he hadn’t told Dario they had to be in the same condition as they’d left. Jess silently scrubbed the worst of the mud out of a shirt and trousers, donned them, and then pondered taking revenge to the next level. His brother would have, until it came to knives and someone dead on the floor.
He wasn’t his brother. Forthat reason, he decided to just let it go. Dario had kept his end of the bargain … exacted some petty revenge, but a little mud didn’t bother Jess much. Benefits of an urchin childhood. Jess even wrote something that was almost civil about his roommate in his personal journal that night, simply because he believed they might have reached an understanding.It was premature, as he found out the next morning when Dario roughly shook him awake.
‘Where is it?’ Dario growled. Jess blinked spots from his eyes and tried to sit up. Dario pushed him back down. ‘Now, scrubber!’ ‘Where’s what?’
Dario lunged for him, and Jess on his side, delivered a quick elbow to Dario’s face,and was on his feet and balanced for a fight in seconds as the other boy staggered away. Dario, however, went down hard on his arse, and stayed there, breathing hard and holding his nose. It wasn’t broken. It wasn’t even bleeding.
‘I’ll kill you,’ Dario growled. It came up from the depths of him, and Jess
believed he meant it.‘For what?’ Jess asked.
‘Other than just on general principles? What do you think I did?’
‘My Codex,’ Dario said.
‘You took it, out of revenge.
Give it back.’
That was serious. To steal someone’s Codex was to cut off access to the Library, and even under normal circumstances that would be a vile thing to do; now, with Wolfe’s class reaping a daily crop of failures, it was catastrophic.
‘I didn’t take it,’ Jess said, and held out his hand. Dario stared at him for a second, then took the offer and let Jess haul him back to his feet.
‘I’d do a lot of things.
Thought of sending your entire wardrobe to Barcelona, in fact, and making you beg for it back. But I didn’t do that, and I didn’t take your Codex.’
‘Unfortunately, I believe you,’ Dario said. ‘But admit it, you were the most likely suspect.’
‘I’m flattered. Where did you leave it?’
‘Are you going to be my mother now, and tell me to look in the last place I saw it?
Vete al diablo! It was here.
On my desk. And now it is not.’ Jess went to the door. It swung easily open. ‘I locked the door. Someone opened it.’ ‘I … might have done that when I came in.’
‘Left it unlocked?’
Dario shrugged. ‘Maybe … also not closed. There was wine involved. But I didn’t lose my Codex. I’ve never been that drunk.’
‘Just buy a new one.You’re not poor.’ ‘My father gave it to me,’ Dario said. He looked away.
‘When I was ten. It was the last gift I had from him. I want it back.’
Jess pulled in a breath and let it out.
‘All right. Let’s look,’ he said. ‘In case you really were that drunk.’
He was checking the tangled bedding when Dario,over by the desk, said, ‘I think I know what happened.’ His voice sounded odd. As Jess came towards him, Dario handed him a piece of paper with a handwritten note.
You shove your money and nobility and privilege down our throats, and expect us to smile and thank you.
We’ve had enough of you. Take the next train home, and we’ll return your Codex. Stay, and you’ll never see it again.
‘It’s not from you,’ Dario said. ‘You’d tell me to my face.’ He sank into the desk chair, staring out at the thick orange dawn smudging the eastern horizon.
‘Who else have you tried to bully out of here?’ Dario’s shrug said it all.
‘Everyone, at one time or another. I earned this, didn’t I?’
‘You did.’ No reason to lie about it. ‘What are you going to do, then? Give in and leave?’
Dario sat silently for a moment, then took in an audible breath and said, ‘It’s just a Codex. I’ll get another,as you said.’ But there was something broken in his gaze.
‘Leave me alone, scrubber.’ He pulled out his personal journal and pen. Jess understood the impulse, all too well, to spill out the bile and hurt into ink, where no one could see it.
He didn’t waste the opportunity to be the first into the bathroom.
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