Click the cover to read excerpts.
In Ink and Bone, Jess Brightwell learned that the shining light of the Great Library of Alexandria was an illusion ... one that hides great darkness. Now, barred from his goal of becoming a Scholar, he's determined to make his career as a High Garda soldier a success. But news that someone he thought dead may be very much alive, and suffering, brings Jess back with his friends, and to a common cause: rescue.
Failure means death. Success means that their shadowy war with the Library becomes very real, and very deadly.
But they have a secret that may shake the very foundations of the Library ... if they dare to use it.
Paper and Fire takes us on a breathless journey from battlefields to ancient tombs, from Alexandria to Rome, and to the edge of a world that must change to survive.
Excerpt from a Report Delivered via Secure Message to the Archivist Magister, from the Hand of the Artifex.
I thought that you were being soft when you ordered us to keep the boy alive, but he’s been incredibly useful already. As you said, a brilliant mind. When we allow him access to books and papers, which we do as a reward, his observations on engineering are quite groundbreaking. After breaking him using the usual means, we provided him with chalk, and on the walls of his cell, he began to write some unusual calculations and diagrams. These I have enclosed for your review.
He also had observations, which he confided to a guard I had ordered to be friendly to him, about the maintenance of the automata within the prison. Clever boy. And dangerous. He might have succeeded in turning one of them to his own uses if we hadn’t kept a constant watch.
I know you want to keep him alive, but even after this long, he continues to be outwardly cooperative and inwardly quite stubborn. I haven’t seen the like since . . . well, since his mentor, Scholar Christopher Wolfe.
As bright as he is, I don’t how we can ever control him completely. It would be far kinder to kill him now.
Reply from the Archivist Magister, via Secure Message.
Under no circumstances are you to kill the boy.
I have great plans for him.
Every day, Jess Brightwell passed the Spartan warrior statue on his way to and from his quarters. It was a beautifully made automaton, fluid and deadly, with a skin of burnished copper. It stood in a dynamic pose on its pedestal with a spear ready to thrust, and was both a decoration and a protection against intruders.
It wasn’t supposed to be a threat to those who belonged here.
Now as he passed it, the shadowed eyes under the helmet flickered and flared red, and the Spartan’s head turned to track his passage. Jess felt the burn of those eyes, but he didn’t return the stare. It would take only an instant for that form to move and that spear to drive right through him. He could feel the very spot the point would enter, like a red, tingling target on his back.
Not now! Jess sweated, terribly aware of the leather smuggling harness strapped to his chest, and the slender original book hidden inside. Calm. Be calm. It was incredibly difficult, not only because of the threat of the automaton, but the anger that burned away inside of him. As he walked away, the tingle in his back rose to a hot burn, and he waited for the rush of movement and the horrible invasion of the spear stabbing through his body. . . . But then he was a step past, two steps, and the attack didn’t come.
When he looked back, the statue had gone back to resting mode, staring blindly straight ahead. It seemed safe. It wasn’t. Jess Brightwell lived on sufferance and luck at the Great Library of Alexandria. If he’d been half as clever as his friend Thomas Schreiber, he ought to have figured out how to disable these things by now. . . .
Don’t think about Thomas. Thomas is dead. You have to keep that thought firm in your head, or you’ll never make it through this.
Jess paused in the dark, cool tunnel that led from the Spartan’s entrance into the wider precincts of the complex where he was quartered. There was no one here to watch him, no fellow travelers at either end of the tunnel. The automaton couldn’t see him. Here, for this one sheltered moment, he could allow himself to feel.
Anger sparked red and violent inside, heated his skin and tensed his muscles, and the tears that stung his eyes were driven by rage as much as grief. You lied, Artifex, he thought. You lying, cruel, evil bastard. The book in the harness on his chest was proof of everything he’d hoped for the past six months. But hope was a cruel, jagged thing, all spikes and razors that turned and cut deep in his guts. Hope was a great deal like fear.
Jess bounced his head against the stones behind him, again, again, again, until he could get control of the anger. He forced it back into a black box, buried deep, and secured it with chains of will, then wiped his face clear. It was morning, still so early that dawn blushed the horizon, and he was tired out of his skin. He’d been chasing the book he smuggled now for weeks, giving up meals, giving up rest, and finally he’d found it. It had cost him an entire night’s sleep. He’d not eaten, except for one quick gyro from a Greek street vendor nearly eight hours past. He’d spent the rest of the time hiding in an abandoned building and reading the book three times, cover to cover, until he had every single detail etched hot into his memory.
Jess felt gritty with exhaustion and trembled with hunger, but he knew what he had to do.
He had to tell Glain the truth.
He didn’t look forward to that at all, and the idea made him bounce his skull off the stones one more time, more gently. He pushed off, checked his pulse to be sure it was steady again, and then walked out of the tunnel to the inner courtyard—no automata stationed here, though sphinxes roamed the grounds on a regular basis. He was grateful not to see one this time, and headed to his left, toward his barracks.
After a quick stop to wolf down bread and drink an entire jug of water, he moved on, and avoided any of the early risers in the halls who might want to be social. He craved a shower and mindless sleep more than any conversation.
He got neither. As he unlocked his door and stepped inside, he found Glain Wathen—friend, fellow survivor, classmate, superior officer—sitting bold as brass in the chair by his small desk. Tall girl, made sleek with muscle. He’d never call her pretty, but she had a comfortable, easy assurance—hard won these past months—that made her almost beautiful in certain lights. Force of personality, if nothing else.
The Welsh girl was calmly reading, though she closed the Blank and returned it to his shelf when he shut the door behind him.
“People will talk, Glain,” he said. He had no temper for this right now. He needed, burned, to tell her what he’d learned, but at the same time, he was on the precarious edge of emotion, and he didn’t want her, of all people, to see him lose control. He wanted to rest and face her fresh. That way, he wouldn’t break into rage, or just . . . break.
“One thing you learn early growing up a girl, people always talk, whatever you do,” Glain said. “What bliss it must be to be male.” Her tone was sour, and it matched her expression. “Where have you been? I was half a mind to call a search party.”
“You damn well know better than to do that,” he said, and if she was going to stay, fine. He had no qualms about stripping off his uniform jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. They’d seen each other in all states as postulants struggling to survive Wolfe’s class, and the High Garda wasn’t a place that invited modesty, either.
He really must have been too tired to think, because his fingers were halfway down the buttons on his shirt when he realized she’d see the smuggling harness, which was a secret he didn’t feel prepared to share just yet. “A little privacy?” he said, and she raised her dark eyebrows but got up and turned her back. He didn’t take his eyes off her as he stripped off the shirt and reached for the buckles of the leather harness that held the book against his chest. “I need sleep, not conversation.”
“Too bad. You won’t get any of the former,” she told him. “We’re due for an exercise in half an hour. Which is why I was looking for you. The orders came after you’d gone sneaking into the night. Where exactly did you go, Jess?”
Jess. So they weren’t on military footing now, not that he’d really thought they were. He sighed, left the harness on, and replaced the old shirt with a fresh one. “You can turn,” he said, as he finished the buttons. She did, hands clasped behind her back, and stared at him with far too much perception.
“If that bit of false-modesty theater was meant to distract me from the fact you’re wearing some kind of smuggling equipment under that shirt, it failed,” she said. “Have you gone back into the family business?”
The Brightwells held a stranglehold on the London book trade, and had fingers in every black market across the world, one way or another; he had never told her that, but somehow, he also wasn’t surprised she’d know. Glain liked to learn everything she could about those close to her. It was a smart strategy. He’d done the same with her, the only daughter of a moderately successful merchant who’d nearly bankrupted himself to earn her a place at the Library. She’d been raised with six brothers. None of them, despite sharing her strong build and height, had been inclined at all to military life. Glain was exactly what she seemed: a strong, capably violent young woman who cared about her abilities, not her looks.
“If you’re a Brightwell, you’re never really out of the family business,” he said, and sat down on his bed. The mattress yielded, and he wanted to stretch out and let it cradle him, but if he did, he knew he’d be asleep in seconds. “You didn’t just barge in here to make sure I was still alive, did you?”
“No.” She sounded amused, and completely at ease again. “I needed to ask you a question.”
“Well? As you said, we’ve got only half an hour—”
“Somewhat less now,” she said. “Since we’re having this conversation. What do you know about the Black Archives?”
That stopped him cold. He’d expected her to ask something else, something more . . . military. But instead, it took his tired brain a moment to scramble to the new topic. He finally said, “That they’re a myth.”
“Really.” Scorn dripped from that word, and she leaned back against the wall behind her. “What if I told you that I heard from someone I trust that they’re not?”
“You must have slept through your childhood lessons.” He switched to a childish singsong. “The Great Library has an Archive, where all the books they save—”
“Not fire or sword, not flood or war will be the Archive’s grave,” Glain finished. “I memorized the same childhood rhymes you did. But I’m talking about the other Archives. The forbidden ones.”
“The Black Archives are a story to frighten children, that’s all. Full of dangerous books, as if books could be dangerous.”
“Some might be,” she said. “And Dario doesn’t think it’s a myth.”
“Dario?” Jess said. “Since when do you believe anything Dario Santiago says? And why is he talking to you at all?”
She gave him a long, unreadable smile. “Maybe he just wants to keep track of what you get up to,” she said. “But back to the subject. If it’s where they keep dangerous information, then I say that’s a place that we need to look for any hints about what happened to send Thomas to his death. And who to go after for it. Don’t you?”
Thomas. Hearing his best friend’s name said aloud conjured up his image behind Jess’s eyes: a cheerfully optimistic genius in the body of a German farm boy. He missed Thomas, who’d had all the warmth and understanding of others that Jess lacked. I can’t think about him. For a wild instant, he thought he’d either shout at her, or cry, but somehow he managed to keep his voice even as he said, “If such a place as the Black Archives even exists, how would we go about getting into it? I hope Dario has an idea. I don’t.”
“You know Dario—he’s always got an idea,” Glain said. “Something to think on, anyway. Something we can do. I know you want to find out how and why Thomas died as much as I do.”
“The Archivist told us why,” he said. “Thomas was convicted of heresy against the Library.” Tell her what you know, for God’s sake. The thought beat hard against his brain, like a prisoner battering at a door, but he just wasn’t ready. He couldn’t tell what saying the words out loud, making them real, might do to him.
“I don’t believe that for a moment,” Glain said softly. Her dark eyes had gone distant and the look in them sad. “Thomas would never have done anything, said anything to deserve that. He was the best of us.”
Just tell her. She deserves to know!
He finally scraped together just enough courage and drew in a deep, slow breath as he looked up to meet her eyes. “Glain, about Thomas—”
He was cut off by a sudden, hard rapping on the door. It sounded urgent, and Jess bolted up off the bed and crossed to answer. He felt half relieved for the interruption . . . until he swung it open, and his squad mate Tariq Oduya shouldered past Jess and into the room. He held two steaming mugs, and thrust one at Jess as he said, “And here I thought you’d be still lagging in bed. . . .” His voice trailed off as he caught sight of Glain standing against the wall. She had her arms crossed, and looked as casual as could be, but Tariq still grinned and raised his eyebrows. “Or maybe you just got up!”
“Stuff it,” Glain said, and there was no sign of humor in her expression or voice. She moved forward to take the second cup from Tariq and sipped it, never mind that it was probably his own. “Thanks. Now be about your business, soldier.”
“Happy to oblige, Squad Leader,” he said, and mock-saluted. Technically, they were off duty, but he was walking a tightrope, and Jess watched Glain’s face to see if she intended to slice through it and send him falling into the abyss for the lack of respect.
She just sipped the hot drink and watched Tariq without blinking, until he moved to the door.
“Recruit Oduya,” she said as he stepped over the threshold. “You do understand that if I hear a whisper of you implying anything about this situation, I’ll knock you senseless, and then I’ll see you off the squad and out of the High Garda.”
He turned and gave her a proper salute. His handsome face was set into a calm mask. “Yes, Squad Leader. Understood.”
He closed the door behind him. Jess took a gulp of the coffee and closed his eyes in relief as the caffeine began its work. “He’s a good sort. He won’t spread rumors.”
Glain gave him a look of utter incredulity. “You really don’t know him at all, do you?”
In truth, Jess didn’t. The squad had bonded tightly, but he’d held himself apart from that quite deliberately; he’d formed deep friendships in his postulant class and seen some of those friends dismissed, injured, and dead. He wasn’t about to open himself up to the same pain again.
Still, he considered Tariq the closest he had to a friend, except for Glain. Glain he trusted.
His uniform jacket was still clean, and he put it on as he finished the coffee. Glain watched in silence for a moment before she said, “You were about to tell me something.”
“Later,” he said. “After the exercise. It’s going to be a longer conversation.”
“All right.” As he stopped to check his uniform in front of the mirror, she rolled her eyes. “You’re pretty enough for both of us, Brightwell.”
“Charmed you think so, Squad Leader. You’re quite handsome yourself today.” Handsome was a good description. Glain had chopped her dark hair closer for convenience; it suited her, he decided, and fit well with the solid curves of a body made for endurance and strength. There was no attraction between them, but there was respect—more now than before, he thought. Some, like Oduya, might mistake it for something else. She might be right to be concerned. Jess met her eyes in the mirror. “That compliment stops at the doorway, of course.”
She nodded. It seemed brisk, but there was a look in her eyes that he thought might be some form of gratitude. “Stop preening and let’s go.”
They left his room together, but, thankfully, no one was in the hall to see it. The squad had gathered toward the end, talking casually, but all that stopped as Glain approached. Jess silently took position with the rest of the squad, and Glain led them out at a fast walk for the parade ground. Despite his sweaty weariness, he looked forward to this; it was a chance to let a little of his anger out of that locked, chained box. There wouldn’t be any real surprises. It was just an exercise, after all.
He was dead wrong about that, and it cost him.
Continued in Paper and Fire, July 5, 2016
This book haunted me for years. Pieces of it came into focus a bit at a time, and I just knew that I had to try to put it on paper ... it's different from the Urban Fantasy I have been known for, from the fun and action of the Morganville Vampires, and even from the more literary tone of Prince of Shadows. It's ambitious, and huge, and it's full of burning questions. In our modern world, where "content" has replaced physical storage of information, who truly owns anything? In a world where everything is stored in bits and bytes, the one who owns the storage has the true control.
In the world of the Great Library, it's more of a magical internet, and more of an open question ... are books more important than lives? Should people only read what is safe ... and who decides what "safe" really means? In a world where the Library controls our information, what black markets and sinister organizations will rise up to match it?
Take a run with Jess, and learn about the beautiful, dangerous world in which the Great Library of Alexandria never burned.
From the scribe of Pharaoh Ptolemy II, to his most excellent servant Callimachus, Archivist of the Great Library, in the third year of his glorious reign:
Great King Ptolemy, Light of Egypt, has considered your counsel to make copies of the most important works of the Library to be housed in daughter libraries, hereinafter to be called Serapeum, for the access and enrichment of all men. Pharaoh, who is as wide as the Nile in his divine wisdom, agrees to this proposal.
You shall therefore survey the contents of the Great Library and create for him a listing of all works housed therein, which shall serve ever after as the accounting of this great storehouse of the knowledge of the world.
You shall then consult with the Library’s Editor to make exact copies of items suitable for the use of the Serapeum, being mindful of the need to provide works that elevate and educate.
By these means shall we further preserve the knowledge we have gathered and hold in trust from ancient times, to be preserved for the future of all who come after.
Pharaoh has also heard your words regarding the unaccompanied admission of females to this sacred space of the Serapeum, and in his divine wisdom refuses this argument, for women must be instructed by the more developed minds of men to ensure they do not wrongly interpret the riches that the Library offers. For a perversion of knowledge is surely worse than a lack of it.
Pharaoh and the gods will grant eternal favor and protection to this great work.
A handwritten annotation to the letter, in the hand of Callimachus.
His divine wisdom can kiss my common arse. We blind and hobble half of the world through such ignorance, and I will not have it. Women shall study at the Serapeum as they might be inclined. Let him execute me if he wishes, but I have seen enough of minds wasted in this world. I have a daughter.
My daughter will learn.
“Hold still and stop fighting me,” his father said, and slapped him hard enough to leave a mark. Jess went quiet. He hadn’t meant to fidget, but the pouch strapped to his bare chest felt hot and dangerous, like some animal that might turn on him and bite.
He looked up at his father as the man snugged the harness bindings closer. When it was suffocatingly tight, he tossed Jess a filthy old shirt. He’d done this often enough that, while it was still frightening, it was no longer strange . . . But there was a sense that this time, this run, was different. Why, Jess didn’t know, except that his father seemed more tense than usual.
So he asked, hesitantly, “Da— anything I should know?”
“Doesn’t matter a damn what you know. Lose that book to the Garda and you’ll hang, if you’re lucky. If I don’t get you first. You know the route. Run it flat and fair, and you’d best damn well die before you give it to any but the one that’s paid for it.” Callum Brightwell cast a critical eye over his son’s thin form, then yanked a vest from a chest and shoved it over Jess’s shirt. There was only one button on it. Jess fastened it. It hung two sizes loose, which was the point: better concealment for the harness.
Brightwell nodded and stepped back. He was a smallish man, runted by poor nutrition in his youth, but now he was dressed well in a bright yellow silk waistcoat and trousers of fine cotton. “You look the part,” he told Jess. “Remember to stay with the cutters. Don’t split off on your own unless the Garda spring a trap. Even then, keep to the route.”
Jess ducked his head in acknowledgment. He knew the route. He knew all the routes, all the runs that his family held against competitors throughout the vast city of London. He’d trained since he was old enough to walk, clasping the hand of his father and then later toddling behind his older brother, Liam.
Liam was dead now. He’d been seventeen when he was taken in by the London Garda for running books. His family hadn’t stepped up to identify him. He’d kept the family’s code. He’d kept his silence to the end.
And as a reward for that loyalty, the city of London had tossed him in an unmarked pit, along with other unclaimed criminals. Liam had been seventeen, and Jess was now ten, and he had no idea how he was supposed to live up to that legend.
“Da—” He was risking another slap, or worse, but he took a deep breath and said, “Today’s a bad day to be running—you said that yourself. The Garda are out in force. Why can’t this wait?”
Callum Brightwell looked above his son’s head, at the sturdy wall of the warehouse. This was one of many bolt-holes he kept for rarities and, of course, the rarest treasures of all, books. Real, original books, shelves and crates full. He was a wealthy, clever man, but in that moment, with the light coming harsh on him through a high, mullioned window, he looked twice his age.
“Just get on with it. I’ll expect you back in two hours. Don’t be late or I’ll get the cane.” His father suddenly scowled. “If you see your feckless brother, tell him I’m waiting, and there’ll be hell to pay. He’s on the cutters today.”
Even though Jess and Brendan had been born as identical twins, they couldn’t have been more different inside. Jess was bold; Brendan tended to be shy. Jess was self-contained; Brendan was prone to explosions of violence. Jess was a runner. Brendan . . . was a schemer.
Jess knew exactly where Brendan was; he could see him, hiding up on the thin second-floor catwalk, clinging to an old ladder that ran toward the roof. Brendan had been watching, as was his habit. He liked to be up high, away from where Da could lay hands on him, and he liked to avoid risking his hide as a runner when he could.
“If I see him, I’ll tell him,” he said, and stared hard right at his brother. Get down here, you little shite. Brendan responded by silently swarming up the ladder into the darkness. He’d already worked out that Jess was the one running the prize today. Knowing Brendan, he’d decided that his skin was worth more than just acting as his brother’s decoy.
“Well?” his father said sharply. “What are you waiting for, a kiss from your mam? Get on with you!”
He pushed Jess toward the massive reinforced warehouse door, which was opened by three silent men; Jess didn’t know them, tried not to learn their names because they died quick in that line of work. He paused and took deep, quick breaths. Getting ready. He spotted the mob of cutters ranged about in the alley and on the street beyond; kids, his age or younger, all ready to run their routes.
They were waiting only for him.
He let out a wild war cry and set off at a sprint. The other cutters took it up as a cheer, thin arms and legs pumping, darting between the startled pedestrians in their workaday clothes. Several lunged out into the street, which was a hazardous adventure; they darted between steam carriages and ignored the angry shouts of the drivers. The cutters re-formed into a mob of twelve or so kids at the next corner, and Jess stuck with them for the first part of the route. It was safer in numbers, as the streets got cleaner and the passersby better dressed. Four long blocks of homes and businesses, then a right turn at a tavern already doing good business even so early in the morning; smooth running, until a hard-looking man darted out from a greengrocer and yanked a girl out of his crew by her long hair. She’d made herself too easy to grab; most of the girls knotted up their hair on top of their heads or shaved it short.
Jess had to fight his urge to slow down and help her.
The girl screamed and fought, but the big man wrestled her to the curb and backhanded her into a heap. “Damn cutters!” he yelled. “Garda! Garda! Runners on the loose!”
That tore it. Always some busybody do-gooder trying to save the day, was what Jess’s father always said; that’s why he sent the cutters in packs, most with worthless decoy trash in their harnesses. The Garda rarely scored, but when they did, they paid any informants off rich who put them on the trail of the smugglers.
Citizens turned, eyes avid with the idea of free cash, and Jess tucked his chin down and ran. The cutters wheeled and broke up and re-formed like a flock of birds.
Some carried knives and used them when grabbed; it was chancy to do that, very chancy, because if a kid was caught with a bloody knife it’d be the rope for sure, whether it was a flesh wound on the man he’d cut or a mortal blow. The boy to Jess’s left— too big to be running, though he was probably younger than Jess’s age— veered straight into a wall of oncoming drunks. He had a knife and slashed with it; Jess saw a bright ribbon of blood arcing in the air and then didn’t look back. He couldn’t. He had to concentrate on escape.
His route split at the next corner; they’d all break up now, running separately to draw the Garda’s numbers thin . . . or at least, that was the plan.
What happened was that when Jess reached the corner, there were Garda bunched up on his route. They spotted him and let out a fierce, angry yell.
He made an instant decision he knew his da would beat him black for making: he left the route. He almost banged into two other cutters as he veered right; they gave him identically startled looks, and one yelled at him to get off their patch. He ignored her, and despite the ache growing in his chest, the smothering drag of the book, he put on a new burst of speed and outpaced them both.
He heard a cry behind him and glanced back to see that the Garda were pouring out from alleyways. Bloody lobsters in their grimy red coats. They swiftly caught the others.
Not Jess, though. Not yet.
He dodged down a dark, twisting passage too narrow to even be named an alley; even as small as he was, his shoulders brushed brick on both sides. A rusted nail caught at his shirt and ripped the sleeve, and for a heart-stopping second he thought the leather of his harness might catch, but he kept moving. Couldn’t go fast now, because of the inky darkness in the shadows, but his nose told him it was a popular dumping ground for rotting fish. The bricks felt slimy and cold under his fingers.
He could still hear the Garda hue and cry behind him, but they couldn’t fit their thick bodies through this warren, and for a moment, as he spotted a thin slice of light at the end, he wasn’t so sure he could fit either.
It narrowed and narrowed, until he had to turn sideways and edge along with the rough brick tearing at his clothes. The book wedged him in as tight as a cork in a bottle, and he fought the urge to panic.
Think. You can get out of this.
He let out his breath and flattened his chest as much as he could, and it gained him the extra half inch he needed to edge free of the crush.
He stumbled out between two fancy buildings onto a wide, clean street he knew he should recognize, and yet it seemed odd, out of place . . . until it snapped into focus.
He’d come out only three blocks from his family’s town house, where his mother and father took such pains looking gentrified. If he was seized here, there’d be some who’d know him on sight, and that would mean much, much worse for not just him; his whole family would be brought down. He had to get out of here. Now.
He rushed out into the street, directly under the wheels of a steam carriage, and into the darkness of another alley. It led in the right direction but twisted wrong soon enough. He’d not explored all the alleys near his home; he had enough to do with the routes the runners used. That was why his father had always ordered him to keep to the route— because it was so easy to be lost in complicated London, and getting lost while carrying contraband could be deadly.
At the next street he spotted a landmark a few blocks away: the glittering dome of St. Paul’s Serapeum, the physical presence of the Great Library in London, and one of the largest daughter libraries in Europe. It was beautiful and deadly, and he averted his eyes and made a vow to never, never go that way.
But he didn’t have a choice.
A Garda emerged from a doorway, clapped eyes on him, and shouted.
Behind his pointing finger, the Garda was young, maybe the age Liam had been when he’d taken the rope. This young man was blond and had a weak chin, and his secondhand uniform fit about as well as Jess’s disguise. But he was fast. Too fast. As Jess took off running he heard the slap of the Garda’s feet behind him, and the shrill, urgent toot of his whistle.
They’d be coming from all around him. If they boxed him in here . . .
He took the only clear path out of danger. It was another dark, cramped alley, but the Garda was no side of beef and slipped through almost as easily as Jess did. Jess had to keep running, though his weary lungs were pumping fire, and the long legs of the Garda gained on him when they reached open street again. The watery London sunshine seemed to beat down on Jess’s head, and he was dripping with sweat. He was terrified that he might damage the book with it.
Not as terrified as he was of being caught, though.
More whistles. The Garda closed in.
Jess had no choice at all. They were driving him in one direction—toward the Serapeum. If he could get past the Garda barricades there, it was Library territory and under entirely different laws. The London Garda couldn’t trespass without clearances.
Up ahead, he saw the orange-and-black wood of the Garda barricade across the street, and the line of supplicants waiting to have their credentials checked. Jess pulled for his last reserves of speed, because that damned rabbit-heeled Garda was close enough to brush fingers on his shirt. He lurched forward, aimed for a hole in the crowd, and threw himself bodily forward toward the barricade. As the Garda behind him yelled for help, Jess grabbed the painted tiger-striped wood and vaulted over it in one smooth motion, hit the ground running on the other side, and heard the shouts of surprise and dismay echoing behind him. Someone laughed and yelled at him to keep going, and he grinned fiercely and risked a look back.
The Garda had stopped at the barricade—or, at least, one of his fellows had stopped him by getting in his way and holding him back. The two were scuffling, the younger man shouting angrily. His blood was still up from the chase, or he’d have had more sense. Jess knew he didn’t have long; they’d be sending a message to the High Garda, the elite guards of the Library, to intercept him. He needed to get through, and fast.
The street ahead had but fifty people on foot, including at least ten Scholars stalking in their billowing black robes. No steam carriages; they weren’t permitted here anymore, not since the Library had closed this road to through traffic. The golden dome rose serene and gleaming overhead, and below it, a waterfall of steps flowed down from it. There were still scars on the steps, despite all efforts to clean it, from the last Burner explosion. Stains from the Greek fire and the burned bodies of those who’d been killed. A mound of dying flowers marked the spot, though a groundsman was in the process of shoving them into a bag for disposal. The mourning period was over. Time to move on.
Jess slowed to a jog as he caught sight of the lions. Stone, they resembled, but they had the feral look of life— something caught in a moment of violence, of fury and blood and death, about to spring. He’d heard of the automata, machines that moved on their own, but they were far, far more terrifying in person, now that he was close enough to really see them.
Jess risked another look behind. The London Garda would be organizing men to meet him beyond the barriers on the other side, if the Library’s High Garda didn’t bestir themselves to get him first. He needed to run, as quick as lightning, but despite that knowledge his feet slowed down to a walk. He was smothered by dread. Fear. A horrible sense of being hunted.
And then one of the automaton lions turned its head toward him.
The eyes shone red. Red like blood. Red like fire. They could smell it on him, the illegal book. Or maybe just his fear.
Jess felt a wash of cold terror so strong it almost loosed his bladder, but he somehow managed to hold the lion’s fiery gaze as he kept walking on. He left the sidewalk and took to the middle of the street, where the authorized pedestrians seemed more comfortably gathered, and hoped to hide himself from those feral eyes.
The lion rose from its haunches, shook itself, and padded down the steps, soundless and beautiful and deadly. The other beasts woke, too, their eyes flickering red, bodies stretching.
A woman on the street— someone who’d been passed through the checkpoint— shrieked in alarm, clutched her bag, and ran for it. The others caught the fever and ran, too, and Jess ran with them, hoping they’d cover him like cutters even though they didn’t know they were part of his gang.
When he glanced back, two lions were loping behind them. They weren’t hurrying. They didn’t have to work very hard to overtake mere humans.
The first lion reached the laggardmost of the fleeing people—a female Scholar, dressed in clumsy robes and burdened with a heavy bag that she’d foolishly not abandoned—and leaped. Jess paused, because it was the most graceful and horrible thing he’d ever seen, and he saw the woman look back and see it coming and the horror on her face, her shriek cut short as the lion’s bulk crushed her down . . .
. . . but the lion never took its eyes off Jess. It killed her and left her and came on, straight for him. He could hear the whir and click of the gears inside.
He didn’t have time to feel the horror.
He’d thought he’d run himself flat out before, but now, now, seeing the death that was at his heels, Jess flew. He felt nothing but the pressure of the wind; he knew there was a crowd around him screaming for help and mercy, but he heard none of it. At the far end of the street stood the other Garda barrier, another crowd of people waiting for their turn, but that crowd was starting to scatter. The lions weren’t supposed to chase anyone past the boundaries of St. Paul’s, but nobody was going to take that risk. Not even the Garda, who abandoned their stations with the rest.
Jess was the first to the barricade, and he vaulted over it as the lions caught and crushed two more behind him. He tripped and fell and knew—knew—he would feel death on him in the next heartbeat. He flipped over on his back so he could see it coming, gagged for breath, and held up his hands in an entirely useless defense.
There was no need. The lions pulled up at the barricade. They paced back and forth and watched him with cold, red fury, but they didn’t, or couldn’t, leap the thin wooden line to come after him.
One roared. It was a sound like stones grinding and the screams of those it had killed, and he saw the sharp fangs in its mouth . . . and then both the lions turned and padded back up the street to the steps and back to the landing, where they settled into a waiting crouch.
He could see the bloody paw prints and human wreckage they left in their wake, and he couldn’t forget—knew he never would—the look of despair and horror on the face of the woman who’d been the first to be crushed.
He couldn’t think about that. Not now.
Jess rolled over, scrambled to his feet, and melted into the panicked crowd. He cut back onto his route after another few long, tense blocks. The Garda seemed to have lost the will to chase him. The deaths at the Serapeum would be explained away in the official news; nobody wanted to hear that the Library’s pet automata had slipped their leashes and killed innocents. Whispers said it had happened before, but this was the first time Jess had believed it.
He stopped at a public fountain to gulp some water and try to stop his shaking, and then a public convenience to check that the book was still snug and safe in its harness. It was. He took a slower pace the rest of the way and arrived at the end of the route just a few minutes late—exhausted but weak with relief. He just wanted to be finished, be home, for all the cold comfort it would offer him.
Buck up, boy. He could almost hear his father’s rough voice. No one lives forever. Count the day a victory. It might be a victory, Jess reckoned, but it was a hollow one.
His instructions were to look for the man with a red waistcoat, and there the man was, sitting at his ease at an outdoor table. He sipped tea from a china cup. Jess didn’t know him, but he knew the type: filthy rich, idle, determined to make themselves important by collecting important things. Everything the man wore seemed tailored and perfect.
Jess knew how to make the approach. He ran up to the man and put on his best urchin face and said, “Please, sir, can you spare a bit for my sick mum?”
“Sick, is she?” The man raised his well-groomed eyebrows and set down his cup. “What ails the woman?”
This was the key question, and Jess held the man’s eyes as he said, “Her stomach, sir. Right here.” He placed a careful finger on the center of his chest, where his harness formed the bulge beneath.
The man nodded and smiled. “Well, that would seem to be a worthwhile cause. Come with me and I’ll see you right. Come on, now, don’t be afraid.”
Jess followed. Around the corner waited a beautiful steam carriage, all ornate curls of gold and silver and black enamel, with some coat of arms on the door that he got only a quick glance at before the man boosted him up inside. Jess expected the buyer to follow him in, but he didn’t.
The inside of the carriage had a glow tube running around the top that cast a dim golden light, and by it Jess realized that the one he’d taken for the flash client was really only a servant. The old man sitting across from him was ever so much grander. His black suit seemed sharp enough to cut, the shirt the finest-quality silk, and he looked effortlessly pampered. Jess caught the rich gleam of gold at his cuffs and the shine of a huge diamond on the stickpin piercing his silk tie.
The only detail that didn’t fit with the image of a toff was the ice-cold eyes in that soft, wrinkled face. They looked like a killer’s.
What if this isn’t about the book? Jess thought. He knew kids could be taken for vile purposes, but his father always took precautions and punished those who took advantage of cutters . . . which was passing rare, these days, as even the toffs knew they weren’t safe from the long, strong arm of the Brightwells.
But looking at this man, nothing seemed so safe as all that. He glanced at the wide windows, but they were blacked out. No one could see inside.
“You are late.” The toff’s voice was soft and even. “I’m not accustomed to waiting.”
Jess swallowed hard. “Sorry, sir. Only by a minute,” he said. He unbuttoned his vest and pulled off his shirt, and worked the buckles behind his back to release the harness. It was, as he feared, dark with sweat, but the book compartment had been well lined, and the book itself wrapped in layers of protective oiled paper. “The book’s safe.”
The man grabbed for it like an addict for a pipe and ripped away the coverings. He let out a slow breath when his trembling fingers touched the ornate leather casing.
With a jolt of shock, Jess realized that he knew that book. He’d grown up seeing it in a glass case in his father’s deepest, darkest secret treasure trove. He didn’t yet read Greek, but he knew what the letters incised on the leather cover meant, because his father had taught him that much. It was the only existing hand copy of On Sphere-Making by Archimedes, and one of the first ever bound books. The original scroll had been destroyed by a Burner at the Alexandrian Library ages ago, but there had been one copy made. This one. Owning it carried a death penalty. When you steal a book, you steal from the world, the Library propaganda said, and Jess supposed it might be true.
Especially for this book.
He’d been running the rarest and most valuable thing in the entire world. No wonder his father hadn’t dared tell him what he carried.
The man looked up at him with an insanely bright gleam in his eyes. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this,” he said. “There’s nothing like possessing the best, boy. Nothing.”
As Jess watched in numb horror, the man tore a page from the book and stuffed it into his mouth.
“Stop!” Jess shrieked, and snatched for the book. “What are you doing?”
The old man shoved back and pinned Jess against the carriage wall with a silver-tipped walking stick. He grinned at him and ripped another page loose to chew and swallow.
“No,” Jess whispered. He felt horror-struck, and he didn’t even know why. This was like watching murder. Defilement. And it was somehow worse than either of those things. Even among his family, black trade as they were, books were holy things. Only the Burners thought different.
Burners, and whatever this perverse creature might be.
The old man leisurely ripped loose another page. He seemed relaxed now. Sated. “Do you understand what I’m doing, boy?”
Jess shook his head. He was trembling all over.
“I have fellows who spend fortunes to slay the last living example of a rare animal and serve it for a dinner party. There’s no act of possession more complete than consuming the unique. It’s mine now. It will never be anyone else’s.”
“You’re mad,” Jess spat. He felt as though he might spew all over the fine leather and brightwork, and he couldn’t seem to get a clean breath.
The rich man chewed another page and swallowed, and his expression turned bitter. “Hold your tongue. You’re an unlettered guttersnipe, a nobody. I could kill you and leave you here, and no one would notice or care. But you’re not special enough to kill, boy. Ten a penny, the likes of you.”
He ripped out another page. When Jess tried to grab for the book again, the old man pulled it out of his reach and smacked him soundly on the side of the head with the cane.
Jess reeled back with tears in his eyes and his head ringing like the bells of St. Paul’s. The man rapped on the carriage door. The flash servant in his red vest opened the door and grabbed Jess’s arm to haul him out to sprawl on the cobbles.
The toff leaned out and grinned at him with ink-stained teeth. He tossed something out—Jess’s ragpicker shirt and vest. And a single gold coin.
“For your troubles, gutter rat,” the old man said, and shoved another page of something that had once been perfect into his maw to chew it to bits.
Jess found he was weeping, and he didn’t know why, except he knew he could never go back to what he’d been before he’d climbed in that carriage.
Never not remember.
The man in the vest climbed up to the driver’s seat of the carriage. He looked down on Jess with an unsmiling, unfeeling stare, then engaged the engine.
Jess saw the old toff inside the carriage tip his hat before he slammed the door, and then the conveyance lurched to a roll, heading away.
Jess came to his feet and ran a few steps after the departing carriage. “Wait!” he yelled, but it was useless, worthless, and it drew attention to the fact that he was half-naked and there was a very visible smuggling harness clutched to his chest. Jess wanted to retch. The death of people crushed under the paws of the Library’s lions had shocked him, but seeing that deliberate, horrifying destruction of a book—especially that book— it was far worse. St. Paul had said, Lives are short, but knowledge is eternal.
Jess had never imagined that someone would be so empty that they’d need to destroy something that precious to feel full.
The carriage disappeared around a corner, and Jess had to think about himself, even shaky as he was. He tightened the buckles on the harness again, slipped the shirt over his head and added the vest, and then he walked—he did not run—back to the warehouse where his father waited.
The city swirled around him in vague colors and faces. He couldn’t even feel his legs, and he shivered almost constantly. Because the route had been burned into him, he walked by rote, taking the twists and turns without noting them, until he realized he was standing in the street of his father’s warehouse.
One of the guards at the door spotted him, darted out, and hustled him inside. “Jess? What happened, boy?”
Jess blinked. The man had a kind sort of look at the moment, not the killer Jess knew he could be. Jess shook his head and swiped at his face.
His hand came away wet.
The man looked grave when Jess refused to speak, and motioned over one of his fellows, who ran off quick in search of Jess’s father. Jess sank down in a corner, still shaking, and when he looked up, his mirror image was standing in front of him—not quite his mirror, really, since Brendan’s hair had grown longer and he had a tiny scar on his chin.
Brendan crouched down to stare directly into his brother’s eyes. “You all right?” he asked. Jess shook his head. “You’re not bleeding, are you?” When Jess didn’t respond, Brendan leaned closer and dropped his voice low. “Did you run into a fiddler?”
Fiddler was the slang they used for the perverts, men and women alike, who liked to get their pleasure from children. For the first time, Jess found his voice. “No,” he said. “Not like that. Worse.”
Brendan blinked. “What’s worse than a fiddler?”
Jess didn’t want to tell him, and at that moment, he didn’t have to. The office door upstairs slammed, and Brendan jumped to his feet and disappeared again as he climbed up a ladder to the darkened storage where the book crates were hidden.
His father hurried over to where his eldest son sat leaning against the warehouse wall, and quickly ran hands over him to check for wounds. When he found none, he took off Jess’s vest and shirt. Callum breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the harness sat empty. “You delivered,” he said, and ruffled Jess’s hair. “Good lad.”
Approval from his father brought instant tears to Jess’s eyes, and he had to choke them down. I’m all untied, he thought, and he was ashamed of himself. He hadn’t been hurt. He hadn’t been fiddled. Why did he feel so sullied?
He took a deep breath and told his father the truth, from the lions and the dead people, to the toff in the carriage, to the death of On Sphere-Making. Because that was what he’d seen: a murder, the murder of something unique and irreplaceable. That, he began to realize, was what he felt that had left him so unsettled: grief. Grief, and horror.
Jess expected his father—a man who still, at heart, loved the books he bought and sold so illegally—to be outraged, or at least share his son’s horror. Instead, Callum Brightwell just seemed resigned.
“You’re lucky to get away with your life, Jess,” he said. “He must have been drunk on his own power to let you see that, and walk. I’m sorry. It’s true, there are a few like him out there; we call ’em ink-lickers. Perverts, the lot of them.”
“But . . . that was the book. Archimedes’s book.” Jess understood, at a very fundamental level, that when he’d seen that book being destroyed, he’d seen a light pass out of the world. “Why did you do it, Da? Why did you sell it to him?”
Callum averted his eyes. He clapped Jess hard on the shoulder and squeezed with enough force to bend bone. “Because that’s our business. We sell books to those who pay for the privilege, and you’d best learn that what is done with them after is not our affair. But still, well done. Well done this day. We’ll make a Brightwell of you yet.”
His father had always been strict about his children writing nightly in their journals, and Jess took up his pen before bed. After much thought, he described the ink-licker, and what it was like seeing him chew up such a rare, beautiful thing. His da had always said it was for the future, a way for family to remember him once he was gone . . . and to never talk about business, because business lived beyond them. So he left that part out, running the book. He only talked about the pervert and how it had made him feel, seeing that. His da might not approve, but no one read personal journals. Even Brendan wouldn’t dare.
Jess dreamed uneasily that night of blood and lions and ink-stained teeth, and he knew nothing he’d done had been well done at all.
But it was the world in which he lived, in London, in the year 2025.
Barnes & Noble