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ALSO BY RACHEL CAINE
Text of a historical letter, the original of which is kept under glass in the Great Library of Alexandria and listed under the Core Collection.
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.
Six years ago
“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.
Work submitted by the Scholar Johannes Gutenberg, in the year 1455. Restricted to the Black Archives under the order of the Archivist Magister, for use of Curators only.
One thing is certain: the foundation of the Great Library itself, from the Doctrine of Mirroring forward, rests the safety and security of human knowledge upon the work of Obscurists, and this system cannot be long sustained.
I propose a purely mechanical solution. The attached designs show a device that can efficiently, accurately reproduce text without the involvement of an Obscurist, through the simple use of hand-cut letters, a frame in which they would be placed, ink, and plain paper. Through this method, we may eliminate the Doctrine of Mirroring and instead create fast, easily made reproductions of our volumes.
I have created a working model, and reproduced the page you hold now. It is the first of its kind, and I believe it is the future of the world.
Tota est scientia.
Annotation in the hand of the Archivist Magister.
It is unfortunate that Scholar Gutenberg has fallen prey to this unthinkable heresy. He fails to realize the danger of what he proposes. Without the Library’s steady guidance, this device would allow the uncontrollable spread of not only knowledge, but folly. Imagine a world in which anyone, anywhere, could create and distribute their own words, however ignorant or flawed! And we have often seen dangerous progress that was only just checked in time to prevent more chaos.
The machine is to be destroyed, of course, and all such research interdicted. Sadly, it becomes obvious that Scholar Gutenberg cannot be trusted. We must silence him and put this lethal heresy out of our minds.
I realize that Gutenberg is a great loss, but we cannot be weak if the Library is to resist this invasive, persistent disease of progress.
The first clue Jess had that his hiding place had been discovered came in the form of a hard, open-handed slap to the back of his head. He was engrossed in reading, and he’d failed to hear any telltale creak of boards behind him.
His first instinct was, of course, to save the book, and he protectively curled over the delicate pages even as he slid out of his chair and freed his right hand to draw a knife . . . but it wasn’t necessary.
“Brother,” he said. He didn’t take his hand off the weapon.
Brendan was laughing, but it was a bitter sound. “I knew I’d find you here,” he said. “You need some new hiding holes, Jess. No telling when Da will sniff you out of this one. What are you buried in this time?” They no longer looked quite so identical, now that they were older. Brendan wore his hair in a shaggy mess, which half concealed another scar he’d gotten during a run, but they’d grown at the same pace, so their eyes were on a level. Jess glared right back.
“Inventio Fortunata. The account of a monk from Oxford who sailed to the Arctic and back hundreds of years ago. And Da won’t find this place unless you tell him about it.”
“Sounds boring.” Brendan raised one eyebrow. It was a trick all his own, one Jess hadn’t been able to master, so Brendan used it all the time, just to be irritating. “So make it worth my while not to sell you out.” Brendan was already as ruthless a deal maker as their father, and that was no compliment. Jess dug in his pockets and came up with a sovereign, which Brendan took with evident satisfaction. “Agreed.” He walked the coin back and forth in an expert ripple over his knuckles.
“Damn you, Scraps. I was reading.” Jess called his brother Scraps only when he was really annoyed, because it was a bit of a cruel name: Brendan was the younger by a few seconds and had been born dangerously small. A leftover, an afterthought.
If Brendan minded the use of that once-loathed nickname, he hid it well. He just shrugged. “Like Da always says, we deal the stuff; we shouldn’t use it. Waste of time, what you get up to.”
“As opposed to what you do? Drinking and gambling?”
Brendan tossed a wet copy of the London Times on the floor between them. Jess carefully put down Inventio Fortunata to take up the flimsy newssheet. He wiped the beads of water from the page. The top story had an artist’s illustration of a face he recognized—older, but he’d never forget the bastard’s leering grin. Or the blackened teeth, chewing up priceless words written by a genius thousands of years before.
Brendan said, “Remember him? Six years late, but someone finally got your old ink-licker. Mysterious circumstances, according to the official story.”
“What’s the real story?”
“Someone slipped a knife between his ribs as he was coming out of his club, so not as mysterious as all that. They’re hushing it up. They’ll blame it on the Burners, eventually, if they admit it at all. Don’t need a reason to blame Burners.”
Jess looked up at his brother and almost asked, Did you do it?, but in truth, he really didn’t want to know the answer. “You came all this way to show me?”
Brendan shrugged. “Thought it might cheer your day. I know it always bothered you, him not getting his due.”
The paper was the morning edition, and it must have just turned evening, because as Jess handed it back, the newspaper erased itself, and filled line by line with new words. The ink-licker stayed front-page news, which probably would have pleased the vile old creature.
Brendan rolled the sheet up and slipped it in his pocket. He was making quite a puddle on the floor, and Jess tossed him a dirty towel he kept for wiping his own boots. Brendan sneered and tossed it back. “Well?” he asked. “You coming home?”
“In a while.”
“Da wants a word.”
Of course he did. Their father didn’t like Jess’s disappearances, especially since he’d hoped to train him up to inherit the family business. Problem was, Jess had no real love for it. He knew the smuggling trade, but Brendan was more eager and a better choice to take on Callum Brightwell’s mantle. Hiding himself away gave Jess freedom, and it also gave Scraps a chance that younger sons didn’t usually get.
Not that he’d ever admit, to Brendan or to anyone, that he was doing it as much for his brother as for himself.
“Stuff him. I’ll be home when I want to be home.” Jess sank down in the chair again. It was a dusty old thing, discarded from some rich banker’s house, and he’d dragged it half a mile to this half-collapsed manor off Warren Street. Too much of a wreck for buyers and too flash an area for squatters. It was a good place to hide out, with no one to bother him.
Especially sour, then, that Brendan had found him, because despite the sovereign, Jess would need to find himself a new reading room. He didn’t trust his brother not to drop hints . . . for his own good, of course. That meant dragging the chair with him. Again.
Brendan hadn’t moved. He was still dripping freely on the old boards. His eyes were steady and fixed now, and there was no humor in him. “Da said now, Jess. Shift it.”
There was no arguing when Brendan took that particular tone; it would come to a fight, no holds barred, and Jess didn’t particularly want to lose. He always did lose, because deep in his guts, he didn’t want to hurt his brother.
Brendan never seemed to have the same limits.
Jess carefully wrapped the fragile book in waterproof layers, then put it into a smuggling harness. He stripped off his loose shirt and fastened the buckles himself with the ease of long acquaintance, only half thinking about it, then put on the shirt and a vest carefully fitted to conceal the secrets beneath. No longer the ragamuffin cutter he’d once been; his shirt was linen now, and the vest well sewn with silk embroideries. He added a thick leather coat, something to keep the rain off, and tossed a second coat at his brother, who fielded it without a word of thanks.
Then the two of them, sixteen years old and mirror images, yet worlds apart, set off together across the city.
* * *
Brendan peeled off as soon as they arrived at the family town house; he ran upstairs, past a startled housemaid, who shouted at him about muddying the carpets. Jess tidied himself in the foyer, handed his wet coat to the parlormaid, and made sure his boots were clean before he stepped off onto the polished wood floor.
His mother was coming out of the formal parlor, though the visiting hours were long past. She gave him a quick head-to-toe assessment. He must have been dressed to her satisfaction, because she glided over and delivered a dry kiss on his cheek. She was a neat, pretty woman approaching middle age, with streaks of silver at her temples barely visible in her ash-blond hair. She smelled like light lavender and woodsmoke. The dark blue dress she wore today suited her.
“I wish you wouldn’t vex your father so much,” she told him, and put her hand lightly on his arm. “He’s in one of his moods again. Do try to be civil, for my sake.”
“I will,” he said, which was an empty promise, but then so was her show of concern. He and his mother weren’t close and never had been, really. In this, as in so much else in his life, Jess was alone.
He left her standing there, already engrossed in adjusting a fresh arrangement of daisies and roses, and walked down the hall to his father’s study. He knocked politely on the closed door and heard a grunt that meant permission to enter.
Inside, the study was all dark wood, warmed by the fire blazing in the hearth. Prefilled books with the seal of the Library on the spine lined the shelves, color-coded by subject; his father favored biographies and histories, and the maroon and blue leather bindings dominated. He’d purchased a dispensation to have a permanent collection in his home, so most of the books would never expire, never fade or go blank again.
There was not a single original hand-copied work in sight. Callum Brightwell gave no hint here that he was anything but a successful importer of goods. He modeled the Far East today, in the form of the red-orange Chinese silk waistcoat he was wearing beneath his jacket.
“Father,” Jess said, and waited for his da to look up and notice him.
It took a few long seconds of Callum’s pen moving across the surface of his personal journal before he said, “Sit, Jess. I’d have a word with you.”
“So Brendan told me.”
Callum laid down his pen and tented his fingers. His desk was a richly carved mahogany thing, with fantastical faces and giant clawed feet that reminded Jess, always, of the Library lions.
Jess took a chair well back from it. His father frowned. He probably thought it was disrespect. Jess would never want to tell him it was bad memories.
“You need to stop this running about,” he said. “The weather’s not fit for loitering about, and besides, I had work for you.”
“Sorry,” Jess said.
“Any idea where my copy of Inventio Fortunata has got off to? I had a client ask for it.”
“No,” Jess lied, though the slight weight of the book beneath his shirt and vest seemed to grow heavier as he did. His father didn’t usually care about an individual book, and Jess was always careful to take the ones that weren’t on consignment. “Do you want me to have a look around for it? Probably misfiled.”
“Never mind. I’ll sell him something else.” His father pushed his chair back and stood up to pace around the desk. Jess resisted the urge to stand, too. It would seem too wary. He didn’t sense danger, but his da was a master at sudden violence. Staying alert was better than signaling weakness. “It’s time for you to start paying your own way, my boy. You’re of an age.”
As if he hadn’t built up enough credit risking his life his entire childhood. Jess noticed that each step brought his father closer to him, in a roundabout but purposeful way.
“Not going to ask what I’m about, are you? Well played. You’re like your brother in that way: both thinkers. Means you’re sharp, and that’s good. Need a sharp mind out in the cold, cruel world.”
Jess was ready, but even so, his father was faster; he lunged forward, hands gripping the arms of Jess’s chair, and loomed over him. For all his sixteen years, all his height and strength, Jess suddenly felt like a gawky ten-year-old again, bracing for a blow.
He willed himself to take it without flinching, but the blow never came. His father just stared at him, close and too personal, and Jess had to steel himself to hold the gaze.
“You don’t want the business. That’s clear enough,” his father said. “But then, you’re not suited to running it, either. You’re more like some Scholar. You have ink in your blood, boy, and no help for it. Books will never be just a business to you.”
“I’ve never failed to do what you asked,” Jess said.
“And I never asked anything of you that I didn’t think you could do. If I told you to throw that book you’re smuggling under your shirt on the fire, you’d fail me in that, sure enough.”
Jess’s hands clenched hard, and he had to work not to shout his answer. “I’m not a bloody Burner.” He somehow kept it to a calm statement.
“That’s my point. Sometimes, in our business, destroying a book to keep from being found out is expedience, not some daft political statement. But you couldn’t do it. Not even to save your own skin.” His father shook his head and pushed away. The sudden freedom made Jess feel oddly weak as his da sank back into his desk chair. “I need to make some use of you. Can’t have you sponging off of us like some useless royal for the rest of your life. I spent my coin buying you the best tutors while your brother was earning an honest wage, and I admit, you’ve done us proud at your studies. But it’s time to look to your security.”
It was strange, how the idea of his father’s approval made him go hot and cold at the same time. Jess didn’t know how to take it, and he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. So he said nothing.
“Did you hear me?” Callum Brightwell’s voice was unexpectedly soft now, and Jess saw something new in the man’s face. He didn’t know what it was, but it made him sit back in his chair. “I’m talking about your future, Jess.”
Jess swallowed a sudden surge of unease. “What sort of future, if not in the business with you?”
“I’ve bought you a placement in the Library, provided you make the training.”
“Do me a favor!” His scoffing didn’t change his father’s expression, not even with a flicker of annoyance. “You can’t be serious. A Brightwell. In the Library.”
“I’m serious, boy. Having a son in Library service could do the clan immense benefit. You go on a few smuggling raids, set a few of those priceless volumes aside, and you’ll make us fortunes. You can send us advance word of raids, High Garda strategies, that sort of thing. And you’d have all the books you could ever lay your eyes on, besides.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jess said. “You want me to be your spy?”
“I want you to be our asset—and advocate, maybe, in the dire event the Brightwells should need one. Library rules the world, son. Best to have a seat at that table. Look, you’ve more spine and cunning than is comfortable for a father. You could do well at many things, but you could do better for your brother inside the Library. Maybe save his life one day.”
Of course his father would try to play on his heartstrings. “I’d never pass the entry test.”
“Why do you think I’ve been paying for those tutors, boy? You’d have to take care to answer only with what any young man your age could learn from the Codex, though. You’ve got all manner of unlicensed knowledge stuffed in your head. Flaunt it, and they’ll do worse to you than send you home disgraced.”
His father really was serious, and Jess’s anger faded with that knowledge; he’d never even considered working in Library service. The idea terrified him on one level; he’d never forgotten the trauma of those Library automata, crushing innocents under their paws. But the Library still held everything he’d ever wanted, too. All the knowledge in the world, right at his fingertips.
When he didn’t answer, though, his father sighed, and his voice took on an edge of impatience. “Call it a business deal, boy; it gets you what you crave, and it lends us advantage. Give it an honest go. Fair warning: should you go and give it up, or fail, you’ll get nothing else from this family from this day on. Not a penny.”
“And what if I stay here?”
“Then I still can’t be feeding and clothing a useless lout who’s got no loyalty and no usefulness, now, can I? You’ll work for us or be on the streets that much sooner.”
His father looked hard and unforgiving, and there wasn’t any doubt that he meant what he said. Library test, training, and maybe service, or out on his own at the age of sixteen, scraping a living any way he could on the streets. Jess had seen how that served other young men. He didn’t want it.
“You’re a low kind of man,” Jess said. “But I’ve always known that. Da.”
Callum smiled. His eyes were like cold, dry pebbles. “Is that agreement I hear?”
“Did you really give me a choice?”
His father came forward and dug his fingers hard enough into Jess’s shoulder to leave bruises. “No, son,” he said. “That’s why I’m good at my business. See you become just as good at yours.”
* * *
Buying a placement to Library training was expensive. Most families couldn’t afford to dream of something like that; it was a privilege for the filthy rich and the noble. The Brightwells were rich enough, but even so, it was a staggering sum to come up with.
Jess couldn’t help the thought that his future had been purchased by Archimedes’s ancient text, chewed up in that dark carriage when he was ten. Another thing he didn’t dare put in his personal journal, though he did fill pages with careful, tightly inked script about what it felt like, being put under such pressure to succeed. About how much he both loved and resented the opportunity.
His father paid the fee, and then it was up to Jess. The first step, and in many ways the hardest, was to report to the London Serapeum for the entry test. He’d avoided the place since the day with the lions, and he didn’t look forward to going there again. To Jess’s relief, he was driven by steam carriage to the public entrance on the west side. There were still a few of the statues, but they were positioned up on pedestals, so he wouldn’t have to come eye to eye with them.
He felt safer until he noticed the automaton of Queen Anne, staring down with blank eyes on those trudging up the steps. She held the royal orb in her left hand, and in her right, a golden scepter pointed down at the heads of those who passed below her pedestal.
She looked eerily human. He had the disquieting feeling that, like the lions, she stood in silent, merciless judgment, and for a giddy moment he imagined her eyes flaring bloodred and that scepter slamming down onto his head. Unfit for service.
But she didn’t move as he hurried past with the rest of the Library’s aspiring postulants.
The test was given in the Public Reading Room’s choir stall, and a Scholar robed in black with a silver band on her wrist handed out thin sheets to each of them as they sat down. There were, Jess estimated, about fifty sitting for the test. Most looked terrified, though whether they feared failure or success was open to debate. Failure, most like. They were all richly dressed, and no doubt their futures were riding on their performance. Today’s wealthy second son is tomorrow’s penniless lout, his father had always said.
The test page on Jess’s desk began to fill with text. It was in old Library script, designed to be attractive and ornate, and reading it was half the battle . . . but he’d seen and deciphered text far more difficult for fun. The opening questions, while designed to test the limits of a postulant’s knowledge, were laughably easy.
He took too much comfort in that, because when the next section came it was much harder, and before long, he began to worry and sweat in earnest. The Alchemical and Mechanical sections tested him to the limit, and he wasn’t so certain he did as well on the Medica portion as he’d intended. So much for thinking he would glide through without challenge.
Jess hesitated for a long time before signing his name to the end, which inked his final answers. The sheet went blank, and the elegant writing that next appeared told him that results would follow soon and he was free to depart the Serapeum.
When he left, Queen Anne was still judging those who passed, and he tried not to look directly at her as he took the steps two at a time. The day was warm and sunny, pigeons fluttering up in the front of the courtyard, and he looked for the Brightwell carriage, which should have been parked nearby. It had moved down the block, and he jogged toward it. He was nervous, he realized. Actually nervous about how he’d done on the test. He cared. It was a new sensation, and one he didn’t much care for.
“Sir?” Jess’s driver looked anxiously from his perch, clearly wanting to be gone; he was one of his father’s musclemen and had spent most of his criminal career staying well clear of the Library. Jess didn’t blame him. He got into the back, and as he sat down, his Codex—the leather-bound book that mirrored a list of the Core Collection straight from the Great Library in Alexandria—hummed. Someone had sent him a note. He cracked the cover to see it spell itself out in ornate Library script, one rounded letter at a time. He could even feel the faint vibration of pen scratch from the Library clerk who was transcribing the message.
We are pleased to inform you that JESS BRIGHTWELL is hereby accepted for the high honor of service to the Great Library. You are directed to report tomorrow to St. Pancras station in London at ten o’clock in the morning for transportation to Alexandria. Please refer to the list of approved items you may bring with you into service.
It was signed with the Library seal, which swelled up in raised red beneath the inked letters. Jess ran his fingers over it. It felt slick like wax, but as warm as blood, and he felt a tingle to it, like something alive.
His name stood out, too, in bold black. JESS BRIGHTWELL.
He swallowed hard, closed the book, and tried to control his suddenly racing pulse as the carriage clattered for home.
* * *
His mother, much affected (or feeling that she ought to be), presented him with a magnificent set of engraved styluses, and his father gifted him with a brand-new leather-bound Codex, a Scholar’s edition with plenty of extra pages for notes. Handsomely embossed with the Library symbol in gold.
His brother gave him nothing, but then, Jess hadn’t expected anything.
Dinner that night was unusually calm and festive. After the half measure of brandy his mother allowed, Jess found himself sitting alone on the back garden steps. It was a clear, cool night, unusual for London, and he stared up at the swelling white moon. The stars would be different, where he was going. But the moon would be the same.
He’d never expected that the prospect of leaving home would make him feel sad.
He didn’t hear Brendan come out, but it didn’t surprise him to hear the scrape of his brother’s boots on the stone behind him. “You’re never coming back.”
It wasn’t what Jess had expected, and he turned to look at Brendan, who slouched with his arms crossed in the shadows. Couldn’t read his expression.
“You’re clever, Jess, but Da’s wrong about one thing: you don’t just have ink in your blood. It’s in your bones. Your skeleton’s black with it. You go there, to them, and we’ll lose you forever.” Brendan shifted a little but didn’t look at him. “So don’t go.”
“I thought you wanted me gone.”
Brendan’s shoulders rose and fell. He pushed off and drifted away into the darkness. Off doing God knew what. I’m sorry, Scraps, he thought. But he wasn’t, not really. Staying here wasn’t his future, any more than the Library would be Brendan’s.
This would be his last night at home.
Jess went inside, wrote in his journal, and spent the rest of the evening reading Inventio Fortunata.
Which rather proved his brother’s point, he supposed.
* * *
The next day, his father accompanied Jess to St. Pancras and waved off servants to personally carry his case to the train . . . all without a single word or change of expression. As Jess accepted the bag from him, his father finally said, “Make us proud, son, or by God I’ll wallop you until you do.” But there was a faint wet shine in his eyes, and that made Jess feel uncomfortable. His father wasn’t weak and was never vulnerable.
So what he saw couldn’t be tears.
His father gave him a hard, quick nod and strode away through the swirl of passengers and pigeons. The humid belch of steam engines blew toward the vaulted ceiling of the station and intertwined in ornate ironworks. Familiar and strange at once. For a moment, Jess just stood on his own, testing himself. Trying to see how he felt caught between the old world and the new one that would come.
Still twenty minutes to the Alexandrian train, and he wondered whether or not to get a warm drink from one of the vendors in the stalls around the tracks, but as he was considering tea, he heard a commotion begin somewhere behind him.
It was a man raising his voice to a strident yell, and there was something in it that made him turn and listen.
“. . . say to you that you are deceived! That words are nothing more than false idols at which you worship! The Great Library may have once been a boon, but what is it today? What does it give us? It suppresses! It stifles! You, sir, do you own a book? No, sir, not a blank, filled only with what they want you to read . . . a real book, an original work, in the hand of the writer? Do you dare, madam? The Library owns our memories, yet you cannot own your own books! Why? Why do they fear it? Why do they fear to allow you the choice?”
Jess spotted the speaker, who’d climbed on a stone bench and was now lecturing those passing by as he held up a journal. It wasn’t a blank from the Serapeum, stamped with the Library’s emblem. What the man brandished was far finer, with a hand-tooled leather cover and his name on it in gilt. His personal journal, in which he would write daily. Jess had one quite like it. After all, the Library provided them free on the birth of a child, and encouraged every citizen of the world to write their thoughts and memories from the earliest age possible. Everyone kept a record of the days and hours of their lives to be archived in the Library upon their deaths. The Library was a kind of memorial, in that way. It was one reason the people loved it so, for the fact that it lent them a kind of immortality.
This man waved his personal journal like a torch, and there was a fever light in his face that made Jess feel uneasy. He knew the rhetoric. The Garda would be on the way soon.