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Books burned so easily.
Paper tanned in the fluttering heat, then sparked sullen red at the edges. Flames left fragile curls of ash. Leather bindings smoked and shriveled and blackened, just like burning flesh.
Jess Brightwell watched the fire climb the pyramid of books and willed himself not to flinch as each layer caught. His brain raced with involuntary calculations. One hundred books in five layers. The burning bottom layer: forty-four gone. The second level held another thirty-two, and it was already billowing dull smoke. The next had eighteen more volumes, then five on top of that. The pyramid was capped by one lone book that sat tantalizingly ready for the grabbing. Easy to save as the flames climbed the stack, consuming layer after layer and burning something inside him blacker and colder.
If I could just save one . . .
But he couldn't save anything. Even himself, at the moment.
Jess's head hurt fiercely in the glare of the sun. Everything was still a blur. He remembered the chaos of London as the Welsh army descended on it, a battle even he had never imagined the English would lose; he remembered the mesmerizing sight of the dome of St. Paul's catching fire above them as librarians struggled to save what they could.
He remembered his father and brother, when it counted, turning their backs on him and running.
Most of all, he remembered being forced into the Translation Chamber, and the sickening ripping sensation of being destroyed and created again far, far from London . . . here in the Burner-held city of Philadelphia.
Sent to the rebellious colonies of America.
Jess and his friends hadn't been granted any time to recover; they'd been dragged, still sick and weak, to what must have once been a sports stadium; in better times, maybe it had been filled with cheering crowds. Now it was half ruined, melted into a misshapen lump on one side of the concrete stands, and instead of a grassy field in the middle there were bare ground and a funeral pyre of books.
Jess couldn't take his eyes off of them as they burned, because he was thinking, sickly, We're next.
"Jess," said Scholar Christopher Wolfe, who was on his knees next to him in the dirt. "They're not original books. They're Blanks." That was true. But Jess didn't miss the tremors running through the man, either. The shine in Wolfe's dark eyes was made of pure, unholy rage. He was right: Blanks were just empty paper and bindings provided by the Great Library of Alexandria, vessels to hold words copied on command from originals kept safe within the Library's archives. These were empty symbols that were burning. In any Library territory, they'd be cheaply and easily replaced, and nothing would be lost at all.
But seeing them destroyed still hurt. He'd been raised to love books, for all that his family had smuggled them, sold them, and profited from them.
Words were sacred things, and this was a particularly awful kind of heresy.
As he watched, the last book shivered in the rising heat, as if it might break free and escape the fire. But then the edges crisped, paper smoked, and it was gone in rising curls of ash.
Scholar Khalila Seif knelt on his left side, as straight and quiet as a statue. She looked perfectly calm; she had her hands resting lightly on her thighs, her head high and her hijab fluttering lightly at the edges in the hot breeze. Beneath the black silk Scholar's outer robe she wore a still-clean dress, only a little muddy and ashen at the hem from their progress through London. Next to Khalila, Glain Wathen looked as if she were only momentarily frozen in the act of rising-a lithe warrior, all vibrating tension. Beyond her was Thomas Schreiber, then Morgan Hault, then-last and least, in Jess's thoughts-Dario Santiago. Outcast, even among their little band of exiles.
To Jess's right was Scholar Wolfe and, beyond him, Captain Santi. That was the entire roll call of their party of prisoners, and not a single useful weapon among them. They'd not had time to make a plan. Jess couldn't imagine that any of them had much worthwhile to say just now.
There was an audience in the crumbling stands: the good citizens of Philadelphia. A ragged, patchwork crowd of hard men and women and children who'd survived starvation, deprivation of all sorts, and constant attacks. They had no pity for the pampered servants of the Great Library.
What would Wolfe tell them if he had the chance? That the Great Library was still a great and precious thing, something to be saved, not destroyed? That the cancer that had rotted it from within could still be healed? They'd never believe it. Jess took in a deep breath and choked on the stench of burning books. Imaginary Wolfe, he thought, gave crap speeches.
A man dressed in a fine-cut suit of black wool stepped up to block Jess's view of the pyre. He was a tall, bespectacled fellow, full of the confidence of a man of property; he could have, by appearance, been a banker or a lawyer in a more normal sort of place. The smoke that rose black against the pale blue morning sky seemed to billow right from the crown of his head. His collar-length hair was the same gray as the ash.
Willinger Beck. Elected leader of the Burners of Philadelphia-and, by extension, all Burners everywhere, since this place was the symbol of their fanatical movement. The head fanatic in a movement composed entirely of fanatics.
He studied their faces without making any comment at all. He must have enjoyed what he saw.
"Very impressive waste of resources," Scholar Wolfe said. His tone was sour, and completely bracing to Jess. Wolfe sounds the same, no matter what. "Is this a prelude to setting us on fire next?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Beck said. "Surely our learned guests understand the power of a symbol."
"This is barbaric," Khalila said from Jess's other side. "A criminal waste."
"My dear Scholar, we handwrite our own books here. On paper we rescue by picking apart the Library's Blanks and destroying their alchemical bindings. You speak of us as barbaric? Do you know whose symbols you wear? You will not take that tone with us." At the end of it, his friendly voice sharpened into an edge.
Jess said, "Talk to her that way again and I'll snap your kneecaps." His hands were not bound. He was free to move; they all were. Which meant they could, as a group, do serious damage before they were taken down by the Burner guards stationed behind them.
In theory, anyway. He knew the guard directly behind him held a gun barrel trained on the back of his neck, precisely where it could blow a hole that would instantly end his life.
But he'd gotten Beck's attention, and his stare. Good.
"Here now," Beck said, back to mild and reproving. "We should be friends, after all; we share a common sense that the Great Library of Alexandria has become a destructive parasite. It's no longer some great, untouchable icon. There's no need for anger between us."
"I'm not familiar with American customs," said Captain Santi, on the other side of Wolfe. He sounded pleasant and calm. Jess sincerely doubted he was either. "Is this how you treat your friends?"
"Considering you alone put three of my men in the infirmary on your arrival, even in your weakened state? Yes," Beck said. "Captain Santi, we really do resist the Library, just as I am told you do. So should we all. The Library grants people pitiful drops of knowledge while it hoards up oceans for itself. Surely you, too, must see the way it manipulates the world to its own gain." He nodded at the black robe that Wolfe wore. "The common man calls you Scholars by another name: Stormcrows. That black robe isn't a sign of your scholarship anymore, and it isn't an object of reverence. It's a sign of the chaos and destruction you bring down in your wake."
"No," Wolfe said. "It still stands for what it's always stood for: that I will die to preserve the knowledge of this world. I may hate the Archivist, I may want him and his brand of greed and cruelty gone, but I still hold to the ideals. The robe is a symbol of that." He paused, and his tone took on silky, dark contempt. "You, of all people, understand the power of a symbol."
"Oh, I do," Beck said. "Take the robe off."
Wolfe's chin went up, just a fraction. He was staring straight at Beck. His graying hair whipped in the hot breeze from the pyre, and still he didn't blink as he said, simply, "No."
"Last chance, Scholar Wolfe. If you repudiate the Library now, it will all go better for you. The Library certainly doesn't stand by you."
Beck nodded to someone behind them, and Jess, from the corner of his eye, saw the flash of a knife being drawn. He tried to turn, but a hand fell hard on his shoulder, and the gun barrel pressed close enough to bruise the base of his skull.
He was already too late for any kind of rescue.
One of Beck's guards grabbed Wolfe's black robe by the sleeve and sliced the silk all the way to the neck-left sleeve, then right, efficient and ruthlessly precise cuts. With the flourish of a cheap street magician, the man tore the robe from Wolfe to leave him kneeling in plain, dark street clothes. He held the mangled fabric up above his head. A breeze heated by burning books caught the silk and fluttered it out like a ragged banner.
Wolfe's expression never changed, but next to him, Niccolo Santi let out a purely murderous growl and came half up from his knees before the guard behind him slammed a heavy metal club into the back of his head. The blow crashed Santi back down. He looked dazed but still dangerous.
The man who'd taken Wolfe's robe paraded it around, as proud as a strutting rooster, and from the stands applause and cheers swelled. It nearly covered up the muttering roar of burning books. Beck ignored that and pointed to Khalila. "Now her." Another guard stepped up to the young woman, but before he could use his knife, Khalila held up both hands. The gesture looked like an order, not a surrender, and it stopped the guard in his tracks.
"I will stand up now," Khalila said. "I will not resist."
The guard looked uncertainly at Beck, who raised his eyebrows and nodded.
Jess watched her tensely from the corner of his eye as she stood in a smooth, calm motion, and from her other side, he saw Glain doing the same, openly ready to fight if Khalila gave a sign she needed help.
But Khalila lifted her hands in a graceful, unhurried way to unfasten the catch that held the black silk robe closed at her throat. She slipped the robe off her shoulders and caught it as it fluttered down, then folded it with precise movements into a neat, smooth square.
Then she took a step forward and held the folded silk out, one hand supporting it, the other on top, like a queen presenting a gift to a subject. In one calculated move, she had taken Willinger Beck's symbol away and made it her own. Jess felt a fierce surge of savage joy at the look on Beck's face. He'd just been bested by a girl a quarter of his age, and the taste seemed bitter.
But he wasn't taking that without hitting back, and Jess saw that an instant before Beck grabbed the folded robe and flung it into the pyre of burning books. Petty contempt, but it struck Jess like a gut punch. He saw a shiver run through Khalila, too . . . just the barest flinch. Like Wolfe, she lifted her chin. Defiant.
"Only cowards are so afraid of a scrap of cloth," she said, clear enough to carry to the stands. There was a shimmer in her eyes: anger, not tears. "We may not agree with the Archivist; we may want to see him gone and better Scholars take his place. But we still stand for knowledge. You stand for nothing."
Beck looked past her and gave a bare, terse nod to a guard, and in the next instant, Khalila was seized, yanked back, and forced to her knees. She almost fell, toppling toward Jess. He instinctively put out a hand to help her, and her fingers twined with his.
That was the instant he understood what she was really about. Removing her robe hadn't been just defiance; it was distraction. Concealed between her fingers, she held a single metal hairpin-one she'd plucked from under her hijab.
She knew that in Jess's hands, a hairpin was as good a weapon as any.
A vast, cooling sense of relief washed through his chest, and he exchanged a swift glance with her as he slipped the pin between his own fingers. She's right. Sooner or later, there'll be locks to open. If we live so long.