The opening moves of a deadly game have begun. Jess Brightwell has put himself in direct peril, with only his wits and skill to aid him in a game of cat and mouse with the Archivist Magister of the Great Library. With the world catching fire, and words printed on paper the spark that lights rebellion, it falls to smugglers, thieves, and scholars to save a library thousands of years in the making...if they can stay alive long enough to outwit their enemies.
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It had all started as an exercise to fight the unending boredom of being locked in this Alexandrian prison cell.When Jess Brightwell woke up, he realized that he'd lost track of time. Days blurred here, and he knew it was important to remember how long he'd been trapped, waiting for the axe to fall-or not. So he diligently scratched out a record on the wall using a button from his shirt.
Five days. Five days since he'd arrived back in Alexandria, bringing with him Scholar Wolfe and Morgan Hault as his prisoners. They'd been taken off in different directions, and he'd been dumped here to-as they'd said-await the Archivist's pleasure.The Archivist, it seemed, was a very busy man.
Once Jess had the days logged, he did the mental exercise of calculating the date, from pure boredom. It took him long, uneasy moments to realize why that date-today-seemed important.And then he remembered and was ashamed it had taken him so long.
Today was the anniversary of his brother Liam's death. His elder brother.And today meant that Jess was now older than Liam had ever lived to be.
He couldn't remember exactly how Liam had died. Could hardly remember his brother at all these days, other than a vague impression of a sharp nose and shaggy blondish hair. He must have watched Liam walk up the stairs of the scaffold and stand as the rope was fixed around his neck.
But he couldn't remember that, or watching the drop. Just Liam, hanging. It seemed like a painting viewed at a distance, not a memory.
Wish I could remember, he thought. If Liam had held his head high on the way to his death, if he'd gone up the steps firmly and stood without fear, then maybe Jess would be able to do it, too. Because that was likely to be in his future.
He closed his eyes and tried to picture it: the cell door opening. Soldiers in High Garda uniforms, the army of the Great Library, waiting stone-faced in the hall. A Scholar to read the text of his choice to him on the way to execution. Perhaps a priest, if he asked for one.But there, his mind went blank. He didn't know how the Archivist would end his life. Would it be a quiet death? Private? A shot in the back? Burial without a marker? Maybe nobody would ever know what had become of him.
Or maybe he'd end up facing the noose after all, and the steps up to it. If he could picture himself walking without flinching to his execution, perhaps he could actually do it.
He knew he ought to be focusing on what he would be saying to the Archivist if he was called, but at this moment, death seemed so close he could touch it, and besides, it was easier to accept failure than to dare to predict success. He'd never been especially superstitious, but imagining triumph now seemed like drawing a target on his back. No reason to offend the Egyptian gods. Not so early.
He stood up and walked the cell. Cold, barren, with bars and a flat stone shelf that pretended at being a bed. A bare toilet that needed cleaning, and the sharp smell of it was starting to squirm against his skin.
If I had something to read . . . The thought crept in without warning, and he felt it like a personal loss. Not having a book at hand was a worse punishment than most. He was trying not to think about his death, and he was too afraid to think about the fate of Morgan or Scholar Wolfe or anything else . . . except that he could almost hear Scholar Wolfe's dry, acerbic voice telling him, If only you had a brain up to the task, Brightwell, you'd never lack for something to read.
Jess settled on the stone ledge, closed his eyes, and tried to clearly imagine the first page of one of his favorite books. Nothing came at his command. Just words, jumbled and frantic, that wouldn't sort themselves in order. Better if he imagined writing a letter.
Dear Morgan, he thought. I'm trapped in a holding cell inside the Serapeum, and all I can think of is that I should have done better by you, and all of us. I'm afraid all this is for nothing. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for being stupid enough to think I could outwit the Archivist. I love you. Please don't hate me.
That was selfish. She should hate him. He'd sent her back into the Iron Tower, a life sentence of servitude and an unbreakable collar fastened tight around her neck. He'd deceived Scholar Wolfe into a prison far worse than this one, and an inevitable death sentence. He'd betrayed everyone who'd ever trusted him, and for what?
For cleverness and a probably foolish idea that he could somehow, somehow, pull off a miracle. What gave him the right to even think it?
That was the sound of a key turning in a heavy lock.Jess stood, the chill on his back left by the ledge still lingering like a ghost, and then he came to the bars as the door at the end of the hall opened. He could see the hinges move and the iron door swinging in. It wasn't locked again when it closed. Careless.
He listened to the decisive thud of footsteps against the floor, growing louder, and then three High Garda soldiers in black with golden emblems were in front of his cell. They stopped and faced him. The oldest-his close-cut hair a stiff silver brush around his head-barked in common Greek, "Step back from the bars and turn around."
Jess's skin felt flushed, then cold; he swallowed back a rush of fear and felt his pulse race in a futile attempt to outrun the inevitable. He followed the instructions. They didn't lock the outer door. That's a chance, if I can get by them. He could. He could sweep the legs out from under the first, use that off-balance body to knock back the other two, pull a sidearm free from one of them, shoot at least one, maybe two of them. Luck would dictate whether he'd die in the attempt, but at least he'd die fighting.
I don't want to die, something in him that sounded like a child whispered. Not like Liam. Not on the same day.
And suddenly, he remembered.
The London sky, iron gray. Light rain had been falling on his child's face. He'd been too short to see his brother ascend anything but the top two steps of the scaffold. Liam had stumbled on the last one, and a guard had steadied him. His brother had been shivering and slow, and he hadn't been brave after all. He'd looked out into the crowd of those gathered, and Jess remembered the searing second of eye contact with his brother before Liam transferred that stare to their father.
Jess had looked, too. Callum Brightwell had stared back without a flicker of change in his expression, as if his eldest son were a stranger.
They'd tied Liam's hands. And put a hood over his head.
A voice in the here and now snapped him out of the memory. "Against the wall. Hands behind your back."
Jess slowly moved to comply, trying to assess where the other man was . . . and froze when the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of his neck. "I know what you're thinking, son. Don't try it. I'd rather not shoot you for stupidity."
The guard had a familiar accent-raised near Manchester, most likely. His time in Alexandria had covered his English roots a bit, but it was odd, Jess thought, that he might be killed by one of his countrymen, so far from home. Killed by the English, just like Liam.
Once a set of Library restraints settled around his wrists and tightened, he felt strangely less shaken. Opportunity was gone now. All his choices had been narrowed to one course. All he had to do now was play it out.
Jess turned to look at the High Garda soldier. A man with roots from another garden, maybe one closer to Alexandria; the man had a darker complexion, dark eyes, a neat beard, and a compassionate but firm expression on his face. "Am I coming back?" he asked, and wished he hadn't.
"Likely not," the soldier said. "Wherever you go next, you won't be back here."
Jess nodded. He closed his eyes for a second and then opened them. Liam had faltered on the stairs. Had trembled. But at the end his elder brother had stood firm in his bonds and hood and waited for death without showing any fear.
He could do the same.
"Then, let's go," he said, and forced a grin he hoped looked careless. "I could do with a change of scenery."
They didn't take him to the gallows. Not immediately, anyway. And though he half feared he'd never see the shot that would kill him from behind, they reached the end of the hall and the unlocked door without incident. Lucky that Captain Santi isn't here to see that breach of security, he thought. Santi would have had someone's head for it. Metaphorically speaking.
And now he wished he hadn't thought of that, because it added another possible execution method to his imagined deaths.
It was a long march through quite a number of checkpoints, each strongly manned with soldiers and automata; the sphinxes watched him with suspicious red eyes and flexed their lion claws. Of all the automata he'd faced before-lions, Spartans, once a hawk-headed Egyptian god-these were the ones that most unnerved him. Something about the human pharaoh's face made them especially inhuman. They'd have no trouble tearing him apart in these close quarters, coming as they would from either side.
Jess added it to his preferred ways not to die and was grateful when the route took them through an iron gate and into dazzling sunlight. Dying in the sun was always better than dying in the dark, wasn't it? He sucked down thick Alexandrian sea air in convulsive breaths and turned his face up to the warmth; as his eyes adjusted, he realized he was being marched through the small ornamental garden that led around to the side of the giant Alexandrian pyramid that held the Scholar Steps. Too brief a walk, one he didn't have much time to savor, before they passed into the darkness of another doorway near the base of the vast, looming structure.
Then he knew exactly where he was. He'd been here before.
The guards marched him through a long lobby guarded by gods and monsters in their niches and down a hall inscribed with hieroglyphs to a final door. Another, larger sphinx sat in an alcove, and a warning growl sounded until the soldier in charge held up his wrist to show the gold bracelet there. The sphinx subsided, and the door opened.
Jess stepped into the outer office of the single most powerful person in the world.
His guards didn't follow him in. When he looked back, they'd already turned to walk away, and the door was swinging shut.
There were guards, of course; these wore the distinctive red-slashed uniforms of the High Garda Elite, sworn to the personal protection of the Archivist, and they took custody of him without a word. Jess almost missed his old escort. He'd trained as a High Garda himself, had worn the uniform, had eaten in the same dining hall as those men. The Elites were more akin to fanatics than to soldiers. They had separate quarters. Separate training. And they were dedicated to one man, not to the protection of the Great Library.
The Elites hardly gave him a glance as they formed a tight cordon around him and marched him through the outer office, where an assistant's desk sat empty, and then through a set of massive double doors decorated with the Library's seal.
He was escorted to a heavy, ornate chair and pushed into it, and the guards immediately withdrew to stand in the shadows. They went as immobile as automata.
Jess raised his gaze to find that the head of the Great Library wasn't even bothering to look at him.
The old man looked different, Jess thought. Grayer, but somehow stronger, too, as if he'd taken up a new exercise regimen. His hair had been cropped close now, and his skin had a darker hue than before, as if he'd spent time out in the sun. Sailing, perhaps. He must have a ship or two at his disposal.
The Archivist signed official documents with quick scratches of his pen.
Jess expected to at least have the old man's attention, but the Archivist said nothing. He simply worked. In a moment, a young woman walked in with a silver tray and put a small china cup of strong coffee on the table next to Jess.
"Can't drink it, love," he said with a shrug of his shoulders, and twisted to show her his bound hands.
The Archivist sighed without looking up. "Remove his restraints, will you, please?"
The order was directed at no one in particular, but a guard immediately stepped forward to press his Library bracelet to the shackles, and they snapped apart. Jess handed them over, and the guard took up his invisibility game again. Jess picked up the coffee cup with a fleeting quirk of his lips at the lovely assistant-she was beautiful-and it was only after he saw the hurt in her eyes that he realized he should have remembered her.
And Brendan Brightwell certainly should have remembered her. He couldn't forget, not for a second, that he was now intent on carrying on an impersonation of his twin brother, and his brother, God help him, had carried on a secret affair with this very same young woman. Whose name he couldn't remember, no matter how he tried.
Get your head in the room, he told himself. He wasn't Jess anymore. Couldn't be. Jess Brightwell was a dead man in Alexandria; he'd come here to set plans in motion, and he'd done it the only way he could: as his brother Brendan. His life now depended on everyone believing that he was his twin, as unlike him as it was possible to be. Sarcastic, sharp, brash, always ready with a grin or a joke or a knife in the ribs.
He returned his focus to the Archivist Magister, the head of the Great Library of Alexandria, as the old man--still without looking up--said, "Explain why I shouldn't have your head taken off here and now, prisoner."
Reading Group Guide
Smoke and Iron Questions for Discussion
1.Do you think Jess should have proceeded with his plan for destroying the Archivist from within while telling his companions what he was going to do? If so, what would have happened differently?
2.During the course of the book, Jess has the opportunity to allow the Archivist to die at the hands of another. He prevents this. Why do you think he does this? Is he right?
3.Morgan’s powers seem to keep growing. What danger could she pose in the future?
4.What motivates Khalila more: the desire to save her family from the Feast of Greater Burning or the desire to save the Great Library?
5.What do you think Dario’s future will be in the Great Library now that we know he has a royal title in Spain? Will he stay?
6.Do you think that the good Dario does now and in the future will erase the bad deeds he did when he was younger? Why or why not? How does this question relate to our modern dilemma of “the Internet never forgets”?
7.Pretend for a moment that you live in the Great Library’s Alexandria—a very rich city, the center of the world in many ways, which has known peace and prosperity for thousands of years. No matter how wrong the Archivist was, would you advocate for change, knowing it might impact your quality of life?
8.Several countries have already declared independence from the Great Library even before this book begins. Why would they make that move now?
9.Were you surprised when Brendan showed up in Alexandria? Do you think Jess accomplishes what he intended by impersonating his brother?