The corrupt leadership of the Great Library has fallen. But with the Archivist plotting his return to power, and the Library under siege from outside empires and kingdoms, its future is uncertain. Jess Brightwell and his friends must come together as never before, to forge a new future for the Great Library...or see everything it stood for crumble.
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Brendan was dead, and Jess's world was broken. He'd never known a moment without his twin existing somewhere, a distant warmth on the horizon, but now . . . now he shivered, alone, with his dead brother held close against his chest.
So much silence in the world now.
He's still warm, Jess thought, and he was; Brendan's skin still felt alive, inhabited, but there was nothing inside him. No heartbeat. No presence.
He was dimly aware that things were happening around him, that the bloody sands of the arena were full of people running, fighting, screaming, shouting. He didn't care. Not now.
Let the world burn.
A shadow fell over him, and Jess looked up. It was Anubis, a giant automaton god gleaming with gold. The jackal's black head blotted out the sun. It felt like the end of the world.
And then Anubis thrust his spear forward, and it plunged into Jess's chest. It held him there, pinned, and suddenly Brendan's body was gone, and Jess was alone and skewered on the spear . . . but it didn't hurt. He felt weightless.
Anubis leaned closer and said, Wake up.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying in darkness on a soft mattress, covered by a blanket that smelled of spice and roses. Out the window to his left, the moon floated in a boat of clouds. Jess's heart felt heavy and strange in his chest.
He could still feel the sticky blood on his hands, even though he knew they were clean. He'd washed Brendan's blood away. No, he hadn't. Thomas had brought a bowl of water and rinsed the gore away; he hadn't done anything for himself. Hadn't been able to. His friends had helped him here, into a strange house and a strange bed. He knew he should be grateful for that, but right now all he felt was empty, and deeply wrong. This was a world he didn't know, one in which he was the only surviving Brightwell son. Half a twin.
He'd have taken large bets that Brendan would have been the one to survive everything and come through stronger. And his brother would have bet even more on it. The world seemed so quiet without him.
Then you'll just have to be louder, you moping idiot. He could almost hear his brother saying that with his usual cocky smirk. God knows you always acted like you wished you'd been an only child.
"No, I didn't," he said out loud, though he instantly knew it for a lie and was ashamed of it, then even more ashamed when a voice came out of the darkness near the far corner.
"Awake, Brightwell? About time." There was a rustle of cloth, and a dim greenish glow started to kindle, then brighten. The glow lamp sat next to Scholar Christopher Wolfe, who looked like death, and also like he'd bite the head off the first person to say he looked tired. In short, his usual sunny disposition. "Dreams?"
"No," Jess lied. He tried to slow down his still-pounding heart. "What are you doing here?"
"We drew lots as to who would be your nursemaid this evening and I lost." Wolfe rose to his feet. He'd changed into black Scholar's robes, a liquidly flowing silk that made him seem part of the shadows except for the gray in his shoulder-length hair and his pale skin. He paused at Jess's bedside and looked at him with cool assessment. "You lost someone precious to you. I understand. But we don't have time to indulge your grief. There's work to be done, and fewer of us now to do it."
Jess felt no impulse to care. "I'm surprised you think I'm useful."
"Self-pity doesn't become you, boy. I'll be leaving now. The world doesn't stop because the one you loved is no longer in it."
Jess almost snapped, What do you know about it? but he stopped himself. Wolfe had lost many people. He'd seen his own mother die. He understood. So Jess swallowed his irrational anger and said, "Where are you going?" Not we. He hadn't yet decided whether staying in this bed would be his best idea.
"The office of the Archivist," Wolfe said. "You've been there. I could use help in locating his secure records."
The office. Jess blinked and saw the place, a magnificent space with automaton gods standing silent guard in alcoves. The view of the Alexandrian harbor dominating the windows. A peaceful place. He wondered if they'd managed to scrub the dead assistant's blood out of the floor yet. The Archivist had ordered her killed just to punish him. And Brendan.
Brendan. The last time he'd been in that office, Brendan had been with him.
Jess swallowed against a wave of disorientation and nausea and sat upright. Someone-Thomas, again-had helped him out of his bloody clothes and into clean ones. An informal High Garda uniform, the kind soldiers wore at leisure in the barracks. Soft as pajamas. It would do. He swung his legs out of bed and paused there, breathing deeply. He felt . . . unwell. Not a specific pain he could land on, just a general malaise, an ache that threaded through every muscle and every nerve. Shock, he supposed. Or just the accumulated stress of the past few days.
It might even be grief. Did grief hurt this way? Like sickness?
"Up." Wolfe's voice was unexpectedly kind. Warm. "I know how difficult that is. But there is no other way but onward."
Jess nodded and stood up. He found his boots-neatly placed at the foot of the bed-and slid them on. His High Garda weapons belt was nearby, with his sidearm still in place. Heavy and lethal, and he felt a bit of comfort as it settled on his hip. We're at war. It felt like he'd always been at war-his family had always warred with the Great Library, and then he'd fought for a place inside it. Then he'd fought to preserve the dream of the Great Library. And for the first time he wondered what peace would really feel like.
His hair was a spiky mess; he ran his fingers through it and ignored it when it refused to comply. "All right," he said. "I'm ready."
Wolfe could have said anything to that; Jess expected something dismissive and caustic. But Wolfe just put his hand on Jess's shoulder, nodded, and led the way.
The house, Jess thought, must have belonged to a Scholar-there was a cluster of black-robed Scholars around a wide table in the main room, anxiously chattering in Greek, which must have been the only language they had in common. A tall man with skin so dark it took on cobalt tones; a small, elegant young Chinese woman; another man, middle-aged and comfortably round, with distinctively Slavic features. There must have been a dozen of them, and Jess recognized only two of them immediately. None of his friends were here, which came as a vague surprise.
All the talk stopped when Wolfe approached the table. No question that he held authority here. "We're going to the Archivist's office," he said. "Thoughts?" His Greek was, of course, excellent; he'd grown up speaking it here in Alexandria. Jess wasn't as comfortable, but he was more than passable.
"Traps," the young Chinese woman said. "The Archivist was very fond of them. He certainly would have many waiting there, in case he lost his hold on power. Is there any word on where he is-"
"No," Wolfe said. "We assume he has loyalists who'll do anything to protect him. Our advantage is that the less savory elements of this city are firmly on our side, and without criminals to smuggle him out past the walls, he's trapped here. With us."
"Or we're trapped with him," said one of the Scholars-Jess wasn't sure which.
That earned a sharp look from Wolfe, and Jess knew the man could cut a person to ribbons with a single glance. "Don't think he's all-powerful. Without the apathy and passive consent of Scholars and High Garda, the Archivist would never have felt free to murder as he liked," Wolfe said. "We've taken that from him. Don't grant him more power than he ever earned."
"Easy for you to say, Scholar." That grumble was from the Slav, whose Greek was only lightly accented.
"You think so?" Wolfe's voice had gone sharp and dry, his face the color of exposed bone. "Easy. For me. Search the Archives. I was erased by him, like hundreds of others you've never even noticed missing. None of this is easy. Nor should it be. Killing a god-king ought to be difficult."
It hit Jess with a jolt that the Archivist had another title: Pharaoh of Alexandria. The god-king. And no doubt the bitter old man took that deification quite seriously. But we will kill him. Somehow.
For Brendan, if for nothing else.
"Look for pressure plates under the floor," the Chinese scholar said. "He took most of his cues from the great inventor Heron, who built so many wonders of this place. The Archivist took his lessons seriously; his traps will be ingenious, but also quite conventional. He may also have a specific command you'll need to give to freeze the automata, should they be triggered for defense. I have no idea where you'd find that, but it should be your immediate priority." She hesitated. "Perhaps . . . you should let the High Garda do this, Scholar."
"Because their lives are less valuable than mine?" Wolfe shot back, and she looked down. "No. I know what I'm looking for. They may not. I know the old bastard better than any High Garda could. He was my mentor, for a good portion of our lives. I know how he thinks."
Jess tried to imagine that; Wolfe, having the same relationship with the evil bastard Archivist that Jess had with Wolfe. He couldn't bring it into focus. For one thing, he couldn't imagine Wolfe as a young man. He abandoned the effort as a bad idea, and as he looked around, he spotted someone standing in the doorway, watching the discussion.
Not his very favorite person in the world, but Jess felt much more comfortable about the Spaniard than he had before; they'd been enemies, cautious allies, friends, enemies again, but through all of that, Dario had been present. There was something comforting about that now, in this silent new world that lacked his brother. Jess walked over to join him. The young man had his arms crossed; he'd changed clothes, too, into a posh velvet jacket and silk shirt and finely tailored trousers. He looked rich and entitled, just as he was. But Dario had never pretended to humility.
"Brightwell." Dario nodded.
Jess nodded back. "Santiago."
They both watched the Scholars arguing for a moment. Odd, Jess thought, that though Dario was entitled to wear the black robes, he didn't have them on. He wondered if that had significance, or if it was just because Dario didn't want to take away from the cut of his jacket.
Dario finally said, "All right, then?" He rocked a little back and forth on his heels, as if tempted to move away from the question. Or from Jess. But he stayed put.
"All right," Jess affirmed. He wasn't, but Dario knew that already, and this was Dario's way of showing some kind of empathy. It wasn't much, but from someone like him it was a fair attempt. "Where's Khalila?"
"With Scholar Murasaki," he said. "They're helping to organize a full Scholars' Conclave. Word is we'll elect a new Archivist today. Tomorrow at the latest. We need an unquestioned leader if we intend to hold Alexandria independent; the nations sending their ships are all too eager to help." He shook his head. "They're cloaking conquest as rescue, you know. Their strategy is to sweep in and claim Alexandria as a protectorate. Once they do that, they'll pull us apart and squabble over the bones."
"We can't let that happen," Jess said.
"No. Hence the election of a new Archivist."
Jess felt the impulse to smile. Didn't. "And you're not in the running? I'm astonished."
"Shut up, Scrubber."
"Touchy, Your Royalness, very touchy."
There was something comforting about the casual insults; it felt like home. One constant in this life: he and Dario would always be slightly uneasy friends. Maybe that was a very good thing. He trusted Dario . . . to a point. And of course Dario felt the same about him.
"Your cousin's ships are in that fleet," Jess said. "I don't suppose you're feeling some family loyalty today?"
"If you're asking if I'm going to betray the Great Library to the Kingdom of Spain, then no. I won't," Dario said. "But I don't want to fight my cousin, either. Not just because I like him. Because he's a good king, but he's also clever and ruthless. He'll win, unless we make the cost of winning unacceptably high. And I'm not altogether certain what he'd consider too high."
My brother already died for this, Jess thought. The price is already too high. But he didn't say it. He swallowed against a sudden tightness in his throat and said, "Where are the others?"
"Glain and Santi are organizing the city's defenses. Thomas . . . God knows, most likely off tinkering with one of his lethal toys-not that it isn't worthwhile. Morgan is with Eskander at the Iron Tower; they're getting the Obscurists in line."
"And what are you doing that's useful?"
"Nothing," Dario said. "You?"
"Same, at the moment. Want to come with us to the Archivist's office?"
"Is it dangerous?"
Dario's grin was bright enough to blot out Brendan's absence, for just a moment. "Excellent. I'm as useless as a chocolate frying pan at the moment."
"In that jacket?"
"Well, it is a very fine jacket, to be sure. But not useful." Dario's smile faded. He looked at Jess, straight on. "I really am sorry about Brendan."
Jess nodded. "I know."
"Then let's get on with it."
First Wolfe, now Dario. There was something comforting about their harsh briskness today. Thomas would be different, as would Khalila and Morgan; they'd offer him the chance to let his grief loose. But Wolfe and Dario believed in pushing through, and just now that seemed right to him. Eventually he'd need to confront his demons, but for now, he was content to run from them.
Wolfe joined them, took in Dario's presence without comment, and simply swept on. Jess shrugged to Dario and they both followed.
Off to defy death.
Seemed like a decent way to start the day.