Sword and Pen – Rachel Caine

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 godking 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 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. Dario Santiago. 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.” T 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?” “Very.” 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. — he sunrise was cool and glorious, reflecting in chips of vivid orange and red on the harbor’s churning waters; the massed fleet of warships that had assembled out in the open sea still floated a good distance away.

The Lighthouse had sounded a warning, and it was well-known—at least by legend—that the harbor’s defenses were incredibly lethal. None of the assembled nations had decided yet to test them. They would, eventually. And Jess wondered how they were ever going to defeat such a navy. The Great Library had ships of its own, but not so many, and certainly if it came to that kind of a fight, they’d lose. Dario was right. The trick was to make the cost too high for anyone to dare make an effort. The residential district of Alexandria where they walked had a street that led directly to the hub of the city: the Serapeum, a giant pyramid that rose almost as high as the Lighthouse. The golden capstone on top of it caught the morning light and blazed it back. As the sun rose, it bathed the white marble sides in warmth.

From where they walked, Jess could see the Scholar Steps, where the names of Scholars who’d fallen in service to the Library were inscribed. He’d never have his name there, of course; he wasn’t a Scholar or likely to become one. But if there was any justice left in the world, surely one day Wolfe would have that honor. And Thomas. And Khalila. Dario would no doubt believe he’d deserve it, and he might even be right. “Jess,” Wolfe said. “Heron’s inventions. You’re familiar with them, I would assume.” “Which ones? He had thousands.

He was the da Vinci of the ancient world.” “The lethal ones.” “Well, I know as much as anyone, I suppose. Except Thomas, of course. He’d probably give you a two-hour lecture about it, and tell you how to improve them.” “A fascinating lecture for which I have neither time nor patience. This isn’t a quiz, Jess. I will depend on you—both of you—to think. Because we go into extremely dangerous territory.” “Do you know how to reach the Archivist’s office?” Jess had been brought there several times, but there were precautions: hallways that moved, a maze that constantly shifted its path.

The Archivist would have had good reason to fear assassination. “His private office? Yes. I know how to reach it.” Wolfe didn’t offer an explanation. “Then things get more dangerous. One doesn’t hold power as long as he did without being prepared.” The city seemed so quiet. “Where is everyone?” Jess asked. Normally the streets were crowded with people. Alexandria pulsed with life, had a population in the hundreds of thousands: Scholars, librarians, staff, not to mention all of the people who simply called it home.

But today it seemed silent. “No one knows what’s going to happen. They’re staying inside, and safe,” Dario said. “Sensible people keep their heads down. Unlike us.” He shared a grim smile with Wolfe. “Well,” Wolfe said. “It isn’t the sensible people who get things done in these situations, is it?” That describes us perfectly, Jess thought. Not sensible. He imagined Brendan would have been right with him, eager to be reckless.

The walk was good; it drove the shadows back and made Jess feel almost human again. Sore, of course; the fight to survive had been hard, and he still bore the wounds. Someone—Morgan, he suspected—had applied some healing skills, or he’d have still been confined to a bed. But he felt loose, limber, ready to run or fight. He wondered why Morgan had left him, but he knew; she believed her place was with the Obscurists just now. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t care, he told himself. But she hadn’t been there when he’d awakened, hadn’t been there when he needed her most to heal his broken soul, and he knew that did mean something. It meant that he would never come first to her. Be honest, he thought. If she came first for you, you’d have done things differently.

You’d be with her right now. He wasn’t sure what that meant and was too thin and tired inside to think it through. Better to focus on a problem he could solve, an activity he could complete. Leave the difficult questions for later. They passed a company of High Garda troops—no informal uniforms there; every soldier was dressed sharply and looked as keen as knives. No one Jess recognized, but he nodded to the squad leader, who returned the greeting with crisp acknowledgment. A second later, he realized how wrong that was, and turned to Wolfe. “I should rejoin my company.” He was wearing the uniform. The wrong uniform for the day, but nevertheless.

“You’re seconded to me,” Wolfe said. “Santi doesn’t want you back with his company quite yet. You’re more useful here.” His mouth curled in a rare, non-bitter smile. “He thinks you may be able to keep me from my worst excesses of courting danger. I told him that was nonsense, you were as bad or worse, but he wouldn’t have it.” That took a moment to sink in, too: Santi trusted Wolfe’s safety to him. When he knew that Jess was running on emotional pain and grief. That’s why. Because Santi was giving him something to keep him from wallowing in the loss of his twin.

It was a brilliantly manipulative maneuver. It kept Wolfe with a semiqualified bodyguard, and at the same time gave that bodyguard a mission when he no doubt badly needed one. And Dario? Surely Santiago hadn’t just appeared at random, either. He was the check to be sure Jess was operating properly, a second pair of eyes on their backs. Dario wasn’t the best fighter of the group, but he was a strategist and a decent tactician, too, and that could be valuable on a mission like this. By the time Jess had examined all that, they’d walked to the street that led in front of the Serapeum. The guard posts were manned by High Garda, and roaming automata as well; sphinxes stalked on lion paws, rustling metal wings and staring with red eyes in their sculpted metal human faces. One followed them a few paces, which made Jess nervous; he watched it carefully to be sure it hadn’t been missed in the rewriting of how to identify enemy from friend. But it soon lost interest and padded away to sink down in a comfortable crouch, watching traffic pass. “Thank God,” Dario said.

He’d noted it, too. “I loathe those things.” “You’ve stopped them before.” “And will again, I have no doubt. But I’m grateful for each and every time I don’t have to fight for my life. I’m not as clever with them as you are. Or as fearless.” That, Jess thought, was pretty remarkable; he’d not heard Dario confess something like that in quite a while. Possibly ever. The Spaniard naturally assumed he was the best at absolutely everything, and even when proven wrong often insisted until everyone half believed him.

It had taken some time for Jess to overcome his general annoyance and realize what a vulnerability that large an ego could be. He hadn’t yet used that knowledge against Dario. He hadn’t needed to. But it was always good to spot a weakness, even in an ally and friend. Scholar Wolfe hadn’t been exaggerating; he did know how to reach the Archivist’s office. It involved a journey past sharp-eyed High Garda, more automata—including an Anubis-masked god statue that made Jess flash back to his dream and the reality it had mirrored—down hallways that seemed different to what Jess remembered. “It’s a selfaligning maze,” Wolfe told him when he pointed that out. “There are keys. You look for them encoded in the decorations. The alignments depend on the time, day, month, and year.

Rather clever. Heron himself invented the machinery.” Jess almost turned to Thomas to comment on that, ready for the German’s effusive happiness; Thomas worshipped Heron almost as a god himself. But Thomas wasn’t with them. And it surprised Jess how much that dimmed his mood. “Let’s just get on with it,” he said, and Wolfe gave him an appraising look, then nodded and led them on without more discussion. The path took them through the forbidding interior Hall of Gods, with all the giant, silent automata on their plinths . except for the ones who’d been dispatched to the Colosseum to kill the Library’s rebels. Those had been hacked apart. If they were ever to be rebuilt, Jess thought, maybe it would be better to sculpt them out of stone or simple metal.

Make them symbols instead of weapons. But he’d rather not see them again, ever. They arrived in a hub of halls that led out in spokes; those held the offices of the Curia. All of them dead now, or fled with the Archivist. The quiet seemed ominous. “This is a bit tricky as well,” Wolfe said, and showed the two of them where, how, and when to press certain keys on the wall to open the hallway to the Archivist’s private office. “Elite High Garda soldiers would normally be in charge of this. Good thing they’re all gone.” “Are they?” Dario asked. “How do we know they didn’t flee here and fortify his office? There could be an entire company of the bastards waiting for us.

” It was a decent question, and better warning. Jess drew his sidearm. From beneath his robe, Wolfe produced something else; it took a moment for Jess to recognize it, but the elegantly crafted lines gave it away. Thomas’s work. That was a Ray of Apollo, upgraded and with better materials. Lethally concentrated light. “Better to be sure,” Wolfe said, and switched the weapon on. Jess made sure his own was set to killing shots, and nodded. When Jess looked back at Dario, he found the Spaniard had produced a very lovely sword, filigreed and fancied to within an inch of its life but no less dangerous for that in the hands of an expert. Which Dario was.

He also had a High Garda gun in his left hand, the mirror of Jess’s. “You know how to use that?” Jess nodded at the gun. Dario gave him one of his trademark one-raised-eyebrow mocking looks. “Better than you, scrubber.” Untrue. Dario could certainly kill him with a sword, but Jess was a very good shot. Unless the arrogant royal had been drilling in target practice with that likely stolen gun, he wasn’t going to match any High Garda soldier.

.

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