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Paper and Fire
Author: Rachel Caine


EPHEMERA

 

Excerpt from a report delivered via secure message to the Archivist Magister, from the hand of the Artifex


I thought that you were being soft when you ordered us to keep the boy alive, but he’s been incredibly useful already. As you said, a brilliant mind. When we allow him access to books and papers, which we do as a reward, his observations on engineering are quite groundbreaking. After compelling him using the usual means, we provided him with chalk, and on the walls of his cell he began to write some unusual calculations and diagrams. These I have enclosed for your review.

   He also had observations, which he confided to a guard I had ordered to be friendly to him, about the maintenance of the automata within the prison. Clever boy. And dangerous. He might have succeeded in turning one of them to his own uses if we hadn’t kept a constant watch.

   I know you want to keep him alive, but even after this long, he continues to be outwardly cooperative and inwardly quite stubborn. I haven’t seen the like since . . . well, since his mentor, Scholar Christopher Wolfe.

   As bright as he is, I don’t know how we can ever control him completely. It would be far kinder to kill him now.


Reply from the Archivist Magister, via secure message


Under no circumstances are you to kill the boy.

   I have great plans for him.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Every day, Jess Brightwell passed the Spartan warrior statue on his way to and from his quarters. It was a beautifully made automaton, fluid and deadly, with a skin of burnished copper. It stood in a dynamic pose on its pedestal, with a spear ready to thrust, and was both a decoration and a protection against intruders.

   It wasn’t supposed to be a threat to those who belonged here.

   Now, as he passed it, the shadowed eyes under the helmet flickered and flared red, and the Spartan’s head turned to track his passage. Jess felt the burn of those eyes, but he didn’t return the stare. It would take only an instant for that form to move and that spear to drive right through him. He could feel the very spot the point would enter like a red, tingling target on his back.

   Not now! Jess sweated, terribly aware of the leather smuggling harness strapped to his chest, and the slender original book hidden inside. Calm. Be calm. It was incredibly difficult, not only because of the threat of the automaton but because of the anger that burned inside him. As he walked away, the tingle in his back rose to a hot burn, and he waited for the rush of movement and the horrible invasion of the spear stabbing through his body . . . But then he was a step past, two steps, and the attack didn’t come.

   When he looked back, the statue had gone back to resting mode, staring straight ahead blindly. It seemed safe. It wasn’t. Jess Brightwell lived on sufferance and luck at the Great Library of Alexandria. If he’d been half as clever as his friend Thomas Schreiber, he would have figured out how to disable these things by now . . .

   Don’t think about Thomas. Thomas is dead. You have to keep that thought firm in your head or you’ll never make it through this.

   Jess paused in the dark, cool tunnel that led from the Spartan’s entrance into the wider precincts of the complex where he was quartered. There was no one here to watch him, no fellow travelers at either end of the tunnel. The automaton couldn’t see him. Here, for this one sheltered moment, he could allow himself to feel.

   Anger sparked red and violent inside, heated his skin and tensed his muscles, and the tears that stung his eyes were driven by rage as much as grief. You lied, Artifex, he thought. You lying, cruel, evil bastard. The book in the harness on his chest was proof of everything he’d hoped for the past six months. But hope was a malicious, jagged thing, all spikes and razors that churned and cut deep in his guts. Hope was a great deal like fear.

   Jess bounced his head against the stones behind him, again, again, again, until he could get control of the anger. He forced it back into a black box, buried deep, and secured it with chains of will, then wiped his face clear. It was morning, still so early that dawn blushed the horizon, and he was tired out of his skin. He’d been chasing the book he smuggled now for weeks, giving up meals, giving up rest, and finally he’d found it. It had cost him an entire night’s sleep. He’d not eaten, except for a quick gyro from a Greek street vendor nearly eight hours past. He’d spent the rest of the time hiding in an abandoned building and reading the book three times, cover to cover, until he had every single detail etched hot into his memory.

   Jess felt gritty with exhaustion and trembled with hunger, but he knew what he had to do.

   He had to tell Glain the truth.

   He didn’t look forward to that at all, and the idea made him bounce his skull off the stones one more time, this time more gently. He pushed off, checked his pulse to be sure it was steady again, and then walked out of the tunnel to the inner courtyard—no automata stationed here, though sphinxes roamed the grounds on a regular basis. He was grateful not to see one this time and headed to his left, toward his barracks.

   After a brief stop to wolf down bread and drink an entire jug of water, he moved on and avoided any of the early risers in the halls who might want to be social. He craved a shower and mindless sleep more than any conversation.

   He got neither. As he unlocked his door and stepped inside, he found Glain Wathen—friend, fellow survivor, classmate, superior officer—sitting bold as brass in the chair by his small desk. Tall girl, made sleek with muscle. He’d never call her pretty, but she had a comfortable, easy assurance—hard won these past months—that made her almost beautiful in certain lights. Force of personality if nothing else.

   The Welsh girl was calmly reading, though she closed the Blank and returned it to his shelf when he shut the door behind him.

   “People will talk, Glain,” he said. He had no temper for this right now. He needed, burned, to tell her what he’d learned, but at the same time he was on the precarious edge of emotion, and he didn’t want her of all people to see him lose control. He wanted to rest and face her fresh. That way, he wouldn’t break into rage, or just . . . break.

   “One thing you learn early growing up a girl—people always talk, whatever you do,” Glain said. “What bliss it must be to be male.” Her tone was sour, and it matched her expression. “Where have you been? I had half a mind to call a search party.”

   “You damn well know better than to do that,” he said, and if she was going to stay, fine. He had no qualms about stripping off his uniform jacket and unbuttoning his shirt. They’d seen each other in all states as postulants struggling to survive Wolfe’s class, and the High Garda wasn’t a place that invited modesty, either.

   He really must have been too tired to think, because his fingers were halfway down the buttons on his shirt when he realized she’d see the smuggling harness, which was a secret he didn’t feel prepared to share just yet. “A little privacy?” he said, and she raised her dark eyebrows but got up and turned her back. He didn’t take his eyes off her as he stripped off the shirt and reached for the buckles of the leather harness that held the book against his chest. “I need sleep, not conversation.”

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