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Smoke and Iron
Author: Rachel Caine


PART ONE

 

 

JESS

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 


   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?

   Clank.

   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.”

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