Read Worldsoul Online

Authors: Liz Williams

Tags: #fantasy

Worldsoul

WORLDSOUL

Liz Williams

Copyright © 2012 by Liz Williams.

Cover art by Oliver Wetter.

Cover design by Telegraphy Harness.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

ISBN: 978-1-60701-364-8 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-60701-295-5 (trade paperback)

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To Trevor and Kari.

• Prologue •

Fire tore through the library, scattering burning scrolls across the floor, inscribing smooth marble with letters of ash. With a breath of the sea wind through the glassless window, the words were gone. The pale-haired woman turned, a silhouette against the fire, took a dying word in her hand and stared at it. Flames licked the hem of her robe, leaving the linen untouched.

“This is an intriguing tongue,” she said. “Runic. From before the ice, perhaps? What do you think?”


Beheverah.
” The name was accented with exasperation. “We need to
act.
Before They realise what’s happening. Before They come.”

The woman arched an eyebrow. “You overestimate them. They’re savages, nothing more. Mindless . . . Although I grant you that their masters are not. There’s no rush.”

“Maybe not in the Liminality.” His voice was still sharp. “But here—this doesn’t work the same way. And we need to take action before it’s too late. Think of all the stories here they will devour. You can look at them at leisure, later, if you wish. All those stories,” he coaxed.

“Very well.” Beheverah sighed. It was so
interesting
in here, with everything changing so quickly, the flames climbing up to swallow marble and paper alike. She brushed a smouldering fragment from her skirts. “If you really think so . . . ”

Shouts were coming from outside, cries of panic and dismay trickling up from the harbour.

“The scrolls!” someone cried, an old voice, a heart breaking. “The scrolls!”

Raising her gaze beyond the blazing papyri, the woman could see out past the torchlight on the quay: a green sky, a greener sea, merging into one as the twilight deepened. A good time to steal something away; an edge in time. She reached out and touched her companion’s fingertips, stood on tiptoe, called on the horizon and the dying day. His murmuring voice summoned up power, drawing it from the fire and the cracking stone that surrounded them, making the spell concrete, then deconstructing it again. Beneath her bare toes, the library started to shift. She smiled. This was almost easy. She spoke three careful words, spells of
moving,
and the floor rippled as though she was standing on ocean.

More shouts. She knew what they’d see, those horrified observers. They’d see something that couldn’t possibly be happening: their beloved library—the greatest repository of knowledge in the world—first in flames and blazing, then starting to shimmer and glow, the gleam of magic blinding out the glow, then the whole magnificent columned structure meteor-shooting out of sight and taking its consuming fire with it.

Gone from Alexandria. Gone from Earth. But not gone forever.

• One •

At dawn, the distant hoot of the Golden Island steamer split the moist air and told Mercy Fane that it was time to get up. Mercy hauled herself out of bed. For an acknowledged insomniac, it was surprisingly difficult to get out from between the sheets, as though she might trick herself into dropping off after all. But work was beckoning; she’d told Nerren that she’d be in early. Big day today.

She dressed quickly in leather trousers and a crisp white shirt; oiled her hair and bound its springy coils in a club at the nape of her neck. She didn’t want any stray strands that something might be able to clutch. Then Mercy drew a line of kohl around each eye and inked the tattooed sigil spirals between her brows and around each shoulder—just in case—waiting a moment for each sigil to glimmer darkly, then fade to matte. After that, she fastened the ward-bracelets around her wrists and ankles, slipped a charm into the hole in her left earlobe, placed her sigilometer on its chain in her pocket, and was ready. A quick glance in the glass reassured her: Mercy Fane: Librarian, a chess-piece study in white and black.

She’d think about weapons later.

She went downstairs into the yellow-painted kitchen. Sunlight poured in through the branches of the apple tree outside the open window, the rosy fruit already ripening. Midsummer was past, the year was growing on. As she stared at the apples, the
ka
leaped in through the window to land on the table below.

“Morning, Perra. Good night?”

The
ka
yawned, stretching small leonine paws. Its grave golden eyes regarded her, from a human face. “Good enough.”

“Anything of interest?”

The ancestral spirit blinked. “Rumours. But there are always those. I have visited an astrologer, a friend. She says that there are curious configurations in the heavens.”

“There are always
those,
too.”

The
ka
nodded and sat back on its haunches. “Portents of change, throughout the city. Planetary alignments, signifying shifts of power.”

“Oh dear,” Mercy said. “Maybe the Seal is up to something again?”

“I do not know.”

“I don’t expect you to. I know it’s one place you can’t go.”

“They experiment on my kind,” Perra said.

“They experiment on everything,” Mercy replied.
Bloody
alchemists. It was different in the Eastern Quarter, where alchemy was a different, and honourable, science. Not so with the Seal, who regarded everything as grist for its sinister mill. She left the
ka
curled up on the couch and headed off to work.

Outside, the morning was already warm. Mercy walked along the canal bank, glancing down occasionally at the shoals of small golden fish whisking, in amoeboid commas, through the clear water. The city had known days when these canals ran red with blood—a long time ago now, but not quite long enough. And now there were these new attacks, the lethal flowers falling from the skies and bursting like bombs, the petals deadly shrapnel.

Mercy had only been a small child, but she still remembered the last days of the Long War, before the Quiet, and then the bloodspill of the Short. She felt a prickle at the back of her neck but the morning seemed peaceful enough.

On the Street of the Hunter, the cafés were already doing a roaring breakfast trade. Mercy stopped under an awning and bought a bun, eating it on her way to the Library. The way to work took her up the hill. As she climbed, she looked through the gaps in the buildings to the blue arc of sea, fringed with mimosa and oleander. Ahead, she could already see the Library and the other buildings of the Citadel, the gold-and-cream domes butter-bright against the morning sky, the gilded spell-vanes of the Court of the Bond glittering in the sunlight. She fancied for a moment that she could almost hear them creaking in the wind, turning on their spires to catch every whisper and breeze of passing magic and siphoning it down into the bubbling crucibles of the Court. But the roofs of the Court itself were darkly tiled: it sat like a jackdaw among doves, upon the hill. Black and bright-eyed, stealing anything shiny . . . 

Still, it all looked so
quiet
from down here.

When she reached the steps of the Library, the bun was finished and Mercy’s monochrome outfit was covered in crumbs. She took a moment to brush them off. Why could she never stay tidy, unlike the many chic women she saw coming out of the Citadel buildings first thing in the evening, their chignons intact and free of escaping tendrils, their shoes as polished as beetles’ wings? Mercy felt as though her clothes and hair were perpetually escaping from her control, in spite of a reassuring glance down at her now crumb-free shirt. Sure that her hair was coming loose, too, she checked it. It seemed smooth enough. For now, anyway.

At the top of the Library’s steps she paused again and looked out. From this height, you could see as far as the Eastern and Southern Quarters; although the Northern was blocked by the towers of the Citadel and the looming darkness of the Court, Mercy could still feel the blood-tug, the pull of ancestral tales. A very long way away, she could see the billow of the flags that flew from the Eastern minarets, marshalling winds to the burn of the Great Desert beyond. An azure banner, fringed like a centipede, snapped and sang above the distant dome of the Medina. Below, the faint rumble of the monorail slid up between the buildings, a low thunder. She caught a flash of brass and bronze as the little carriages whisked along it.

A long way, to the south and to the east. Longer than it looked. Mercy thought she could taste rain on the wind. She turned, pushed open the Library’s heavy bronze doors, and went inside.

There did not seem, at first, to have been any crises during the night. Good. The Elders had planned an inspection this morning and Mercy, Nerren, and their colleagues wanted everything to go smoothly. Things were quite unstable enough, Mercy thought, without the poor Elders having a conniption—at least, not more of one than they were having already.

However, the huge, echoing foyer of the Library was as austere and tranquil as ever; the smoke-dappled marble columns rising out of a floor so polished that it looked like a pool of grey-green water. Touches of silver—on lecterns, on the spine of the Great Book that stood on its plinth in the centre of the hall, on croziers and the Librarian’s Crown—caught the sunlight filtering in through glass that was stained black and white and grey; the windows being one of the few parts of the Library that were really new, untainted by ancient fire. Above, soaring above the motes of light and dust, flew the ghosts of birds.

“You’re early,” said Nerren, bustling out from behind the reception desk.

“I said I would be. Did anything—?”

“No.” Nerren’s brow creased. The Senior Librarian wore a man’s suit: narrow tapering trousers, cream silk shirt, a frock coat. A black curl of hair had been coaxed to rest on her brow; it looked varnished against her brown skin. Sigils glowed dark-bronze on cheeks and throat, in the manner of the Southern Quarter, but southerner though she was, Nerren had eyes like Mercy’s own; the same shape, the same shade. Dark and disapproving. Mercy sometimes wondered whether being a member of the Order of the Library had endowed her with a permanent frown. Now Nerren was frowning, too. Nerren added, in that beautiful musical voice with its accent of the Islands, “At least, not that I’m aware of. But I haven’t checked Section C.”

“I’ll do it.”

“Are you sure? Do you want some help before the Elders get here?”

“No, it’s all right. I’ll do it myself.” Mercy had entertained doubts about Section C for some weeks, and had not mentioned the extent of them to Nerren. The Senior Librarian had quite enough on her plate. But now she wondered whether Nerren knew anyway.

“There’s more. Bad news.” Nerren’s fluid voice was not suited to staccato, but it obviously matched her mood. “We’re due for a Citadel inspection as well. They’ll be coming on Third Day.”

“What,
this
Third Day?” Mercy stared at Nerren in dismay.

“Yes. That’s the whole point. Not to give us time to cover things up. I suppose we should be grateful they haven’t just showed up this morning. At least we’ve had some warning.”

“Two days,” Mercy mourned. “Doesn’t give anyone much time.”

“We haven’t been doing anything
wrong,
Mercy.” Nerren’s voice was sharp.

“No. We haven’t done anything wrong,” Mercy echoed, as if repeating it would make it true. And in a sense, it
was
true. It was just that they hadn’t been entirely . . . forthcoming.

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