Caitlin had lost a book.
Of course, there were many lost books in the Great Library. It was the reason the Scriptorian Guild created the labyrinthine repository — to preserve knowledge that would otherwise have been lost to history. It boasted the entire collection of the Royal Library of Alexandria, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, as well as the lost works of Cicero, Aristotle and most recently, the Aztec codices burned by the Aztec emperor Itzcoatl.
Caitlin joined the Scriptorians the moment she reached the age of requirement. She loved books, not just the feel of the leather bindings or the musty smell of the old vellum, but the places they could take her.
The particular tome she misplaced was the only surviving edition of the Voynich Codex. She’d been tasked with researching its writing system by Master Howfall, the head of Linguistics. It was a fifteenth-century manuscript filled with fictitious plants, astrological symbols and fantastical illustrations that no one within her guild had managed to decipher, and the original author was proving mysteriously untraceable.
Caitlin was on a reading week. She studied Ancient History at Oxford and was supposed to be working on her thesis on the Chinese General Sun Tzu, who was credited with writing the famous military strategy, ‘The Art of War’. She’d spent the last few days travelling back into the Eastern Zhou period of ancient China, but when the opportunity to work with Linguistics popped up in her almanac, she dropped everything and applied.
She could imagine how Master Howfall would take the news of the missing book. Her chances of working in the elite cryptographic department would be over.
* * *
Walking between the stacks, she tried to retrace her steps. The vast towers of ancient books stretched up into the distant ceiling, where tiny figures moved on delicate chains between them, like acrobats on the high wires of a circus.
Without realising, Caitlin found herself in Admissions, one of the more notoriously unorganised departments within the library, where all new arrivals were processed before being categorised, coded and placed into their relevant sections.
An old man was standing on a ladder leaning up against a pile of manuscripts at least three times his height.
‘Miss Makepiece,’ he said, sliding down the ladder like a man half his age. This was Grandmaster Chittenden, one of her grandfather’s oldest friends and the longest-serving Head of Retrievals. ‘I’m glad you dropped by. I was wondering if you would be interested in a little expedition we’re planning into Villa dei Papiri?’
His long white eyebrows formed an arch over his nose, and one hand stroked the snowy beard that covered the rest of his face.
Caitlin knew of the Villa; it was infamous amongst the Scriptorians for the numerous failed attempts to retrieve the scrolls stored within it. Based in the small town of Herculaneum, the Villa had been buried during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which had wiped out Pompeii and thwarted all efforts to reach the eight hundred scrolls that were ninety feet deep below the ash.
The rules of retrieval were very specific: documents could only be removed at the point of obliteration; no linear should ever be aware they had been recovered before the disaster; anything that led to the revealing of the Order’s existence was strictly forbidden.
Trying to rescue the scrolls while an erupting volcano rained fire down on the roof was not Caitlin’s idea of fieldwork.
‘Thank you, Grandmaster,’ she said with a respectful bow of her head, ‘but I’m afraid I will have to decline. I’ve been asked to join an exploratory mission into the lost library of the Tsars.’ It was a lie, of course, but to admit she was working with Linguistics would only lead to more questions, especially about a book she couldn’t admit to losing.
His eyes glazed over. ‘Ah yes, an equally important enterprise. Your mother and father would be so proud.’
She felt her cheeks warming at the mention of her parents. They’d been missing in action since she was ten, and although eight years had passed, she still hated it when people referred to them as if they were dead.
Quickly bidding him good day, she hurried away.
* * *
Taking a detour through Cartography, she stopped below the giant Armillary sphere that hung in the centre of the department, slowly rotating as it followed the rotation of the solar system in real-time.
‘Hey,’ she whispered to a blonde boy who was watching the brass spheres twist slowly overhead.
‘Hi Cat,’ he said, without turning around. ‘Did you know Saturn has a hexagonal shaped storm around its North Pole?’ Her step-brother, Sim, had always been fascinated by the planets. From the age of eight, he could calculate the orbits of every celestial body in the heavens with a slide rule and a sheet of paper, which was probably why the Copernican Guild had inducted him into their actuary programme
‘And its rings stretch one hundred and twenty-thousand kilometres from the planet,’ she replied. Their intellectual duelling was one of many reasons why she loved him dearly. ‘Were you looking for me?’ she asked, catching sight of a book under his arm.
Sim snapped out of his reverie and turned, holding the Voynich Codex out towards her. ‘Yes, sorry, I was just returning this.’
Frowning, she snatched it from him, inspecting the spine and covers for damage. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for this,’ she exclaimed loudly, receiving a collective glare from the other readers in the department.
‘Sorry,’ said Sim, ‘I needed to visit the court of Rudolf II around 1600, and the manuscript seemed like the quickest way to get there.’
‘You realise it’s not supposed to leave the library?’
He shrugged. ‘Technically, it didn’t. I just used its chronology.’
Books were like maps to the members of their Order; ancient ones could be used to move back through hundreds of years in a heartbeat. Using their timelines was far safer than wandering the uncharted timelines; that was the job of the Draconian Guild, and more specifically, the Nautonniers, the Guild navigators to which both her mother and father belonged.
She sneered. ‘I signed this out. You realise what would have happened if they found out I’d lost it?’
‘You’d lose your library card?’ he joked. Copernicans took a dim view of the other guilds. They saw themselves as far superior to the others.
‘I’d lose my job,’ she hissed through gritted teeth.
His smile faded. ‘Sorry, Cat, I should have asked. It was stupid of me.’
Caitlin couldn’t stay angry at Sim for long. He was a kind-hearted boy who would do anything to help her. He’d been her best friend since she’d come to live with his family.
‘So why have they got you going back to Prague?’ she asked.
Sim shrugged. ‘He didn’t want to bother the Watch. Something’s up with the Second World War. I haven’t seen Eddington this excited since the fall of Rome.’
Next: Chapter 3 >>