The Fire Opal Mechanism is the fast-paced and lively sequel to Fran Wilde's The Jewel and Her Lapidary
Jewels and their lapidaries and have all but passed into myth.
Jorit, broke and branded a thief, just wants to escape the Far Reaches for something better. Ania, a rumpled librarian, is trying to protect her books from the Pressmen, who value knowledge but none of the humanity that generates it.
When they stumble upon a mysterious clock powered by an ancient jewel, they may discover secrets in the past that will change the future forever.
About the Author
Fran Wilde’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Nature, and elsewhere. Her debut novel Updraft, first in the Bone Universe series, was published in 2015 to wide acclaim. She blogs about food and genre at Cooking the Books and for the popular social-parenting website GeekMom. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.
Read an Excerpt
As the library's enormous clock ticked past four in the morning, Ania Dem paced its shadowed numbers across the cold slate floor, hurriedly sorting books.
Two worn, hand-bound travel guides from Quadril and the Sindarian Peninsula? Beautifully written. Hide these.
The Maniacan Journals about fishing? Boring as sand.
These can be decoys.
In the deep of night, without students' loud hush all around her, the clock's hour hand ground audibly forward. The clock's gears needed oil, but maintenance would have to wait. In a few hours' time, Ania would cart the decoy books across the university square and bid them good-bye.
The Pressmen gathered at Far Reaches University's gates had demanded the university's books repeatedly.
"The information will not be lost! It will be repurposed, becoming part of the Universal Compendiums of Knowledge, for sharing with all, equally," Dean Andol, who had finally conceded, had reassured his staff the afternoon before. "This will buy us more time," he'd added, almost pleading with the teachers assembled in the university square.
Now Ania's usually neat, parchment-colored librarian's robes creased behind her knees. Sweat darkened seams and pleats, but she didn't stop gathering books. She ventured back to the stacks and returned, arms laden with more old texts.
The Collected Biographies of Far Reaches University Presidents: The First Hundred Years? Decoy.
"In the Master Archivist's absence, you must bring books of good number and quality," Dean Andol had added, handing Ania a stack of flyers without meeting her eyes. He'd pointed to carts waiting at the edge of the square. "When we indicate goodwill toward the Pressmen, then perhaps they'll let us finish the term, for the students' sakes."
She'd taken the flyers. Locked the library doors. And then she'd gone to work.
The Book of Gems: A Catalog of the Jeweled Valley Treasury? Had the ancient gems, rumored to whisper secrets and shift reality, ever existed? This one glittering, tooled-leather book hinted they might have. Keep.
Ania reached for a brown leather knapsack — the property of the library's Master Archivist — and tucked the gem catalog and the travel guides beneath a shawl.
Dictionaries from across the Six Kingdoms? To sacrifice?
All those words. The thought of Pressmen taking those words from her hands, churning them into pulp and ink, and thus into a full set of constantly current Universal Compendiums of Knowledge filled Ania's stomach with dread. She'd loved books since she was a child playing in her father's study while he taught his classes. Loved how each volume felt different in the hand, heavy or light; that each smelled of a different era, different knowledge; that they had to be handled carefully — like people — but that they were constant, finished — unlike people. How could she give any of them up?
"But the Compendiums could contain everything!" Dean Andol had, the year before, chided the reluctant Master Archivist, Sonoria Vos.
"How does a printing press lay down ink on a page that can twist and rework itself into new forms?" Vos had argued. "And what value do words have across a gap of time if they don't stay put? Books are measures of time. They are made to grow old, to grow, occasionally, wrong."
Ania, listening from the stacks, agreed with her mentor. She liked that books had conversations among themselves. That they, like people, sometimes faded or fell apart when not well cared for. That made them precious.
"The Far Reaches library will not shelve a copy of the Universal Compendiums until I can examine the printing process. There's more to any one book, not to mention all of them together, than any 'compendium' can offer. And the conversations between books are equally important. No book can contain everything, Dean Andol."
The dean had left in a huff, and the library had persevered, at least then. Master Archivist Vos — who'd hired Ania long ago — whispered to her as the man's shadow passed beneath the library's great clock. "Books are most valued when they are curated and sought out. When one reference leads to another. I don't trust the Pressmen's approach. Not even if they threaten the gates of the Six Kingdoms' last university."
Now Far Reaches was the only school of its size still standing. The Compendiums were everywhere. And Sonoria Vos was nowhere to be found.
Ania grumbled as her braid slipped from its neat coil and draped heavy over her shoulder. Universities across the kingdoms had fallen quieter over the years: fewer scholarly exchanges, fewer battles over semantics. The Western Mountains first, then Quadril and its attached states, the Riverward, Bethem-and-Din, and the Eastern Seas.
Her hairpins scattered noisily across the slate. Strands of silver and dark brown sprung free, tickling Ania's face. The braid's rough tail swept the floor. She threw it back over her shoulder like a promise.
Her books would not be taken.
The Pressmen's minions would have to go through Ania first. Like her mentor before her. At least, Ania suspected that was what had happened.
Several years ago, at the start of each semester, books from other libraries had begun arriving, secreted at the bottoms of bags that otherwise contained the usual — students' clothing freshly mended, a date cake for a professor, various bolts of cloth and metals useful for paying the term ahead. Each time, the Master Archivist would pack her knapsack. "Another university is closing. We'll try to save their volumes."
In her absences, Ania covered Master Vos's classes.
More often than not, the older woman would return empty-handed. "Nothing left."
"I should have seen this coming," Ania muttered to the books. She'd been too busy trying to do her job, and Master Vos's too.
Decoys were what she'd bring to the meeting. Master Vos would be proud. Just enough books to sate the Pressmen — Ania hoped — while she preserved the library's treasures.
The early meeting, where Dean Andol would hand over the university's books, loomed like the sunrise. Ania tried to sort volumes into piles even faster. Dictionaries, diaries, catalogs, concordances, essays, letters, stories. Every volume precious enough to the past that someone had toiled over each page's words, whether hand-inked or typeset, the stitching, the binding.
Touching a book, for Ania, was like touching a person's fingertips across the years. She could feel a pulse, a passion for the knowledge the book contained.
Even the decoys.
She brushed the worn cover of one decoy volume — the fishing text. For each lost book, a connection silenced. Her fingers twitched before she pulled her hand back to her collarbone. Felt her own heart beating beneath the sweat-damp cloth.
No. Hesitation stole time better spent elsewhere.
In the predawn dark, Ania bent low beside the latest stack of books she'd decided to save. She tried to lift the stack, but it was too heavy. Instead, she braced her hands against the lowest volume, a thick work on the history of ink, and pushed the entire batch before her like a Far Reaches tugboat might push a mail scow. Slowly, she inched toward the wall that housed the library's distinctive clock. The clock's moon-shaped disc filled the main hall with its glow, the numbers etched shadow in its face and across the floor. The even tick-tick-tick and hourly chimes had been a constant friend to Ania since before the Master Archivist disappeared for the last time.
WAH-CHOO — Ania sneezed loudly. The sound rippled among the stacks.
Her foot slipped on one of the Pressmen's flyers: Knowledge Unity: An Education for All — meeting at seven A.M. She'd let them flutter to the floor. She sneezed again. Her long braid swung down and clung to the sweat on her face. Everything itched from the dust of books long unread, thousands of them, still in the stacks. Her decoy books might protect those too, for a time, as well as those she was hiding away.
She worked faster.
When the clock struck six, Ania smelled morning — clean and bright — on the ocean breeze. She slid open a door beneath the clock, revealing its secret maintenance room.
Before she ducked inside, she pushed the "keep" pile of books over the threshold.
There hadn't been enough room behind the clockwork for books to begin with. Not until she'd moved the Master Archivist's cot out into the archives. Now there was barely room for Ania to stand unless she crawled beneath the clockwork. She was trying to save too many books.
"How am I going to get any of you to safety?" she whispered.
The clock ticked an opaque response.
How indeed. And where? For many of these books, the last university in the Far Reaches had been a final hope.
Ania took another deep breath: old paper, leather and cloth bindings. The sharp rush of ink tickled her nose.
Her throat tightened at the thought of no one teaching her favorite books again.
She glanced up at the clock. At the lettering, hand-painted by the Master Archivist's grandmother, with whom she'd shared her name: Sonoria. At the numbers, in gold serif, each bigger than her head. Her foot crunched another flyer that had slid in with the books.
Conquer the Losses of Time with Knowledge.
Ania almost laughed, then worried she wouldn't be able to stop. Instead, she rebraided her hair, smoothing the snarls and tucking the loose bits back in.
As dawn broke across the clock face set high in the wall of the tiny room, Ania repinned the long braid so that it circled her head like a loose, gray-stranded crown. The Master had once told her that her brown eyes and sturdy chin balanced the look. "You are quiet, certainly, but you are respectable, responsible. With a kind of hidden fierceness." Ania hoped that fierceness would help her.
Less than respectable was her professor's robe. Second-tier professor's cords were attached with sure stitches, but the cream panels were dusty from being pressed to the library floor for so long. Patched from long wear, too, but that was Ania's fault, not the library's. The garment would not merit respect from the Pressmen or the deans, though they barely noticed her unless they needed something.
Ania kept mostly to the library; she'd practically grown up in one, reading next to her professor father as he prepared his lectures. She knew what to do here, what to say, and when to be quiet. She was good with students. And she'd kept from making too many connections in the swirl of academia because the library always felt safer. Having to step into this new role made her teeth ache.
Perhaps she could make herself presentable before the morning meeting, which was ... She glanced at the backlit clock, its dark arms splayed against the opaque glass, its gears visible on both sides. At the shadow cast on the wall behind. The meeting was now.
"Silverfish and hordes," she breathed. She wished the old Master hadn't disappeared. She wished she had more guidance, more time.
She imagined the comforting ticks in the Master Archivist's voice, lecturing her: Cleanliness is more important than rank.
Ania paused, then nodded at the clock. "Fine, then." She pulled off her cloak and turned it inside out. The dark lining looked much like an unadorned graduate's wrap, but at least it appeared clean.
Ania locked the clockroom behind her and carried the decoy books to the cart. When she returned, she would teach the Master's first class of the day: Research and Discontinuity Between Texts. The school had vowed to stay open as long as there were students.
She hoped the students were safe, that the Pressmen at the university gates would relent. Or that the deans' ploy would work.
* * *
The Last Meeting, as the morning would later be called among scattered academics, was more of a melee. Book-laden carts rested outside Gladulous Hall. Ania left her own cart at the crowd's edge, noting that she'd brought the fewest, and the shabbiest, where others' carts nearly overflowed.
So many books. Her fingers twitched as she wove her way between the piles.
As she entered Gladulous Hall, the crowd drew close around her, all waiting to get through the doors. The event had drawn more than faculty. Curious students, strangers from town. Ania could see nothing but shoulders and backs. More late arrivals pressed behind her until she was trapped there. Deep within the hall, a shout reverberated.
The crowd swayed, revealing a sky-colored banner overhead. Blue and white once signified the Western Mountains. Then, as the Western Mountains' army spread beyond the mountains, along with their weapons and technology, the colors became more ubiquitous. Especially when the Pressmen began using the colors on information about their printing press, their rules, and their Compendiums. And began wearing blue. Ania ground her teeth.
The sight of white and blue never failed to make her more stubborn. Her grandparents and parents had been the same way.
The crowd shifted. Ania's stubbornness increased at a swish of white and blue along the corridors. Two Pressmen stripped the robe from an art professor's shoulders and let the garment fall to the ground.
Ania's hopes sank in her stomach, suddenly heavy and sour.
The Pressmen hadn't been held back. More colleagues, from university guards to Dean Andol, already wore blue and white cloaks, or shiny metal pins in the shape of a book split open, the pages left smooth and blank.
Some students also wore Pressmen pins on their robes. They led a chorus of jeers now, against the professors.
"Share what you know, university staff! Too long you've kept the best from us and scoffed!"
"Masters of what's right, what's poor! Soon you won't decide anymore!"
Ania's breath caught. Among those yelling, one of the Master Archivist's favorite students and several of her first-year students. Their faces transformed by fear into masks of anger. She struggled to understand.
They're just children.
"Your departments have resisted the call for books until now," Dean Andol said, blinking nervously. His voice shook. That alarmed Ania the most.
"But the school has capitulated. And you have stepped forth to add your contributions, students and teachers both. There will be peace between academia and the Pressmen, at least at Far Reaches."
Curious students, still undecided, turned their heads to see how the faculty reacted.
How would children do otherwise? They'd been taught to follow others' examples here.
The speed with which professors threw in with the Pressmen worsened the sour taste in Ania's mouth.
"We should have done this earlier," said the head of shipping and trade law. His voice was rough, but he pulled more books from his satchel, as if he'd known what was coming. Ania had often looked things up for him in the library. He'd always been polite.
Now he passed one of the books he'd borrowed from her to a Pressman in exchange for a book-shaped loyalty pin.
With speedy nods, several metals professors also took pins, former students too. Others who protested, even by shaking their heads, were pushed into a corner and held there by Pressmen. Their academic robes were thrown to the crowd, some of whom spit on the cloth.
Ania clutched her own satchel to her side. But no one demanded anything of her, except an occasional "move!" In confusion, she looked down at her robes and remembered what she'd done.
Her professorial regalia hidden, her face still scuffed with dust, she was being treated like a student. She opened her mouth to protest, then shut it. Tugged on a sleeve to rumple her dark robes further.
Ania hated herself a little for that. If she'd been loyal to her persecuted colleagues, if she was any better than the metals professors, she should have reversed her robes. Pulled the twice-corded sleeves out and waved them in the faces of the tall, glass-faced guards.
But she didn't.
Ania, too, was reduced by the reality of the Pressmen's campaign. Her heart beat irregularly and too fast, itself trying to survive.
To survive, to keep going, to remember — she tried to quiet her fears. But a chill passed through her. Would there be a record of what happened here if the Pressmen controlled all the books? Would it really mean peace?
Ania's heart pounded faster. She would continue to try to keep some books out of the Pressmen's hands, to smuggle at least some far from the archipelago. A small revenge. Something her grandparents, and their parents, who'd fled Quadril and the Jeweled Valley long ago, would have appreciated.
Trapped within the press of student bodies, Ania started to panic. She needed to move quickly, before the Pressmen found her trove and destroyed it too.
Finally, a Pressman leader, wearing the color blue that Ania knew once heralded the Western Mountains' army, addressed the students. "You can join up with us, try for jobs in Quadril, or help distribute Universal Compendiums here. Either way, you'll soon be freed of the need for this place, peace or no. Soon enough, you'll have Knowledge wherever you go. Nothing will be out of reach for anyone." The speaker waved a hand. The students were dismissed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Fire Opal Mechanism"
Copyright © 2019 Fran Wilde.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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