“It’s less where and more how,” explained Ren. “Most of it was readily available. Just not…clear what it means. It’s like a puzzle. And once I found a few pieces, I couldn’t resist finding the rest.”
Fiearius watched the back of the man’s head, wondering just how good at ‘puzzles’ someone has to be to figure something like that out. And then Ren let out a laugh. “I wrote it all down thinking that one day the information would just end up in some tabloid no one would believe. Never figured it’d be used to assassinate the Society Council.”
Fiearius grimaced, but Leta smiled at him encouragingly.
Most of the wooden circulation desk was broken and crushed into the floor, which dampened Fiearius’ optimism that the book could be intact, let alone findable. But Ren led them past the desk and into a back room that, judging by the overturned furniture, had once been an employee’s lounge.
“I used to work here while I was in law school,” he explained, “and we had storage lockers to keep our things in. Over here.”
Ren crouched to his legs and started to type on the keypad of a small metal locker.
“You remember the passcode?” said Leta in amazement, and Ren’s mouth twitched toward a wry, sad smirk.
“Your birthday and an anagram of your name, Leta? Yeah, I remember.”
Shifting awkwardly on his feet, Fiearius wished he could have waited outside for this part, but then the locker door creaked open. Ren seized a dusty journal and stood to his feet, giving it over to Leta.
Looking startled but hopeful, Leta grabbed the book and skimmed through the pages, frowning at whatever was written there. Fiearius watched her, but his eyes were drawn back to Ren who had immediately averted his eyes the moment she cracked open the spine. He was clearly roiling with nervous energy, his arms crossed over his chest, fists clenched, his foot tapping on the ground.
“Ren–this is–,” Leta began, sounding conflicted, but as soon as she saw the man who had taken to pacing small circles a few feet away, she clamped her mouth shut and clamped the book shut. “Thank you. This will help a lot.”
“I hope so.” Ren was already turning towards the exit doors, apparently eager to get out of this place. Fiearius fell into step beside Leta and raised a brow at her. She didn’t look pleased.
“Fiear,” she whispered. “This book–it’s nonsense. Farming techniques, baking recipes, history essays…”
Fiearius sighed through his teeth. Leta had said Ren’s codes were complex. “Just have to hope Carthis’ team can figure it out.”
But she was shaking her head. “I don’t know, Fiear, remember how long it took them just to crack the Verdant-encoded message you sent me?” She frowned. “About fancy cheese…”
Fiearius let out a chuckle. “I had just found out my chip could do that, I thought it’d be fun.”
“And a waste of resources,” Leta corrected. “This though–” She lifted the book. “This could take years.”
Fiearius eyed the book uneasily. She knew as well as he did that there was no way Ren would agree to even look at the code, let alone translate it for them. Nor was he in any condition to, frankly. A year on the Baltimore had done his mental stability no favors.
“Well what do you suggest?”
But it was Ren who answered. “There’s a cipher,” he said from up ahead. Both Leta and Fiearius looked at him in surprise. “I can hear you two, you know.” He gestured at the high ceilings. “It echoes in here.”
Fiearius glanced nervously at Leta and then asked, “Where is it?”
A small smile came to his face and he tapped his temple with his index finger. Leta stepped towards him, the book in her hands. “Ren, we can’t ask you to–”
Ren’s eyes darted to the book in her hands and instinctively he took a step back, eyes widened in alarm. Leta tucked the book behind her back and he clenched his eyes, gaining control of himself. “I said I would only lead you to the journal. But…you’re right. It’s useless if you can’t unlock it. Let me talk to your best code-breaker. I’ll–get them started on writing the cipher. As much as I can.”
Leta crossed the space between them and grasped his arm. “Thank you, Ren. Thank you. This is really going to make a difference.”
Ren flashed her a brief, weak smile, and then they started back through the library, back to the exit, picking their way over broken shelves and chairs. Fiearius knew logically he should have been relieved — they were about to close out this job successfully — but instead, he felt his insides sway with uncertainty. He slowed to a stop between the shelves, scanning the room. The back of his neck prickled.
Leta paused, turning back to him. “What is it?” she pressed quietly.
Fiearius held his finger to his lips to quiet her and tilted his head behind him. They were being followed.
He had no real evidence, but somehow Fiearius knew it to be true: years of clandestine, less than legal operations gave him a sense of when someone’s gaze was on his back. Ren’s eyes widened, and Leta nodded once, silently withdrawing the gun at her hip. Fiearius jerked his head indicatively and they all stepped into the hallway between bookshelves, pretending to keep walking when instead they were waiting, not breathing.
Seconds later, and sure enough — there was the unmistakable crack of glass underfoot. Fiearius watched as a figure draped in shadow moved into view, visible between the slanted books on the shelf, and then he appeared before them. Leta exhaled sharply with fear, the figure yelped in surprise, and Fiearius launched himself at the intruder, throwing his forearm around his neck, crushing the man’s Adam apple. With his other hand he pressed his gun hard against his temple to force him to the ground.
Moonlight threw shadows over the man’s face as he struggled; he wasn’t showing the Society librera, nor military greens, and there was no red band around his arm that indicated he was a rebel. “Stop!” the man gasped, clawing at Fiearius’ forearms, kicking free and knocking books off the shelves. Fiearius tightened forearm against his neck savagely as the man wheezed, “Fuck, don’t shoot!”