A leader’s job was a crock of shit.
This was becoming one of Irene’s least favourite missions ever. And that included the one with the evil dwarves under Belgium (what was it about Belgium?), and the one requiring a cartload of carved amber plaques to be shipped across Russia. Or even the one with the cat burglar.
‘Would it help if we could find out more about his family?’ she offered. ‘If we find out that they’re not as bad as he’s painting, we can re-evaluate how much we trust him.’
Kai shook his head decisively. ‘That makes no difference. We should reject his offer of help.’
‘That,’ Irene said quietly, ‘is not an option.’
They looked at each other for a moment. Kai’s lips were drawn together, his eyes darkly furious as he stood there, glaring down at her. In that moment, there was something almost inhuman about him, something fiercer – more elemental, perhaps. For the first time, she thought he might actually disobey her.
In the end, he was the first to drop his eyes. ‘As you command,’ he said. But I don’t approve of it was unspoken and unnecessary.
Irene had met other Librarians who tried to manage their subordinates using shallow gender tactics. Bradamant, for one. She hadn’t liked it. She wasn’t going to try to sugarcoat this for Kai by softening now or by fluttering her eyelashes at him. ‘Did you bring our stuff along when you got me out of the British Library?’ she asked.
‘I did,’ Kai answered stiffly. ‘Both your document case and the jar with the . . . the skin.’
‘I’m impressed,’ Irene said. ‘It must have been difficult to handle both them and me.’
Kai shrugged, but she had the feeling that he was pleased. ‘I found a larger suitcase in the room, and I managed to get the jar and your document case in it. Do we tell Vale about those?’
‘No,’ Irene said quickly. ‘That he doesn’t need to know. Did anything else happen while you were getting me out of there? People following us, attacks, whatever?’
‘Nothing worth mentioning,’ Kai said smugly. ‘I wrapped your face in your veil and propped you against my shoulder and got my arm round your waist, and sort of steered you, and I kept on telling you how you shouldn’t have had so much gin last night. Nobody looked at us twice.’
‘Very prompt thinking,’ Irene said drily. ‘Well done. Good job. And good selection of a place to hole up.’
‘If I’d known then what I know now . . .’ Kai muttered, but not quite as sullenly as before.
‘You did the best you could on the information you had,’ Irene said. She started peeling off the bandage again.
‘Are you sure it’s safe to do that?’ Kai asked. ‘You don’t want it to get infected.’
‘I just want to see how bad it is . . .’ A chunk of bandage fell back to reveal a layer of ointment-soaked dressing. Bits of raw skin showed at the edges, red and oozing. A twinge of pain ran through her hand, and Irene suppressed a wince. ‘All right,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘Who saw to this?’
‘I did,’ Kai said. ‘That trap took the skin off your hand as neatly as if – well, as if it was a glove being peeled off.’ He went down on one knee and took her hand in his, winding the bandage round it again. ‘Vale gave me some antiseptics and bandages, and I set some healing spells on it, but try not to use it too much.’ His touch was careful and precise, his fingers dry and hot when they brushed her wrist. ‘Normally I’d say that you can take the bandages off in a couple of days, but I don’t know about chaos contamination.’
‘I can check that easily enough,’ Irene said confidently. ‘This room has enough books in it for me to try asserting basic resonance.’
Kai glanced around at the heavily shelved walls. ‘You don’t need to be in a real library for that?’
Irene shrugged, then grimaced in pain as the movement twisted her hand in Kai’s hold. ‘Sorry,’ she said, as he gave her a disapproving look. ‘Not exactly. I’d need to be in a real library to open a passage, but a single room of books is enough for me to reaffirm my links. Of course, it has to be a lot of books . . .’ She smiled for a moment, remembering the smell of old celluloid and dustless air. ‘Actually, any significant store of knowledge or fiction can be made to function. I did it in a film storage section once, an archive of old television programmes. Not a single book in sight, all film reels and computer data, but the similarity in purpose and function was enough.’
‘Go on.’ Kai leaned forward eagerly. ‘Do it.’
‘All right.’ Irene was nervous, now that it actually came down to it. She’d spoken glibly enough about contamination, and while she knew the theory on the subject – it’ll wear off, just be sensible and avoid further exposure and stay away from the Library until you’re clear – she’d never actually experienced it herself. ‘You may want to stand away from the walls.’
‘I’m nowhere near the walls,’ Kai pointed out.
‘Oh. Right.’ Irene swallowed. ‘Okay.’
She took a deep breath, wetted her dry lips, and invoked the Library by her name and by her rank as Librarian, speaking the words in the Language which described it. Unlike nouns or other parts of speech, words that described the Library or the Language themselves were among the few parts of the Language that never changed.