The bandages covering her hand burst into flame. The shelves on the walls shuddered and groaned, wrenching from side to side and creaking like living trees in a winter storm, and books tumbled to crash on the floor. Tossed-aside newspapers and piles of notes rustled and moved, crawling along the floor in fractions of an inch, writhing away from her like crushed moths. The fountain pen on the desk jolted and rolled across the open notebook where it had been balanced, trailing ink behind it in a dark wet line.
‘What the devil!’ Vale burst in, carrying an enamelled tea-tray. ‘What do you think you’re doing—’
‘Excuse me,’ Kai snapped, grabbing the blue and white milk jug off the tray. He caught Irene’s wrist in his other hand, and shoved her blazing bandaged hand into the jug, flames and all.
There was a hiss and a gout of steam, and her hand went out.
‘Thank you,’ Irene said, trying to get her breathing stable again. Her hand ached as if it had been stung by wasps all over and then left to get sunburned. ‘I’m so sorry about the milk, but I take my tea black anyway . . .’ She was conscious that she was babbling, but she had to say something to try to explain things, and besides, her hand hurt.
‘My books!’ Vale exclaimed in horror, looking around the room. ‘My notes! My – my – ’ He stood there, tea-tray shaking in his hands, glaring down at her in fury. ‘Miss Winters, kindly explain yourself!’
Irene considered a number of things. She considered fainting. She considered claiming that it was a magical attack. She considered just giving up on Vale and walking out of the door. She also, with a pang of regret, considered how she’d feel if it had been her books all over the floor. Finally, she said, ‘I’m sorry, Mr Vale. I was trying something and it went wrong.’
Vale set down his tray on the nearest bit of uncluttered table with an audible thump and tinkle. ‘Something. Went. Wrong,’ he said coldly.
‘Yes,’ Irene said. She pulled her hand out of the jug. It dripped milk. ‘I’m terribly sorry.’
Vale tapped his fingers against the surface of the tray. ‘May I ask if something is going to go “wrong” again in the near future?’
‘I think it very unlikely,’ Irene said hopefully. ‘I’m terribly sorry. Could I have some clean bandages, please?’
Vale stared at her.
‘I’ve never seen her do it before,’ Kai put in. ‘It was an accident.’
‘Simply an accident,’ Irene agreed. ‘I truly am extremely sorry.’
‘I’m sure you are,’ Vale spat out. ‘Very well. Bandages.’
He slammed the door behind him as he left the room.
‘What does that mean?’ Kai demanded. ‘The books! The papers!’
‘It means I’m contaminated after all,’ Irene said quickly and quietly. ‘We can’t get into the Library until I’m clear. And I can’t use the Language reliably.’
Kai stared at her. ‘You’re being awfully calm about this.’
‘Having your hand catch fire puts things into perspective . . .’ Irene said. Any words would do, anything that kept her from panicking. She couldn’t afford to panic. She was contaminated with chaos, sick with the stuff, and she could only hope that she was right, that it would go away in time. But now, she had to hold together and be in charge. ‘. . . I find that it distracts me.’
Kai just looked at her for a few seconds longer, then turned to glare at the door. ‘I don’t believe Vale swallowed that.’
‘I’d say it’s fairly conclusive proof that he needs our help badly,’ Irene said.
Vale stalked back in with a basin of water and some bandages. ‘Far be it from me to criticize,’ he said, ‘but setting the afflicted body part on fire is not a usual form of treatment for an injured hand. Though I hear that milk is high in calcium.’
Kai gave Vale one of his affronted looks. ‘Are you challenging Miss Winters’s actions, sir?’
‘Oh, no, no,’ Vale said. ‘I will go so far as to spend the next half-hour or so picking up the books which are for some reason all over my floor, and let you tend to her hand. Unless the lady herself has something to contribute.’
‘Actually,’ Irene said, ‘I do. But I can do it while Kai’s seeing to my hand, if you don’t mind.’ Fortunately, staring at her hand gave her an excuse not to look at Vale. She knew that she must be blushing. Of all the stupid, ridiculous things to happen. This was not calculated to impress him at all.
Kai snorted, then sat down next to her and began to remove the soaked bandages. ‘Please do go ahead,’ he said. ‘What do you have in mind?’ Besides your inability to contact the Library came through the words quite clearly.
‘I think we are all agreed that the Liechtenstein Embassy is involved in – ow, careful – this,’ Irene said, clenching her free hand.
‘Sorry,’ Kai said, more as a pro forma than in genuine apology. ‘Hold still.’
‘I would agree,’ Vale said. He picked a couple of the books off the floor, and dusted their covers tenderly. ‘Especially given that Lord Silver placed a very high bid by proxy for that book when it was being auctioned. Quite interesting, don’t you think?’
Irene nodded. That was extremely interesting. ‘Then I suggest we attend the Embassy Ball tonight,’ she said firmly.
‘What?’ Kai said in horror. ‘Mingle with the . . . that is, are you serious? Do you realize the danger we’d be putting ourselves in?’