And at that moment the alligators burst into the room.
Irene had only ever seen alligators at the zoo before. She remembered them as being lazy, log-like objects, draped over cement ‘rock formations’ or dozing in muddy pools.
The creatures invading the room moved with disturbing speed. If they were logs, then they were logs on a river in full flood. Some of them were fifteen feet or so long. Their mouths opened and closed as they scuttled forwards. One of them clamped its jaws on the leg of a waiter and rolled sideways; the man screamed and went down. His leg came off in the alligator’s jaws, wrenched off like a chicken wing, spraying blood across the polished floor. Through the melee, Irene spotted metal contraptions bolted onto their skulls, and metal screwed onto their claws, before the press of the crowd became too great.
Guests and waiters were screaming and running for the other doors, as alligators continued to spill through the main entrance. A few of the guests were firing previously concealed weapons, a mixture of pistols and ray-guns, but most were simply trying to escape. The smell of blood was sharp and coppery on the air, rising above the blend of perfume and food.
‘Have no fear!’ Silver shouted, leaping onto a convenient table, bestriding a centrepiece of oysters. ‘The powers of my kind shall scourge these creatures back to the slime from which they crawled – ’
Amazing grammar in a crisis, Irene couldn’t help noticing.
– ‘Behold!’ Silver raised his hand. Fire flared round his fingers dramatically, then leapt to strike the alligators in burning orange whips.
It fizzled. There was no other word for it. The flames drooped and went out as if they’d been doused with cold water, leaving the alligators to rumble forward undeterred.
‘Damnation!’ Silver swore. ‘They have been armoured in cold iron! Johnson! My elephant gun!’
Much as Irene would have enjoyed watching whatever happened next, fleeing the room before she was trampled by the crowd or eaten by alligators seemed a better idea. ‘Quick!’ she snapped at Kai. ‘Help Miss Retrograde—’
‘The elder Miss Retrograde, if you please, young lady,’ the older woman said, rising to her feet. ‘I knew I should have brought my pistol with me.’ They were jostled and bumped, but there was still just enough space to move freely as long as they kept next to the walls.
‘Does this happen often at these balls?’ Kai asked. He seemed half fascinated by the chaos, half appalled by it. There were enough screaming, fleeing waiters and partygoers that the alligators weren’t going to reach them for at least a few minutes. Hopefully Bradamant could take care of herself.
The elder Miss Retrograde clicked her tongue. ‘People should know what to expect at a party thrown by Lord Silver,’ she said. ‘Now – what is going on over there?’
The headlong escape was curdling in its tracks, as people came running back into the room. Over the hubbub, Irene could hear yelling about the outer doors being locked.
‘This smells planned,’ Kai remarked.
‘It is,’ Irene said. ‘The Iron Brotherhood?’
‘It has their stink,’ the elder Miss Retrograde sniffed. ‘Did you notice the cold iron on the alligators’ claws? The easiest way to deflect Fae sorcery. I’m afraid we can’t expect anything from Lord Silver tonight.’
‘Won’t his subordinates be trying to rescue him?’ Kai asked. He cast a thoughtful glance at the weapons hanging on the wall.
The elder Miss Retrograde twitched a ruffled shoulder. ‘A couple of them may, but I can almost guarantee that the rest will be thinking about promotion, so will take care not to rescue anyone until it’s too late. Are either of you two young people skilled with alligators? Do they teach alligator training in Canada?’
‘Let me try something,’ Irene said, stepping forward.
An alligator turned its head and upper body. One rolling eye focused on her.
Irene swallowed. This was not a time to give in to the roiling fear which churned in her stomach. This was not a time to consider that all she knew about alligators came from reading Rudyard Kipling. (Or had those been crocodiles?) This was the time to remember she was a Librarian, and that she had a responsibility to protect Kai.
She suppressed the urge to cross her fingers, raised her hand and pointed it at the nearest alligator, and commanded it in the Language to lock its legs and stay still.
It nearly worked.
The words were clear in her mouth, but something in the air, or still lingering in her body, twisted them and wrenched them out of focus. She felt the marks on her hand reopen under the bandages, and saw traces of scarlet start to seep up through her glove.
The alligator’s legs locked: that much worked. It squinted at her with a reptilian look of cold hatred as it skidded on the polished floor, and came sliding right at her, gliding like a doom-laden missile with huge (and getting huger by the minute) jaws.
There was something hypnotic about those jaws. She should have been fleeing, but the sight held her until she thought that she could count every one of the approaching teeth.
‘Hell,’ Kai said, and caught her by the waist, tossing her up onto the nearby table. Irene managed to catch herself with her good hand, pulling her skirts away from a steaming tureen of soup as the alligator went sliding by under the table. The white tablecloth rippled as the alligator went under one side and came out on the other, continuing its skid along the highly polished floor until it crashed nose-first into the wall. It lay there, opening and closing its mouth and rolling from side to side, tail thrashing, apparently unable to flex its legs.