‘I’m afraid it’s not working properly,’ Irene informed Kai.
‘Well, that much is obvious!’ Kai offered the elder Miss Retrograde his arm. ‘Madam, if you’d kindly get up on the table—’
‘And what are you going to do, young man?’ the woman demanded.
Irene could tell what Kai wanted to do. It was evident in the set of his shoulders, the tension of his face. One of the most important aspects of command is not giving orders that won’t be obeyed, she reminded herself. ‘Get a sword down from the wall, Kai,’ she said. ‘Find Vale, help him if he needs it. Do what you can to sort this out. I’ll take care of myself.’
Kai raised his head, and there was a dangerous gladness in his eyes. ‘Do you really mean that?’ he asked.
‘I am perfectly capable of staying out of the way of a few alligators,’ Irene said coolly. Especially if she stayed up on the table, but it would spoil the statement to add that. ‘I don’t think they can climb.’
‘I hope not.’ The elder Miss Retrograde rapped Kai on the shoulder. ‘I’ll take that assistance, young man. You two can tell me why you’re pretending to be Canadian later.’
Kai put one hand under the elder Miss Retrograde’s elbow, bent to put the other under her shoe, and boosted her up on the table with barely a sign of effort. ‘Later,’ he promised, and ran. He was heading for a low-hanging banner, which dangled temptingly near a pair of ornate sabres hanging eight feet up.
Elsewhere around the room, Irene could see other men and women climbing on the tables, some of which had given way in the process. It was sheer luck that there had only been a few people left in their corner of the room, and so the tables were comparatively unoccupied. This was apparently not one of those alternate worlds where the British Empire mandated a tradition of women and children first. It was a case of survival of the fittest, and alligators take the hindmost.
From her vantage point she looked around, finally sighting Bradamant. She was athletically swinging herself onto a free table and tossing a platter of mussels into the jaws of the pursuing alligator in one smooth motion. The alligator paused, grunting and shaking its head, as Bradamant smoothed her skirts and looked around.
Irene’s and Bradamant’s eyes met. For a moment they looked at each other across the room, then Bradamant turned away, with a jerk of her head and a little smile. She scanned the crowd, clearly looking for someone else. Irene swallowed bile. Was she still so preoccupied by Bradamant that she had to look for where she was first, and be sure that she was safe? Interest in a fellow Librarian’s welfare only went so far.
And where was Vale? With a pang of guilt she scanned the crowd for him too, finally managing to catch sight of him. He’d been backed into a corner by two alligators, and was defending himself with a silver tray as best he could. Of course, he would have had to leave his swordstick at the door. It didn’t look good.
‘Kai!’ Irene turned to find him. He’d managed to climb up the banner, almost high enough to reach the sabres. ‘Help Vale! Over there!’
Judging by his frown, Kai could see Vale struggling even better than she could. He clamped the banner between his legs, reached up with both hands, and grabbed the hilts of both sabres: then he simply let go. The sabres came free from their brackets with a shriek of metal, and Kai fell the eight feet to the ground, twisting smoothly in mid-air to land on both feet.
‘Vale!’ he shouted, loud enough to be heard over the screaming mob. ‘Here!’ People backed away from him at his shout, and he tossed one of the blades in a high arc through the air; it spun above the crowd in a shimmer of steel. Vale snatched it out of the air, the throw perfectly weighted to slap the hilt into his hand. Then he sheared the metal contraption off a lunging alligator’s skull with one vicious slice.
Irene let out a breath, unaware that she’d stopped breathing. Apparently both Kai and Vale possessed previously unappreciated keen fighting reflexes. Taking down a giant robot centipede seemed comparatively simple in retrospect.
Kai shouted something in a Chinese dialect that Irene didn’t recognize, perhaps a battle cry or a curse, and leapt into the fight. He impaled one alligator, closing its jaws with a single sabre thrust just before the creature could bite into a waiter.
Irene sidled further along the table, and tried to think of a plan. The alligators weren’t showing any interest in the piles of spilled food that littered the floor. And while she wasn’t an expert on reptilian psychology, animals would normally go for an abundance of convenient meals rather than armed dinner guests. Whether in the grip of a feeding frenzy or not. So maybe the buzzing metal things bolted onto their heads were controlling their behaviour – a theory that seemed borne out from observation of Vale’s former aggressor.
The alligator which had been de-metal-objected by Vale had retreated, and was currently wandering around in a dazed way. That was promising. If they could de-weaponize all the alligators, then they’d have . . . well, they’d have a mob of normal alligators. Which wasn’t much, but it would be something. Especially as neither Fae magic nor the Language use was working. Bradamant, however . . .
Irene sprinted along her table, skirts in hand. Bradamant was a table and an alligator-infested stretch of floor away. The table wasn’t a problem. The chunk of floor was – and there were people dying out there.
She just didn’t have time to think about that. It was clear to her left. Clear to her right.