This was very different to handling Vale. There she had needed to hide her fear to convince him to wait for information. Here, with Kai, she needed to show her control and dispassion or, she could feel it in her bones, she would lose him to his true nature.
She couldn’t afford that. She had a responsibility to the Library. And she had a responsibility to him.
‘Are you still my student?’ she asked him directly. ‘Am I still your mentor?’ Nothing more than that. The bond of loyalty, and the bond of trust. Anything else was something that they would have to work out later.
He looked at her, and something inhuman seethed behind his eyes. ‘Do you think you can command me?’
‘Yes,’ she said, and she spoke in the Language.
The word hung in the air between them. Then Kai closed his eyes, and reopened them, and now they were a human blue, sharp but no longer alien. ‘Then I believe I am still under your orders,’ he said, and he managed a very small smile.
‘Miss Winters, Mr Strongrock, over here!’ Vale called. He had walked to where the dock ended and the houses began, and had somehow managed to conjure up a carriage. As Irene followed Kai across to the carriage, struggling with her soaked skirts and cloak, she couldn’t help but notice that Kai was perfectly dry. It didn’t seem fair. But it was a comforting, small thing on which to concentrate. She could be aggravated by something simple, rather than floundering in terror at what she had just faced down.
‘I would appreciate that explanation, Miss Winters,’ Vale said as he refilled their teacups.
There had been hot baths and bandaging of injuries. Even Kai, untouched by the dirty water of the Thames, needed to clean himself after the exertions of the reception and its accompanying alligator blood. As for Vale and Irene, they were soaked and filthy. The driver had been muttering audibly about getting his carriage cleaned, even after a very generous tip from Vale.
Irene would gladly have soaked for a few more hours, but she hadn’t felt it safe to leave Vale and Kai alone to talk for too long. Kai’s temper was still touchy, and Vale might ask a question that was more dangerous than he realized. With a virtuous feeling of self-sacrifice, she’d dragged herself out of the hip-bath that she’d been allotted, wrapped herself up in the heavy flannel dressing-gown Vale had lent her, turbaned her hair in a towel, and gone out to join the others in Vale’s study for tea and interrogation.
(She hadn’t asked why Vale had a spare woman’s dressing-gown in his wardrobe. Presumably specifically for female victims of crime who’d had a drenching. However, she didn’t think it belonged to any close female associate of Vale’s. For one thing, it clearly hadn’t been used for months, and for another, any female trying to be flirtatious would not choose a dressing-gown made of heavy flannel. For a third thing, Vale hadn’t offered her any other female clothing. And Vale hadn’t given her the sort of attention that even the politest of men might give a soaked wet woman in dripping clothing. He’d bustled her off towards the hot tub as briskly as the matron from her old boarding school. Not that she wanted him to give her that sort of attention, anyhow . . .)
Irene sipped her tea. Milk. Two lumps of sugar – suitable for people suffering from shock. ‘I should warn you that it is a little, ah, far-fetched,’ she said, trying to think how best to explain it, or failing all else, lie about it.
Vale shrugged. His dressing-gown was red and black silk. His hair was still damp, combed into position and gleaming darkly in the light from the lamps. ‘I can hardly object until I have heard it.’ Somewhere amidst the confusion he had found time to rearrange his books, after the disorder which Irene had inflicted on them, and neat piles of half-sorted literature sat around his chair like patient children.
Kai sipped his own tea (no milk, no sugar, black and brooding) and watched the two of them. There was still that feeling of distance about him. He was wearing what was obviously Vale’s second-best dressing-gown – the same colours and design, but more worn on the elbows, and with small burn holes marring the embroidery of the cuffs. His mouth was pinched in stubborn lines.
‘Mr Strongrock and I are agents of a library,’ Irene started. ‘It is often known as the Invisible Library among those who have heard of it, as it’s hidden from most.’
‘A reasonable enough name,’ Vale granted. ‘Where is it based? I would hardly think that it could be London.’ Since I have never heard of it, he didn’t bother to add.
‘Ah. Now this would be the implausible bit,’ Irene said. ‘Are you familiar with the concept of alternate worlds?’
Vale put down his cup, his regard assessing rather than outright disbelieving. ‘The theory has been mooted by some of the more metaphysically inclined philosophers and scientists. While I do not necessarily believe in it, I must admit that it has a certain quality of inherent satisfaction. That is, to coin a phrase – it “makes sense” that possible fulcrum points in history have created alternate worlds where things might have been different.’
Irene nodded. That way of looking at it would do for the moment. ‘I and Mr Strongrock are agents of a library which exists between the alternate worlds. Our task is to collect books for the Library from all those worlds, to preserve them.’ She glanced meaningfully at his crowded bookshelves. ‘You must admit that to a keen reader – like yourself, or like me – that also would “make sense”.’