‘Certainly,’ Vale exclaimed, flinging the cab door open. He glanced up to the driver. ‘Wait here. We shouldn’t be long. Here.’ He tossed a coin up to the driver. There was a keen energy driving his movements as they neared possible action. ‘For your time.’
Kai assisted Irene out of the cab, giving a little extra squeeze to her wrist as he helped her down the step. ‘Almost there,’ he murmured.
Bradamant coughed meaningfully. With an apologetic look, Kai let go of Irene and turned to help Bradamant down as well.
The streets were full of traffic, moving slowly with a lot of shouting, and the air was full of smog. Irene folded her veil up across her face, and stepped over to the museum wall to let people hurry past. The others joined her, waiting for Singh, who was talking to the driver. The wall was stained a deep filthy brown from decades of ingrained smoke and smog. The surrounding buildings were old brick and marble, similarly smog-stained. Many of the people bustling by were carrying books or briefcases. From what she remembered of the geography of some Londons, there was a university near here, sited conveniently near the museum.
A passing zeppelin high above caught the corner of her eye, and she glanced upwards. Several small zeppelins were moored to the roof of the museum, with pennants hanging from them emblazoned with the museum’s name. As she looked further down the street, she could see more of them moored to the roof of other large buildings.
‘Ah,’ Vale said, following her line of sight. ‘Splendid contraptions, aren’t they? And so much faster than a cab, but sadly not as controllable. One of those little skimmers can make it across the Channel and back without needing to refuel.’
‘Across the Channel?’ Irene asked. ‘Does the museum use them for such trips, then?’
Vale nodded. ‘They can transfer important small items and particular rarities. I understand that most large museums keep a few these days. And of course, much less risk of theft.’ His narrow gaze shifted to Bradamant for a moment, and brooded on her oblivious back. It seemed that he hadn’t forgiven or forgotten any little details about cat burglars.
‘If you are from an alternate world yourself,’ Vale said, turning back to her, ‘what is it like?’
Irene noticed that Kai had edged close enough to listen. The problem was that she didn’t have a good answer. ‘It was . . . well, it was just another world. The technology was a little more controlled than it is here. There weren’t so many zeppelins, and there weren’t any vampires or werewolves. My parents used to take me to the Library as often as they could, but I spent a lot of time in boarding school. It was in Switzerland, and very good for languages.’ She wasn’t going to mention some of the other things that they’d taught. The school had prided itself on sending out pupils who were ready for anything, and some parts of that world had been very dangerous.
‘I did visit other alternates with my parents too,’ Irene added. ‘Sometimes when they were on a mission, and they didn’t think that it was too dangerous. Sometimes I was even helpful.’ She found herself smiling. ‘And there were years in the Library, though there weren’t many other children there. But I had to grow up mainly outside the Library.’
‘Why is that?’ Vale asked. ‘Surely it would have been better for you to stay there and be tutored in safety, rather than taken into danger?’
Irene knew she was on dangerous ground here. There were some things that she shouldn’t tell him. For his own safety. ‘Time passes differently in the Library,’ she eventually said. ‘My parents wanted me to grow up naturally. Well, moderately naturally. And if I was to be a useful Librarian, I had to know how to function outside the place.’
‘Is that why they usually recruit from outside the Library, rather than the children of Librarians?’ Kai asked.
Irene nodded. ‘That, and . . . well, to be honest, I don’t think Librarians tend to have children very often, and even then there’s no guarantee they’d want to become Librarians in turn. I think I’m the only one in a generation or so.’
She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. Bradamant was turning away, but not quite fast enough to hide the expression on her face. There had been a corrosive jealousy in her eyes. Irene didn’t think that she’d seen it in the other woman before . . . or had she? She’d tried to forget so many other things about Bradamant, and failed so badly.
Singh walked up to Vale, having finished his low-voiced conversation with the cab-driver. ‘I’ll send the cab back here for you, sir, once he’s dropped me off at the Old Bailey. It shouldn’t take you long to check whether the book’s here.’
Irene controlled her impatience. It was a great relief to think that in half an hour she could even be heading back to the Library, book in hand, Kai in tow, Bradamant in . . . well, she didn’t consciously want to think about Bradamant in disgrace. After all, everyone had a failure now and again. Things like glamorous cat burglars. Whatever.
Maybe an hour. She didn’t want to be too optimistic.
Inside the museum, the building widened out into a glorious cathedral-like hall, with a high curving ceiling inset with windows, and a mosaic-inlaid floor. A diplodocus skeleton leered down bonily from high above the heads of the onlookers, and some harassed-sounding mother implored her little darling not to try and climb on its foot. A white marble statue at the head of the room’s main stairway overlooked the whole thing with an air of dignified approval. It was about the only piece of non-smog-stained marble that Irene had seen in this alternate London.